Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Science of Sport passes the 1,000,000 mark!

Applying science one reader at a time

August is now coming to a close, and it has been a bumper month here on the site. With the IAAF World Champs and Bolt likely to break records, we were anticipating the usual buzz that follows him and his performances, but we never could have foreseen the public interest in the sad story of Caster Semenya. Our pages on that story have been viewed more than any other pages here in our 2.5 year history. So it was that sometime on Wednesday night, The Science of Sport had its 1,000,000th visitor. It would have happened eventually, but the interest in Semenya's story made it happen a lot quicker. The hype has died down a bit for now, but we fully expect it to rise to fever pitch once again when the IAAF releases its final verdict on whether or not she is eligible to compete against women.

Looking back - who knew?

When we started this site in April 2007, neither of us knew exactly where it was going to go. All we knew was that we had a passion for bringing the science out of the lab and applying it to the sports we all love and watch---hence our vision and mission. Since its inception we have grown to what you see here today, and now is a great time to thank all of our devoted and new readers who keep us going with amazing comment and great insight.

On the application of science, I was at the inaugural International Sports Science + Sports Medicine Conference two weeks ago in Newcastle, UK. It was a small but great meeting of both sports scientists and sports physicians, and there was much discussion and debate about how the scientists actually get the hard data from the lab out into the field so that athletes and coaches alike can access and use this information. Thanks to decisions made by the organizers, there was ample time for Q&A and panel discussions, which went over very well amongst the delegates. The conference is meant to be hosted in Newcastle again next year, so start planning your trips now!

Trickle down science

In so many sports the coaches are the link between the lab and the athlete, and so as sports scientists we have a role to play in getting the correct and usable information to the coaches (and athletes by extension). However it is always a struggle between the two, because the scientists in white lab coats look at the coaches and think, "What do you know, I have a PhD. . .," while the coaches look at the scientists and reply, "What do you know? We are the ones working with the athletes." So somehow we have to get it right and get the hard evidence and science from the lab into the coaches' hands so they can apply it. Sadly, though, no one seems to be doing an entirely adequate job of this.

Often times the findings from a study are interpreted to the extreme by the public, and a great example of this is new evidence on training with low muscle glycogen concentrations. This is John Hawley's work that has shown that when cyclists complete some training sessions with a low muscle glycogen concentration (which is induced by a prior training session), the signal to make adaptations might be enhanced. However, as is the case with most good studies, it was performed in very controlled and "sterile" conditions. This is good science, and is imperative if one wants to be able to interpret the data and actually see what happened in the experiment.

But you can imagine the high interest among coaches and athletes that training with a low muscle glycogen content might enhance the training adaptations. Immediately coaches were prescribing low carbohydrate diets to produce the low muscle glycogen levels, and immediately the application of this concept was lost, as athletes were getting low quality workouts because they felt so terrible from their low carbohydrate diets! There is a step missing here in which the real findings from studies like these must be interpreted outside of the lab setting, and the data must be translated to something the coaches and athletes can use in a meaningful way to improve their own training and performance.

Dietetics + Physiology = Bad advice

To all the dieticians amongst our readers, I promise I am not singling out your profession, but often you are asked by coaches and magazines to produce material on fluid replacement, and the result is never pretty. At least in my department at UIC (Kinesiology and Nutrition), our nutrition students are not given any applied (exercise) physiology, and instead are taught about fluid balance only from a clinical perspective. It should be noted that this is entirely appropriate since most of these students will work in the clinical setting, and only a small minority will go on to work with athletes, and even then they will probably further their training with courses or degrees in which they learn about exercise science. But when the clinical info is applied to sport, the result is this, from a dietician writing for a multi-sport coaching newsletter. In its entirety it makes us cringe, but in many ways she is just repeating what she was taught, instead of understanding the physiology of it, much like another section in the same newsletter written by a triathlon coach.

Neither seems to understand the concepts at play, and perhaps to practice their chosen professions they do not need to---which leaves the ball in the court of the the scientists to communicate accurately the evidence to the field. But it is easier said than done, and for a number of different reasons such as time, motivation, and even responsibility. When the chancellor of the university signs your paycheck and your job security depends on your publication record (and not the number of blog posts you do!), it is a compelling argument why one should do more than that.

The nature of physiological regulation

Almost two years ago, perhaps before many of our current readers came on board, we did a series on dehydration after the Chicago Marathon experienced an unseasonably warm race. There were several parts to the series, and so please refer back to it for the full details and very detailed posts, but at the heart of understanding fluid balance is the basic physiological concept of how the body regulates and "defends" different variables. Effectively a particular thing is regulated so that another thing---or homeostasis in the bigger picture---is maintained. That is the lab part of the equation, what we can work out from doing elegant experiments, but it does not end there because as scientists we have to find a way to translate that information so it can be applied.

Fluid balance: what do we regulate?

The regulation of fluid balance in the body is complex in its details, but at its core it is the same: one thing is regulated and the body responds in many ways to protect it. In this case the regulated variable is the concentration of your blood, or the plasma osmolality. As you exercise and sweat, it rises, and so you first stop producing urine. . .and as you continue to lose fluid you then become quite thirsty. As you ingest a bit of fluid it helps balance out the plasma osmolality so that it does not get too high.

The result of all this? You actually protect the volume of fluid that is inside the cells by balancing the plasma osmolality, but another thing that happens is that you lose some weight, and this is the important part that dieticians and coaches and kinesiology majors everywhere are not taught: body weight is not regulated during exercise. It is important enough to repeat: body weight is not regulated, and so your body does not care if you lose a few kilograms or pounds or pints or stone (depending on where you reside!). It simply does not feature, and so to tell people to replace their weight losses or to use this as a gauge is entirely incorrect as your fluid balance operates independent from your weight. Your body has an entire mechanism that regulates your plasma osmolality---your thirst. but if you want to read more about that then just click back to October 2007 to tackle the details.

On our way to 2,000,000!

So in the mean time we will carry on and hope to have our 2,000,000th visitor sooner than another two years, and one thing we can anticipate with confidence is that if Gebrselassie breaks his 2:03:59 world record at the Berlin Marathon in just three weeks, we are going to be a lot closer. He has stated that he will make yet another attempt on the record, and in many ways there is no reason why he cannot break it again. Of course it will be difficult and he must get his pacing exactly right, but over his long career he has proved that he is willing and able to punch through to the next level. If he does, you know where to find the best analysis of that performance!


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Caster Semenya debate: Some physiology explained

How do you know the sex of a chromosome? Pull down its genes! If only it were that easy...

Today, Team SA arrived back in South Africa after the World Championships in Berlin. The welcome home ceremony was really about one person - Caster Semenya, and the scenes in Johannesburg were just extra-ordinary. We have never seen such a huge reception for an athletics team (or even Olympic team). What a pity the "congratulations" was clouded in the controversy and political rhetoric that has now come to dominate the story.

I have some science to put out there, but to introduce that scientific discussion, I first want to put out some quotes from Leonard Chuene, who is the president of Athletics South Africa:

“Let me warn professors and scientists that the only scientists I believe in are the parents of this child,” Chuene said. “One scientist from a stupid university somewhere is going to erase the entire life of this girl.” The IAAF is still awaiting the results of the tests but Chuene refused to clarify what the process was or what would happen depending on the results.

“Why should we worry about other people’s tests?” Chuene said. He also sent out a warning to the IAAF not to punish Semenya. “We are here and one thing they mustn’t do is suspend her.”

Honestly, I couldn't make this up if I tried, those were his exact words. So, I think it safe to say that everything from this point onwards is not of concern to anyone in Athletics South Africa, since it involves my attempt at explaining some of the science around this matter of sex testing and why it's so complex.

Intersex conditions and biological basics

Last week, when all this broke, I said that at some point, I'd pull together the basics of the biology of these conditions, and put it out there for you to read. I must stress that these are basics, and they don't nearly do justice to the complexity of disorders of sexual development, or DSDs.

DSDs are the disorders that are often responsible for producing what is known as the intersex condition, a condition where a person develops ambiguous genitalia, and often, their genetic sex (determined by the chromosome) differs from their phenotypic sex (their exernal appearance and physiological functions, to be broad). In other words, if you have thought that XX = female and XY = male, you are about to have your perception challenged!

If you thought that a simple observation, and the presence of genitalia was the clincher, you'd again be wrong. Sometimes, genitalia are so ambiguous, that trained medical doctors will disagree and debate for hours over whether someone is male or female, even when that person is already a teenager. Final year medical students, when shown pictures of ambiguous genitalia, and asked to vote "male" or "female", are often wrong! Unfortunately, then, examination of genitalia (the "pants test" or "shower check"), as advocated by the politicians, is not conclusive proof of anything!

Disorders of sexual development and intersex

Now, there are a multitude of DSDs and there is interaction, different levels, and a complex process of sexual development underlying them, and I can't cover all that in this format.

However, I have done my best, and you can read my article at this website. It is a site called Competitor Running, and I contribute to it from time to time (not as often as I'd like). They requested this story, and I put together a very high level summary of the situation. So that article is my crack at summarizing the scientific basics of the debate.

Please note that this is NOT an attempt at diagnosis of Semenya's case, and it does not represent my opinion on whether she has any condition of any sort. Unfortunately, the article was titled "What is Caster Semenya?", which kind of implies an opinion is coming. That is not the case.

Rather, it is meant to inform people of the basics, and maybe the complexities, of sex testing. If you read that article, and you're somewhat confused and bewildered at how complex it is, then you've started to appreciate the issue!

And, I dare say, you'll be a step or two ahead of those in South Africa who are steadfastly refusing to let facts confuse them, or get in the way of a story.

The summary version - short, sweet and grossly oversimplified...

If you don't have the time or energy, here is the very short, three paragraph summary, which fails miserably to answer any questions!

How do you know the sex of a chromosome? You pull down its genes! Unfortunately, this test fails on both counts - neither the genes nor the jeans hold the answer! We are all told that if you have two X-chromosomes, you're female, and if you have an X and a Y chromosome, you're male. Unfortunately, reality is often not so simple. In the undifferentiated foetus, there comes a point at which a "switch" must be flicked in order to switch on male sexual development. If that switch is not thrown, then the foetus will develop into a female, with ovaries and a uterus. Female is the "default" condition.

That "switch" is part of the Y-chromosome, and comprises a set of genes that is responsible for initiating male development. If it is present, testes are formed, testosterone is produced and male development occurs. However, for any number of reasons, sometimes the switch does not work. Or, it works, but there is a "short circuit" that prevents it from having its normal effect. The consequence is that even the presence of the Y-chromosome sometimes fails to turn on male development, and the foetus continues to develop as a female. The result? An XY female. Conversely, sometimes the switch is "faultily thrown" and an XX-foetus begins to develop as a male. This happens for chromosomal, gonadal and hormonal reasons. There are also other conditions which result from levels of hormone in the mother that can affect the foetus in the same way.

The end result is that ambiguous genitalia can develop, an XY can develop as a female, an XX can develop as a male, and a number of other physiological traits can be 'mixed up'. These people are intersex, and they present the challenge with regards to sporting participation. Even once identified, there is no clear standard as to what is done with them. Some conditions, like AIS, are permitted, others evaluated. The ethical debate around this is huge, and one that I have no answers to. Only time will tell whether Semenya has any of these, or none at all. Until then, if this challenges your 'binary' view of sex and gender, then I guess it has made the point!

Again, for the full article, you can click here to read my piece.


P.S. Last word on the stories today of Semenya's high testosterone levels

Today, some media outlets reported that Caster Semenya's testosterone levels were three times higher than those normally expected in a urine sample. Obviously, given the context of the case, a lot of people are now saying "See, it's proof".

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. It MAY turn out to be a piece of the puzzle, it MAY become significant when put in the context of all the other results, but by itself, it actually doesn't mean too much. The main problem is that "normal" is a moving target, and there is a pretty wide range of testosterone levels in any population. So we need to understand what "normal" means - is it the typical level in the female population? Is it the highest level in the athletic population? The difference is important.

Perhaps the best way to treat this report for now is to say that the raised level is possibly a flag for something else, and further testing could establish what this is. Regardless, the position, for now, remains the same - wait on the collection of tests before drawing conclusions.

What is interesting is that this measurement was apparently obtained weeks before Berlin, and prompted the IAAF to request further testing. It was also the catalyst for them requesting that Semenya not enter the 800m event, since further testing was deemed necessary. Note that this was a request that would have been made jointly by the medical officer in charge of the testing and the IAAF, not just the IAAF. ASA refused, and the rest is, well, massive controversy.

And finally, it's now emerged that the leak that saw this process made public came because a fax was sent to the wrong person. What a pity for such a sloppy mistake to have such repercussions, and the IAAF will hopefully take action there, because they've also got a great deal to answer for when it comes to the leak. Not for the process or their policy, mind you, but for this leak, which was a grave error.

Make Berlino the official mascot of athletics

Berlino the Bear was the real star of these championships

No detailed scientific analysis this morning - rather, some sports management and marketing comment, and a dose of humor. Humor, because we all need it especially when we get involved in charged debates around sex testing and doping and cheating and all the other negative press that dominates sport too often.

But this article, from the Times, is a great read, and clever too, following on from my nomination of Berlino the Bear as the greatest sports mascot ever. Tomorrow, Letsrun.com are going to start a petition to make Berlino the official mascot of all World Champs.

Athletics is a sport whose popularity is on the rise - Usain Bolt's performances and personality have given the sport a health-boost like nothing seen before. In my opinion, Bolt is, at this moment, the most charismatic and recognizable face in sport, let alone athletics, and it's a great time for athletics. Any addition that adds to the value only helps, and marketers should take great credit for Berlino - whether his interaction with the athletes was planned, or something he did, I don't know. Regardless, his 'chemistry' with Rogowska, Nerius, Walker, Bolt and Harting made for some great entertainment. And after all, sport competes with entertainment, so let's celebrate, and let Berlino stick around! (if you're getting this as an email, click here to go to the site to watch the video!)


Monday, August 24, 2009

IAAF World Champs awards

The IAAF World Champs - our Oscar awards

The IAAF World champs are over. It has been a frantic 9 days of athletics, some remarkable performances, and some dramatic controversies.

Perhaps one day, we'll look back at the 2009 Championships and remember them for Usain Bolt's double world record performance, for Kenenisa Bekele's 5000m-10000m double, and for the dominance of Jamaica in the sprints. In many respects, these World Championships have looked a lot like the Beijing Olympics.

On the other hand, they have been the Championships of surprises - no Ethiopian gold medal over 5,000m or 10,000m, no Isinbaeva medal, and a host of mild surprises over the hurdles, and it was a highly entertaining and dramatic event.

Then there was the controversy over Caster Semenya, which has dominated the media here in South Africa. Her countryman, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, yesterday won 800m gold and sees South Africa having both 800m champions, which is a great achievement, but one which has really been tarnished by the whole situation.

However, today's post is a recap of the track and field action, not the drama currently being played out in the media. And so here are the Science of Sport "Oscars" for the IAAF World Championships.

The "Make it a double award"

This award goes to many athletes who have won double world titles in the last week. And there are many: Kenenisa Bekele stands out as having done the distance double, a remarkable achievement, and a repeat of the Beijing Games. Then there are a host of athletes who doubled up thanks to relay golds: Kerron Clement in the 400m hurdles and relay, LaShawn Merritt in the 400m and 4 x 400m relay, Sanya Richards in the same events, Allyson Felix over 200m and 4 x 400m, and Shelly-Ann Fraser in the 100m and 4 x 100m relay.

Then there athletes who medaled in two events, but not golds - Bernard Lagat in the men's 1500m (bronze) and 5000m (silver), and Yusuf Saad Kamel in the 1500m (gold) and 800m (bronze). I'm sure there are other who won multiple medals as a result of relays (Jeremy Wariner comes to mind), but you get the idea...

The "Make it a triple" award

There was only one athlete who scooped three gold medals, and that person was Usain Bolt, the star of the show for the second successive multi-day athletics meeting. After Beijing 2008, few would have thought that Bolt could repeat that level of performance in one Championships, let alone surpass it. And I guess Beijing had three world records, Berlin "only" two, but Bolt stole the show in Berlin, and has pushed athletics very much to the front of people's minds. The sport has never enjoyed such a profile, thanks to his personality and his performances. So along with the "Make it a triple" award, he also gets the "Athlete of the Championship" award.

The "Make it a quintuple" award

Once again, this goes to Usain Bolt, though this award stretches over Beijing and Berlin. Five races, five world records, and Usain Bolt was on a perfect streak. Starting on the 16th of August 2008, Bolt simply did not win gold medals without breaking world records. A 200m record, a relay record, and then a demolition of BOTH the 100m and 200m records meant that Bolt had run in five major finals and bagged five world records. The streak was ended when Jamaica "only" ran the second fastest time ever in the relay, but Bolt's star is about as bright as it can be.

The "So near, yet so Defar" award

Also called the "Go 99% and then stop", this goes, predictably, to Meseret Defar, of Ethiopia, who, in the final 10m of both the 5,000m and 10,000m races basically gave up and lost places as a result.

Defar was a heavy favourite to win gold in at least one of the two events she'd entered, particularly once Tirunesh Dibaba, the Olympic Champion, had withdrawn. In the end, she got neither, being outkicked first by Linet Masai in the 10,000m and then by Vivian Cheruiyot in the 5,000m. Defar basically stopped running in both races - in the 10,000m, she seemed injured, so rapidly did she "go backwards", and she was caught, not only for first, but all the way down to fifth. In the 5,000m, once passed by Cheruiyot, she jogged in and finished third.

Defar's greatest strength has always been her kick, but she has been matched in Berlin. Interestingly, Defar has not gotten slower - the others have caught up. The last lap in Osaka in 2007 was run in just under 59 seconds, the same as the last lap in Berlin this year. So while Defar's speed has in the past been unchallenged, she is now finding women with her, and she doesn't seem to have the sprint or the composure to hold it together all the way across the line.

The "Who is he" award?

This goes to the biggest surprise winner in Berlin, Ryan Brathwaite. The injury to Dayron Robles took out one of the week's biggest favourites, and Brathwaite stepped in to claim the title by the narrowest of margins, with three men diving for the line. A great race, and a completely unexpected champion.

The "Who is she" award?

The winner of this award depends on how you want to define "surprise". The newest surprise in the women's events was probably Caster Semenya. That said, she did come into the Champs with the worlds fastest time this year, a full second faster than anyone else, and so to say she won as an outsider is not entirely true. Her world ranking was number 1, and she finished number 1. However, consider that three weeks ago, you'd probably never heard the name Semenya, and now she may just be the most talked about woman in the sport (for the wrong reasons, from her perspective) and you appreciate just how big of an impact she had on these Championships.

But the winner of the award is Anna Rogowska, of Poland. She is not unknown (so it's a little harsh to ask "who is she?", but she was a big surprise. The biggest favourite of the whole week was Elena Isinbaeva, and she couldn't clear a height. The Pole (pardon the pun) took gold, and scoops the award for biggest upset win in women's events.

Race of the championships

There were so many, it's impossible to decide. The women's 10,000m was amazing, there were perhaps 3 lead changes in the final 120m, and a surprise winner. The men's 5,000m was incredible, with Kenenisa Bekele holding off the 1500m specialist Bernard Lagat in a great sprint.

But the winner is the men's 100m, simply because it was such an incredible performance by Usain Bolt, and Tyson Gay. Yes, Gay was beaten soundly, but he ran into previously unchartered territory, and can stand tall for his efforts. As for Bolt, well, what more can be said?

The "Kissing the tartan" award

There were an incredibly high number of falls during the week. Left, right and centre, athletes were going down and then being re-instated on appeal. First Jepkosgei fell after colliding with Semenya (talk about making a big entrance). Then a number of athletes in the women's 1500m went down. Then in the 800m for men, Abubaker Kaki fell, taking Bram Som and Marcin
Lewandowski with him. We even had medal results changed as a result of falls, when Natalia Rodriguez of Spain won the women's 1500m title after putting Gelete Burka on the ground with 200m to go. Her disqualification, and Burka's ultimate failure, may have been the most significant fall of the week.

However, for "crowd pleaser" status, Abubaker Kaki's fall takes the prize, as seen in the picture to the right! He didn't get reinstated, but he gets the consolation of having this picture of his fall receive our award for "Kissing the tartan!". You can see the whole sequence of pictures here.

The "week off award"

And finally, I'm giving myself the week off award, to recover from Berlin, where I wrote 12 articles and responded to maybe 300 comments on the Caster Semenya story in the last week! I feel as tired as Meseret Defar looked at the end of her races!

Only kidding! I'll be back later in the week when the European athletics season resumes! There's a lot of other work to be done between now and then, so do forgive some silence on the site for a day or two! Thanks for following the IAAF World Champs with us, there's more to come, especially on the Semenya story, and a whole season of athletics still to go.


Oh, wait, one last award...

For the coolest mascot ever at a sports event. All mascots should be encouraged to bring such humor to sport, because athletics needs all the growth and entertainment value it can get! Meet Berlino:

Thanks for joining us in our coverage of the IAAF World Championships, 2009! If you've enjoyed the site and articles, and would like to donate to our work, you can do so by:
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2) Clicking here, and then clicking on the "DONATE" button on our homepage (top right)

Thanks for your support!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Caster Semenya debate takes a racist turn

From sad to ugly: Semenya's detractors "are racists of the highest order"

I suppose it was inevitable. Given the charged nature of the debate, given the controversy that can see 200 comments written to an article, the debate around the sex of Caster Semenya was always going to provoke emotive responses.

But how about this one:

"This is about racism," Chuene said. "These rumours come from South Africa. Why did these people write to the IAAF?

These are the same people who don't want the 2010 World Cup, the same people who bring black people down and the same people who refuse to believe that Africans can make it on the world stage."

You might think this is random statement made in the heat of the moment. But then you discover that this is a statement made by the President of Athletics South Africa, Leonard Cheune. And he is not alone. The Young Communist League here in South Africa said:

"This smacks of racism of the highest order. It represents a mentality of conforming feminine outlook within the white race,"

Of course, all are entitled to their opinion. It does not escape my attention that one of the most celebrated races of the entire world champs was the women's 10,000m, where Linet Masai outkicked Melkamu for gold.

ASA denies all responsibility

However, what I'm more concerned with is the following statement by Cheune:

Chuene denied that ASA could have put out fires before they started if they had tested Semenya before she rose to the highest stage of international athletics.

"The responsibility of the federation (ASA) is to train children and take them to the championships," Chuene said. "When a child is born, the parents don't take them for tests to find out if it is a boy or a girl, they simply look.

"The family will bring us a child and say they have given us a girl, and we accept that.

"We then prepare her, which we did, and she went on to win gold, so we've done our job. You tell me what more we could have done."

The reality, Mr Cheune and ASA, is that there was a lot of reason to suspect, because Caster Semenya has herself said that she has faced allegation and rumor ever since she was young. Similarly, her coach, Michael Seme, has said many times that she has been questioned, all through her career.

And finally, I have it on very good authority that people from South Africa had objected long before world championships. This is a problem that has existed for years.

ASA's responsibility and possible actions

Next, it is VERY MUCH ASA's responsibity to manage Semenya's the athlete, which surely includes this aspect. It is only in a completely amateur organization, which has zero strategic plan, where a federation can limit it's responsibility to training athletes only.

To put this as simply as possible, there are only four possible scenarios here:

  1. ASA did not do a single test on Semenya. If this is true, they have ignored the controversy, and the very obvious impending situation, and sent her into the Worlds, where this problem was going to surface. In this case, we have a case of neglect and irresponsibility.
  2. ASA did do some tests, but only cursory tests, which they believe sufficed. As we've explained, and many of you have commented, the sex determination test is enormously possible, with a risk of false results. If this is what happened, then it is a case of carelessness. And yet Semenya was sent, without proper process being followed, ASA should be held accountable.
  3. ASA did a very comprehensive tests, or did a minimum level of test, and uncovered that there was in fact grounds for suspicion. If this was true, then there is no way ASA should have entered Semenya, because they knew that a problem would arise. If they did, effectively playing Russain roulette with a young women's life, it would be despicable.
  4. ASA did a very comprehensive test, and discovered no reason at all to doubt her sex. If this was true, ASA would be in the clear, and no problem would exist. I think it's safe to say that this was NOT done, because Cheune would have said so in his interview and this problem would have been managed.
I'm not sure if there is anything I'm missing here? The way I see it, these are the only three options. What of the IAAF? People have accused them of bringing this on themselves.

I disagree. I know that the IAAF sent a letter to ASA requested a report, on July 31 this year - that was after Semenya ran 1:56 in Mauritius. This letter is crucial, because it indicates that there were grounds for suspicion, that ASA knew of the potential problem (which makes a mockery of Chuene's claims).

My wish is to find out what the ASA response to that request was. What did ASA say in response to the IAAF? Was testing conducted? How was it done? And most important, what did it find? If it found any evidence at all for a problem, then there should be grave consequences indeed.

But to blame racism for this...that only compounds the problem.

How sad. Disgraceful.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Usain Bolt: 19.19s - you must be kidding

Usain Bolt makes it 5 World Records in 5 major finals

I must confess, I didn't think the world record would fall. I was pretty sure he'd win, by far, but I felt a 19.4 would be enough, and that another record was just out of reach.

Bolt didn't - he ran 19.19s, winning by 0.62 seconds, and with it, won his 5th gold medal in a 5th world record, and how has a double-double gold-WR combination between Beijing and Berlin. And the chance still exists for it to become a treble-treble, with the relay to come, which is absolutely astounding. You can read the Sports Illustrated report on it here - he talks of how he ran his heart out, which is evident on the clip, which you can see below. If you're reading this in an email and the video won't play, click HERE to be taken to the site, where it should!):

From the Science of Sport point of view, there's not much to post on it right now (and besides, I'm tired!), but when the IAAF research becomes available, then it will be a fascinating topic. We have Bolt's data from the 100m final, already analysed, and now we will have the chance to compare his 200m race using the same method. For that, we can thank Usain Bolt for delivering another astonishing performance!

Until that analysis, enjoy the video clip, and join us tomorrow for Wariner vs Merritt, and much more!


Sex determination in sport

The complexities of sex determination

I woke up this morning, after a short (5 hour) sleep to discover 70 emails and comments from you in response to the current Caster Semenya controversy. Thank you for the time taken to read the article and send in your opinions! Please don't take the silence and lack of a response as a sign that your thoughts have not been heard - I am at a convention and have little time to sit down and do them justice with a response!

However, I can assure you that I'm trying to get more details on the matter, and also working with a geneticist at uncovering some of the many possible conditions that make sex determination so complex - this applies not only to Semenya, but to every other athlete. Once again, if you have the time, reading the comments to this post will give you a fantastic idea of what is at stake in this, maybe the most difficult ethical debate in sport. Ranging from issues of social acceptance, to the role of urology, to the blurred lines between genetic advantage and unequal competition, it's all there. It's been highly educational for me to read as well! (a big reason why this site is so much fun!)

However, I thought I'd throw out one or two other opinions on the issue, just to give some perspective. There is a both outrageous and quality journalism going around, and so I've found a couple of articles that I think capture the issue more accurately.

1) Phil Hersh article - other runners question Semenya

This article is interesting because it describes the reactions of some of her competitors - two have gone on record as saying she should not be racing as a woman, others are equivocal, but very clearly in doubt. A lot of you have said how offended you were at Semenya's rivals' behaviour after the finish of the final, since almost no one congratulated Semenya the way we normally see. I can appreciate that, but I can also appreciate what is going through these rivals' minds. They are professional athletes, whose livelihood depends on their success on track. Success which is, according to reports and the best information they have, being challenged by an athlete they believe to be ineligible for competition. So I think their behaviour is understandable. That's not to condone it, but I think they are as much affected as anyone else - yet another reason why this is such a shame for everyone involved.

The article also talks about the IAAF and their role in it - it refers to the fact that they initiated an "investigation" after she ran 1:56 in Mauritius earlier this year. They requested a report from ASA's Chief Medical Officer, who also is on the IAAF Medical Commission. It will be interesting to discover, over time, what the report and subsequent tests reveal, if that information is ever made available. But the point is, the query seems to have been raised some time ago, and so it's certainly not a rush job (in terms of days, that is).

2) LetsRun report on the women's 800m final

The next good article is this one, from LetsRun, who do by far the best job of covering all the athletics action from Berlin. Of note in this article is reference to the fact that the IAAF prevented media from speaking to Semenya after the race. Instead, Pierre Weiss spoke, and you can actuall watch that press conference at the link above.

I think this is a wise move on the part of the IAAF. We've said all along that Semenya's welfare must be looked after, as she is the one taking the brunt of the criticism as this drama is played out on the world stage. So the IAAF have done well to protect her, and have pre-empted what would almost certainly have been a very uncomfortable and difficult press conference.

Also in the Letsrun report are the actual details of the race. I wrote yesterday that Semenya would go on to break the world record if she is allowed to continue competing, and I believe that she could run 1:52 in the right race. Letsrun speak of that final 170m, when she blew the field away, and of how without these doubts, it would have stood out as a magnificent performance. It's a great analysis of the race.

South African perspective - a little less controversial

Finally, and not surprisingly, media back here in SA are portraying the success and downplaying the controversy much more. For SA, a first medal in 6 years, and a gold at that, means that Semenya's future success is very important indeed - we have been told that we will win "12 in 2012" by the SA Olympic Committee (bear in mind we won a single medal in Beijing), and so the stakes are quite high. A sure medal chance will not be overlooked at the best of times, never mind when a target like that has been set.

The radios and TVs have been dominated by ASA officials talking of how they were convinced of her gender before World Champs, which would only be possible if comprehensive testing was done. That remains to be established, but based on the comments by management, seems unlikely. Either that, or the test results were ignored because a medal was so highly coveted. Time will reveal all that.

The article has some quotes from Semenya, which, because of the IAAF preventing her from being at the press conference, are about the only words I've seen from her after the race.

Finally, there is also reference to booing from the crowd after the race. Of course, this is very sad, but equally understandable. As for the reaction of her rivals, the problem is that people don't know the answer, and their information suggests that she may be 'cheating' (whether knowingly or not). The situation, as many of you have said, has no winners, not Semenya, not the sport, not the fans who watch it, not the runners who compete with her.

Time will tell where this story goes - two to four weeks is the time it will take for IAAF results to be announced (apparently), and then maybe we'll revisit it (unless something comes up before then).

IAAF World Champs go on

For now, though, there is a World Championships to discuss, and so hopefully, we can get back on track (pardon the pun) and talk about the action, starting tonight, when Usain Bolt goes for number 2, we have the women's 400m hurdles final (a Jamaica-USA rematch), and the 110m hurdles final, where Dayron Robles looks to be struggling to win the expected gold.

Join us then!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Caster Semenya: Male or female?

Caster Semenya's sex in doubt, as reports of sex testing and potential disqualification surface

Thank you for visiting The Science of Sport. You've come to the right place for insight and analysis of sports news, starting with the controversy around Caster Semenya. Read on for the very first article I wrote on the story, on Wed 19 August, when the story broke.  Obviously a lot has happened since, and some of those articles are listed below.

However, if you'd like to read our latest thoughts, in the aftermath of her silver medal in Daegu, read my latest piece here

And for other articles, check out the following posts:


The Caster Semenya Controversy

By now, most of you will be aware that South Africa's 800m sensation, Caster Semenya, has been reported as a potential disqualification from tonight's 800m final in Berlin, on the grounds that the IAAF had conducted tests on her to establish her sex, and that she might be male (I must clarify this - it's not an issue of male vs female, but of "entirely female", since she may possess secondary male characteristics as a result of some condition, reported as hermaphroditism).

This latest report (unconfirmed, I might add, at least with respects to the DQ - apparently the testing was done) is the climax of rumors that have been doing the rounds ever since the 18-year set the world's fastest time of 1:56.72 in a low key meeting in Mauritius recently.

I have been quite silent on the issue, and will continue to do so because at this point, there is nothing but rumor to go on, with no confirmed (and independent) facts. In the days after her 1:56 time, it was widely reported/speculated that Semenya was born a hermaphrodite (having both male and female reproductive organs), and that she was cleared by testing done by Athletics South Africa (ASA). In the last few days, it has emerged that she was in fact tested, twice, by her provincial athletics federation, who are claiming that the tests showed nothing unusual.

However, that does not yet constitute "proof" of anything (if there can ever be such a thing on a matter like sex testing - more on that later). Semenya is therefore in a terrible situation. The latest reports are that ASA are saying that the IAAF did do testing, but that there are no grounds for disqualification, that the test results will take weeks to release and so she will run tonight.

The problem with the process: A foreseeable controversy

I am not sure how this helps anyone. ASA seem eager to let her run, regardless of consequences down the line (which is much the same as they did in the lead-in to the Championships). The problem we now have is that she may well go on to win this final (assuming she can run, in fact, in which case I expect her to win easily), and then weeks down the line, we may yet have a disqualification and a result overturned, depending on those results. The result therefore MAY be that the silver medalist is upgraded to gold, bronze to silver, and that fourth gets bronze. What a tragic sequence of events for all the athletes involved.

Then again, stopping her from running may be equally unfair, because the tests may show nothing, and she would have been denied a world title (or at least, a shot at it). It seems to me this was a problem that was foreseeable, and one that ASA, had they had their ducks in a row, would have been able to pre-empt.

Not new allegations

The fact of the matter is that these allegations are not new. They have followed Semenya for a few years. Therefore, there was ample time to verify sex (again, a difficult process) and clear the way for her to compete. There is no doubt however, that the question was always going to be raised in Berlin, that people would ask and scrutinize, and so good management and coaching would have seen this resolved BEFORE the Championships even began. Because it was not, we are sadly seeing that Semenya will be the loser in what might well become an ugly story. There is surely nothing more offensive than the question of a woman's sex - even a doping accusation does not come close.

However, the reality is that we (in SA, that is) have been so poorly equipped to deal with the controversy that this situation and the doubt is now inevitable. Just take for example the following quotes, from this article:

According to the media liaison of Athletics South Africa (ASA), Ethel Manyaka, ASA would not send an athlete to the World Championships if they were not certain about the participant’s gender. [Ross: Then why was Semenya sent to begin with? How could you be "certain" unless you had done comprehensive testing on her? And "comprehensive testing" means genes, hormones, physical anatomy, psychology, internal medicine - see below. To imply that ASA was certain of her sex is to imply that she had been comprehensively tested, which she was not]

"President of ASA, Leonard Cheuene, knows something like that will create a huge controversy. How are we going to do it besides asking her to show us her private parts?” quipped Manyaka.

And then this one, from her coach:

Seme (the coach) added that when they stopped at a petrol station in Cape Town recently and Semenya entered the female toilets, the petrol attendants prevented her from doing so because they were convinced she was a man.

“Caster just laughed and asked if they would like her to take off her pants to show them she was a woman,” said Seme.

The realities of sex testing - an enormously complex question

These quotes betray absolutely no understanding of the complexities of this sex determination test, so let me try, very briefly (I will do a full and detailed explanation of the issues at a later time) to explain the problem:

First of all, the difference between sex and gender must be clarified. In most cases they are used interchangeably, but this is incorrect. Gender refers to how an individual portrays and perceives him or herself---for example male or female. It is more of a social construct than a biological one. Sex, on the other hand, is biological, and that is the essence of the debate in this case, whether or not Semenya is of male or female sex, not gender. An individual can have male sex but female gender, and vice versa. For an enlightening and intelligent debate about this case, read the comments below. They represent a wide range of opinions from individuals of diverse backgrounds.

Following on from that, "private parts" do not alone constitute male or female. This is a rudimentary distinction, but does not acknowledge a range of developmental conditions that can cause male characteristics to develop without there needing to be male reproductive organs. The condition of pseudohermaphroditism is one where male organs develop in varying degrees, and so the absence of male organs is not proof of anything. The fact that ASA believe that "asking her to show us her private parts" will do the job suggests that they have little idea of the issues. In that case, the first quote above, regarding ASA being "certain" of her sex before sending her, is laughable. The only thing we can be certain of is that ASA have little understanding of the problem.

Second, even genetic testing cannot confirm male or female. In fact, it is so complex that to do proper sex determination testing, you have to take a multi-disciplinary approach, and make use of internal medicine specialists, gynecologists, psychologists, geneticists and endocrinologists. I am afraid that dropping your pants is not proof at all.

But, if due diligence had been followed, they'd know that, and maybe this controversy could have been prevented. For the IAAF, the leak that saw the story reported the day before the 800m final is a great concern, and a situation that should have been avoided. ASA, for their part, cannot have known her sex with any certainty, unless they believed that a simple observation was sufficient. However, you can, within 30 seconds on Google, discover that it is not. The moment she ran 1:56, and was destined to challenge for gold in Berlin, this controversy was going to happen. "Certain"? No way, and therefore, using ASA's own criteria (which perhaps only apply in one direction), Semenya never had a chance...

Wait on judgment, it's all still rumor

The reality is that we don't know whether Semenya is "entirely female" (to quote from reports on the IAAF ruling). We must wait before delivering judgment, because it's unfair on her to condemn her based on rumor. However, rumor might well have been prevented, and we could have avoided much of this current drama, had things been managed correctly from the start. Sadly, the value of expertise has never been fully recognized within ASA (a personal opinion, based on my experiences with them, I have to add).

Caster Semenya is in a dreadful situation, and I hope it works out well for her. Time will tell. But please, let's wait before "reaching a verdict"


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Thank you for taking time to read our efforts at reporting and interpreting the Caster Semenya controversy. We hope you've enjoyed the insights we've tried to provide! Your time and energies are greatly appreciated!

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Semenya wins at a canter

Caster Semenya wins the 800m gold by a country mile

Well, Caster Semenya has delivered South Africa's first medal in a World Championships since 2005, and becomes only the second women to win a title for SA. Her time: 1:55.45., some 2 seconds ahead of former world record holder Jepkosgei of Kenya, is a new PB, her second in a few weeks.

If you tuned in earlier today, you'll know about the controversy surrounding Semenya. There will be much more written about this, that is for sure. If you have some time, I'd encourage you to go to this post, and then read the comments at the bottom - such a fantastic range of opinions, from the outright upset at the terrible situation Semenya is in, to thought-provoking questions on the matter, to opinions on what should be done. It's a great read - thank you for your time and consideration, everyone. I wish I could do more justice to your comments!

The 800m final - an unpleasant affair

The general atmosphere of the race was unpleasant - as Conrad put it in his comments to that last post, there really was not a scenario with a positive outcome in all this, and we saw that tonight.

There was almost nothing in the way of congratulations from rivals, race commentary was stilted and 'strained', and there are reports of booing from the German crowd. Among athletics websites, there is a general resentment and anger (people take the sport seriously, they feel this makes a mockery of the event), and it is directed mainly against Athletics South Africa, but also against Caster Semenya (which I don't believe is fair - the governing body, sure, as mentioned, but not the athlete, for I don't believe she is wilfully cheating).

Added to this, we've now started to see the usual mud-flinging, accusations of racism levelled against officials and athletes, discrimination against entire nations (an ASA official effectively accused Australia, as a nation, of conspiring against Semenya...seriously, on live radio).

There have been multiple denials (two separate officials contradicted each other on the same radio station over here today - one said "no test had been perfomed", the other confirmed the tests), and the President of the South African Olympic Committee, Gideon Sam, has demanded that the IAAF either release results or stop making "malicious" comments. That's just to give you the perception of what is happening here in SA, where we have reacted as one might expected when a first gold medal in years is challenged...

Having posted earlier this afternoon that things would get nasty, I expected a few days, but it has not taken very long, and it's already ugly.

A future world record holder?

But all speculation aside, watching the race, and looking at its numbers, let me throw out a prediction:

Caster Semenya will break the world record of 1:53.28 (Kratochvilova) within the next 12 months, if she continues to improve and train effectively. It could even come this year. All she needs is a pace of 55 through the bell, and another 14 seconds through to 500m, and I believe she'd be able to finish in 1:53 or faster.

To take a race out in 26.9 seconds, then press through the next 200m in 29-odd seconds (to hit 400m in 56.83s), take the third 200m in about 29 seconds, and then still kick off the final 170m the way she did, and put two seconds on opposition over the final 200m - that suggests that 1:55 is a sub-max effort. And she did this looking well capable of speeding up if required. It was, had you not known any of the controversy, a quite astonishing performance.

And I honestly will predict that Kratochvilova's record will fall. Of course, people said that last year, when Jelimo dominated, and that has not come true, so there are no sure things. But Semenya looks well capable of that record.

This is a soap opera and a situation that has few positive outcomes, not for Semenya, not for those she competes against (who are now racing with such doubt and controversy hanging over them too) and not for people who watch the event and cannot make sense of the politics and denials and confusion.

Based on your comments, I have a few thoughts still to express, but that must wait for another time, so join us then! Oh, and there is other athletics too - Usain Bolt goes for number 2 tomorrow, though I'd be surprised if he breaks 19.30s. Then again, who knows...


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Thank you for taking time to read and follow our coverage of the IAAF World Champs and the Caster Semenya controversy here at The Science of Sport. We hope you've enjoyed the insights we've tried to provide!

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Night of surprises in Berlin...and a few predictable results

Shock and surprise in Berlin: Women's 800m, pole vault, and 100m

...and according to script for Bekele in the Men's 10,000m

It was another great night of athletics in Berlin - no Usain Bolt, but a host of great middle- and long-distance running, finals and heats, and they produced some drama, shocks and surprises. None was greater than Elena Isinbaeva's failure to win pole vault gold (really, I'm not even making that up...!)

Then we had the women's 100m, and a milder surprise, and of course, providing the stability for the evening was Kenenisa Bekele, who duly delivered on his pre-race status and wrapped up title number 4 (but that's a topic for tomorrow, in more detail...for now, women's event recaps below).

Women's 800m semi-final: Surprises

The women's 800m event has, in recent times, been the most tumultuous in the sport. Consider that in 2007, we heralded the arrival of Janeth Jepkosgei of Kenya. She won the world title with her front-running tactics and looked set for an era of dominance.

Then in 2008, Pamelo Jelimo showed up. From nowhere, Jepkosgei was relegated to pack runner, losing by 3 or 4 seconds to Jelimo. Jelimo ran 1:55 to 1:56 with regularity, swept all before her, bagged a million dollars in the Golden League, and a gold medal in Beijing. The event was hers to dominate for years.

Jump to 2009. Pamelo Jelimo, beaten by 6 seconds in her first race, when he she ran 10 seconds slower than her typical time in 2008. That was back at the start of the season, we've now arrived at Worlds, and she's still a shadow of her 2008 form. She failed to qualify for the final, not even finishing her semi-final, having never featured at all. It is, to be blunt, the most spectacular fall from glory I've seen in the sport (in an admittedly short time). Quite how a woman who beat everyone by 2 to 3 seconds is now run out the back of mediocre races beats me. I guess it shows that even the elite cannot survive on talent alone. But for Jelimo...back to the drawing board.

But, if you thought we were done with surprise debut seasons, meet Caster Semenya, of South Africa. She announced herself to the world when she was involved in a trip with Jepkosgei, having to vault the world champion to remain in the race. She still won the heat, and won her semi-final today, looking, well...very comfortable and untroubled. Add to that the fact the Jepkosgei only made the final as a fastest loser, and Semenya is very much the favourite for the final.

There will be the usual host of Russians, a Spaniard, a Brit, and a few others who will attempt to challenge, but Semenya, based on her semi-final, and that 1:56 from a few weeks ago, looks to be the one to beat. She is this year's revelation, the Jelimo of 2009, and barring nerves or disaster, will assume the mantle of number 1.

One woman who won't challenge her is Maggie Vessey, the second fastest in the world this year, and a multiple winner in Europe. She never featured either, starting slowly, running at the back and never coming through. It was a disappointing way to bow out, for while a podium was always going to be tough (but certainly possible), she would have expected to feature more strongly in the semi-final.

Women's pole vault - shock as Isinbayeva is beaten

The strongest favourite in a women's event this entire week was Elena Isinbaeva. Sure, she'd been beaten a few weeks ago, a first loss in many years, but surely the Russian, who has just about owned pole vault for five or six years, would pull it together for the big event of the year?

It was not to be, however, and she didn't clear a single height. As is normal, she only entered the competition late, at a height of 4.70m, when other jumpers had taken four or five jumps. She failed at that height, and then the clearance of 4.75m by Poland's Anna Rogowska forced her to attempt 4.80m instead. Two failures at that height, and she finished last, giving the Pole her first world title.

For Isinbaeva, I guess it was inevitable, for one can only dominate for so long. What is of concern, however, is that it's not as though other women have closed the gap, but rather that she has come back to them. It might be expected that with Isinbaeva regularly clearing 4.90m, and setting the standard at 5.05m, at least a few women would start to edge nearer. They haven't, but Isinbayeva has returned to their level. Changes to technique, perhaps?

I'm not qualified to give an opinion on pole vaulting, so I won't, but it is at least refreshing to witness a pole vault competition where the outcome is undecided. The event had become pretty boring with the only suspense whether Isinbaeva would bank another big cheque for improving her record by 1cm each time...

Women's 100m - it's Beijing all over again

Shelly-Ann Fraser pulled something of a surprise in Beijing last year. It would be a little harsh to say that winning a world title to go with that Olympic gold would be a surprise, but the favourite on form in the European circuit would have been Kerron Stewart, also of Jamaica.

However, from the gun, it was Fraser, who really did leave Stewart behind. She must have gained 2m in the first 20m (the analysis from the IAAF research will be very interesting for this race), and then held it for 40m, and then held off a rapidly finishing Stewart over the final 40m.

Stewart was closing at an amazing rate in the last 30m. She will kick herself for losing quite that much time at the start. It's difficult to fault Stewart, for she did run a PB and that's about all one can ask in a major championship. However, I suspect that the IAAF research will show that Stewart had a top speed well in excess of anyone else in this race, and that will certainly give Stewart some reason to be disappointed with silver, for she had the race in hand had she started better. The reaction times alone tell a story - Stewart reacted to the gun in 0.170sec, while Fraser was timed at 0.146sec - that's 0.024 seconds already, combined with Fraser's power over the first 30m, and the race was decided

So it's a repeat of Beijing, on both the men's and women's side. One year ago, to the day, it was a Bolt world record, and a Shelly-Ann Fraser gold. Jump ahead to Berlin, and the times are faster, but the outcome the same, as Jamaica continue their dominance of the 100m event.

Men's 10,000m - it's Bekele again

The men's 10,000m will be the subject of a post tomorrow - it's one of the big events for us (we are partial to distance running after all). Kenenisa Bekele provided the stability on the day, doing what just about everyone had expected, and winning his 4th title. More discussion to follow...

Join us then!


P.S. There was one other surprise from Berlin - Galkina was run right out of the medals in the women's 3000m. She led the whole way, but never did any damage to anyone and as they approached the bell, about 4 women swept past her. It got worse with 200m to go, when even more swallowed her up. She fought back bravely, but never featured, and was eventually run into 4th place. The winner was Spain's Marta Dominguez, who outsprinted Yuliya Zarudneva off the final hurdle. Not a great night for Russian women - two gold medals they would have banked on, and they came away with nothing...

Analysis of Bolt's 9.58 WR

Analysis of Bolt's 9.58 World Record

As promised, as soon as the results and split times from Bolt's unbelievable 9.58s performance were available, we'd be analysing them

Turns out they became available rather quickly (not 9.58s kind of quick, but quick nevertheless). So here is the analysis of Bolt's race.

All the splits

First of all, here is the table published by the IAAF this morning, containing all the splits and times for 20m intervals, for both the semi-final and final:

Next up, some graphs to highlight certain things a little better. Below is a graph showing the 20m interval times for the top 3: Bolt-Gay-Powell

It reveals how Bolt achieved the fastest split at all intervals, which is amazing considering his supposed slow start. He led the race at 20m, and continued to grow that lead. I have shown his times on the chart:

The relatively slow first 20m (because of the start) makes interpreting the last 80m of the race quite difficult, so I've taken the liberty of looking only at the last 4 intervals, for a more obvious comparison between Bolt, Gay and Powell. It makes the point that Bolt was dominant from start to finish, as shown below.

Translating those times into speeds is a simple but interesting exercise (shown in the graph below), because you then perceive just how fast the top end speed is. For Bolt, the fastest interval (60m to 80m) was run at an average speed of 44.72km/hour. If you're wondering how that compares to last year in Beijing, read on...

The next graph shows the gap between Bolt and Gay and Powell for each 20m interval. I felt this would be interesting to look at because it would show whether Bolt did all the damage early and then held the lead, or whether he grew the margin progressively through the race. It turns out to be the latter option - he builds a lead at each interval. It's 0.03s/20m for the first 40m (over Gay, that is), and then Gay makes something of a comeback (but never actually closes the gap, he just limits its growth), before losing another 0.03 seconds in the final 20m.

For Powell, the margin grew steadily throughout the race, and opened up at an increasing rate after 60m. The comparison is interesting because it serves to highlight:
a) How incredible Bolt was, from start to finish of the race - who'd have thought he'd lead at 20m?
b) How well Gay did to hold onto Bolt as much as he did

A comparison between Berlin and Beijing

Now, for the comparison everyone has been making already - how does Berlin 2009 compare to Beijing 2008?

I must confess that I'm a little skeptical of the Beijing figures - at the time, there was some contention about the accuracy of these splits, because they were worked out from TV footage, whereas the latest Berlin result is a very specific research study, and thus (you'd think), more accurate. However, it's an interesting comparison, but just keep in mind that there may be some error in the Beijing numbers (you'll see what I mean below)

First the split times. I've looked at Bolt in Berlin, Bolt in Beijing, and then Gay in Berlin as well.

What it shows is that Bolt's first 20m in Berlin was actually slower than his first 20m in Beijing (now you see why I'm skeptical). Anyone who saw last night will testify that Bolt started brilliantly in Berlin, and so I can't believe he was slower to 20m. However, from then on, he's faster, and by 60m, is 1/100th of a second ahead of "himself in Beijing", then four hundreths by 80m, and adds another 0.09s to that gap in the final 20m.

As for the Berlin Top 3 comparison, here are the gaps at each 20m marker, but this time Bolt's performance in Beijing has been added (in green). Positive numbers mean Bolt is ahead (as was the case the whole way in Berlin!) and negative means behind, as the splits suggest for 20m compared to his Beijing run. So Bolt was behind at 20m (by 0.02s), slightly ahead at 40m, then grew the lead, to 0.04s at 80m, and ended up 0.11 seconds ahead of his Beijing time at the finish line.

Once again, here are the speeds based on the available times - they show that Bolt in Berlin hit a higher speed at 60 to 80m than in Beijing. I've indicated Bolt's speeds on the graph, and the smaller number at each point is the speed of Tyson Gay, just for comparison purposes.

So I suppose the question is: Does this prove that Bolt lost 0.07s by slowing down in Beijing, since this was the difference over the last 20m? The answer - of course not, no. His last 20m in Berlin was 0.07s faster than in Beijing, but he had reached a higher peak speed at 80m (well, strictly, it's his average from 60m to 80m that is higher), and so the degree to which he increased his "lead" over his Beijing performance is a little exaggerated - it's not an equal comparison because the starting value is greater. Therefore, I would still argue that he only lost about 0.03 to 0.05 seconds in Beijing as was written at the time, based on the assumption that at best, he'd have kept going at the same speed (this is best case scenario).

There is a lot more to be said, I unfortunately have a pressing deadline, so I'll have to say it later!

Until then, thanks for the comments!


P.S. One thing I didn't mention in the original post (and should have) is the difference in wind speed between Beijing (0.0m/s) and Berlin (0.9m/s tailwind). So here is a comment from Rob, which pretty much summarizes the impact:

One thing that I think needs mentioning is the effect of the tailwind, which was 0.9 m/s in Berlin and 0 m/s in Beijing. This might account for why Bolt/Gay in Berlin had higher top speeds than Bolt in Beijing -- at least based on your graph results (the other factor is the Bolt might have already started celebrating before the 80m mark in Beijing!).

Secondly, if we adjust for the affect of the 0.9m/s tail wind [Ross: this depends a little on which 'formula' you use to adjust for win, but it illustrates the point well enough, and the numbers are about right], Bolt would have run 9.62 instead of 9.58, which isn't much different than a possible 9.64 in Beijing had he run through the finish line. Tyson Gay's adjusted time in Berlin would have been 9.75.

Usain Bolt 9.58s Video

Video of Bolt's 9.58s World Record

If you're looking for analysis of Usain Bolt's magnificent 9.58s WR last night, you're in the right place!

Click here for our detailed analysis, including Bolt's splits, speeds and a comparison with his previous world record in Beijing

Thanks to all for your comments so far on Bolt's record. One thing I will say for Bolt is that he generates buzz, and it's wonderful for the sport! I can't recall any athlete producing such a response from media, crossing the boundaries.

Below is a video of the race, for those who might have missed it.

The limits to performance

As mentioned last night, it's still just too early to produce any kind of 10m splits, though hopefully the buzz will speed up the release of those numbers (if you have them, let me know!)

And, as is customary when a world record is broken, people are turning to the next world record and asking how low can it go? Bolt himself said that he could run 9.4s. Like Haile Gebrselassie's prediction of a 2:03 marathon, a lot depends on whether you believe that 9.4s means 9.40s or 9.49s.

I certainly think something below 9.50 sec is possible, though it starts to approach what I believe is a limit for performance. Last year, some scientists predicted that the ceiling existed at 9.48s, although those predictions always come back to haunt scientists! Peter Weyand once threw out a figure of 6 seconds, though I think we can safely say that's not going to happen.

One year ago, 9.58s was hypothetical only, and Bolt has pushed the event forward by two generations in one year (it was exactly a year, to the day, between Beijing and Berlin, incidentally. Bolt must enjoy August 16th). So given that improvement, why not 9.4s by 2010? I somehow don't see it improving that much so soon, but perhaps small increments, and given a long career, Bolt might yet go sub-9.50s. Certainly, not much seems impossible for Usain Bolt, though there is so much hype and lack of objectivity around, it's difficult to tease out real from make-believe!

Last word - Tyson Gay

Finally, I have to give a last commendation to Tyson Gay, second in 9.71s. For all Bolt's magnetism and the fantastic profile he gives the sport, Tyson Gay is a great champion, humble and committed and a real role-model. While Bolt commands attention and fascination, Gay earns respect for his person and his performances, and like Weldon Johnson of Letsrun.com, I was left with a lot of respect for Tyson Gay.

The contrast between him and Bolt makes the rivalry even greater. Bolt clowns around, Gay gets nervous. Bolt looks relaxed (a computer-game character is how Darvis Patton described him), Gay has to work so hard. But he's a great role-model, and speaking personally, more my kind of character.

A great article summing up the performance of Bolt, and the character of Gay, can be read here. It's well worth a read.

Today's action

Hard to believe the show goes on - tonight, it hits middle- and long-distance hyperdrive, as we have the final of the men's 10,000m (Bekele the man to beat), and the semi-finals of the women's 800m and men's 1500m. Can South Africa's Caster Semenya continue to make an impact (in a good way, this time!), and can Asbel Kiprop move one step closer to the 800m-1500m double?

Join us later to find out. Oh, and we'll definitely come back to Bolt's race as soon as the splits from the race are available!