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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Top 9 of 2009: 4 to 6

Usain Bolt, Weight loss and exercise and Oscar Pistorius - newsmakers 2009

As mentioned, today is second installment in our Top 9 of '09 series, looking back at the top sports stories of 2009, as covered here on the Science of Sport.

Yesterday we covered stories 7 through 9, looking at sudden death during marathons, Meb Keflezighi's win in New York and the Tour de France and doping.  Stories 4 through 6 produce a mix of controversial, heated and awe-inspiring.

6.  Usain Bolt does it again - 9.58s and 19.19s

Usain Bolt began 2009 with greater expectations than any sprinter in recent history.  A Beijing Olympic games that produced three golds in three world records catapulted the young Jamaican into the sporting stratosphere, making him an instant celebrity.  Track and field rarely delivers athletes who transcend the sport and become sporting icons, but Bolt was one such athlete.  Throughout the off-season, his activities were documented, his parties reported, and his car accidents covered as front page news!

Then the season began, and astonishingly, it proved even better than the one before.  Berlin, a return to the stadium where another sprint icon, Jesse Owens, had rewritten record books 73 years before, produced two of the greatest sprint performances ever.

First came the 100m, where Bolt had so memorably destroyed the field while celebrating in Beijing.  This time, there was to be no celebration, but there was to be another destruction of the field, and of the world record.  A time of 9.58s, scarcely believable, destroying the world record by 0.11s.  (Click here for the detailed analysis of the race)

The table below (click to enlarge) shows the 20 m interval times achieved by Bolt, Tyson Gay (second in 9.71s) and Asafa Powell (third in 9.84s), courtesy the IAAF analysis of the race.

To me, the stand-out feature of the analysis is that out of 16 races (semi-finals and finals), the fastest first 20m interval belonged to Usain Bolt, one two occasions (2.89s).  Bolt was in first place at 20m, which is amazing considering his size - the tallest sprinter in recent years, and a man who should not be able to start as fast as he does.  Of course, once he's into his running, he's absolutely unstoppable, thanks to an extra-ordinary stride and what I believe is unparalleled neuromuscular co-ordination and stretch-shortening cycle activity.

As the graph below shows, he extended his lead as the race progressed, running his fastest 20m interval between 60 and 80m.  Gay and Powell fought bravely, but the graph reveals how the gap just got larger and larger.

Interestingly, his final 20m showed a slowing in speed, which is typical of 100m races - nobody speeds up from 80m to 100m.  This is exactly why predictions of what Bolt would have run had he not celebrated early in Beijing were misplaced - they assumed constant speed to the line, and Berlin clearly showed that this does not happen.

Regardless, Bolt again moved the 100m event forward a generation.  How much faster can he go?  Scientists have predicted that the limit exists at 9.48s, which is now "only" 0.1s faster than he has gone.  Tyson Gay cannot be discounted either.  9.71s in Berlin, followed by a 9.69s in Shanghai.  Whether 2010 produces the same astonishing performances (no Olympic or World championships to drive performance, remember), one thing is certain, 100m sprinting is in an exciting place right now.

Then of course, there is Bolt's 200m.  Not nearly as competitive, for here, Bolt is all on his own, way clear of the rest of the world.  Michael Johnson's world record of 19.32s from Atlanta in 1996 was supposed to stand for generations.  Bolt has now reduced it to 19.19s.  And scariest of all, he has the potential to run it considerably faster.

If you take Bolt's reaction time from Beijing (which was very slow at 0.182s) and compare it to the reaction time from Berlin (0.131s), you find that his actual running time in Berlin was about 0.06s SLOWER than in Beijing.  This suggests that he can lower the record to at least 19.14s, if he links his reaction time to faster running time from Beijing.

Is sub-19s possible?  I'd say no, because it would require a reduction of another 0.20s, which is huge considering that he has already knocked 0.11s off his Beijing performance.  If he runs 18.99s, it means the world record will have been improved by 0.33s in a few years.  Stranger things have happened, but I can't see it, as amazing as Bolt is.

And then there is the 400m event.  It seems inevitable (barring injury or a loss of form) that Bolt will one day step up to 400m.  When he does, 43.18 will be threatened, and perhaps even the 43 second barrier will fall.  Will this involve a change in training that negatively affects his 100m and 200m performance?  I'd suggest that it must, and so if Bolt does step up, he may find that his 100m and 200m times "stagnate", but his 400m times move that event forward, just as he has done for the 100m and 200m.  Time will tell...for now, let's hope that Bolt continues for a decade, because he's been great for the sport of athletics.

5.  Exercise won't make you thin - Time magazine 

"In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless"

This quote was attributed to Eric Ravussin, a diabetes and metabolism research from Louisiana State University.  It formed the backbone of a piece published in Time magazine in August which basically said that those of you who exercise to aid with weight loss are wasting your time.  For obvious reasons, given that millions have used exercise as a successful means to lose weight, the article caused consternation among exercise professionals.

Amazingly, we didn't actually cover this story on the Science of Sport.  Well, to be fair, I saw it, but it came right in the middle of the World Athletics Championships, which featured Bolt and Semenya, two of the biggest stories of the year, which I was not about to leave alone to tackle this question.

However, it's certainly on the cards in 2010, because it needs to be addressed.  Is Time magazine correct?  Or are they just dressing up common sense in the form of sensational reporting to sell magazines?  The reality is that the article, for those who read it, contains elements of truth, and could prove invaluable to people who are exercising but NOT losing weight (and there are many).

Basically, the key point is what is called "The compensation problem".  It's hardly rocket science - when you exercise, you tend to compensate by reducing other activities and by eating more food (or the wrong food).  The net result is that all your hours of sweat don't add up to kilograms lost.  Is that the same as saying that "exercise is pretty useless for weight loss?".  Not at all, and this is where Time magazine did itself, its readers, and many exercisers, an enormous disservice.  It left out a vast body of research which does show that exercise aids in weight loss, and it portrayed limited research suggesting that exercise was ineffective through a very biased lens.  It was, to be frank, a poor piece, given 'credibility' by the quotes like those above, from leading scientists.

We'll address this in more detail in 2010 - so all of you making new year's resolutions involving exercise and weight loss, stay tuned!

4.  Oscar Pistorius - a 10 second advantage over 400m, as the debate takes on a new complexion

Our number 5 story of 2009 flew well below the radar, even here in South Africa, where in 2008, Pistorius was THE BIG NEWS.  Perhaps it was because this story came at around the same time that more reports on Caster Semenya surfaced.  Perhaps it's because people are tired of the Pistorius PR machine.

Pistorius had an eventful year off the track - a boating accident which was alleged to have been the result of alcohol, a night in jail after allegations of assault, and finally, a research publication by his own scientists which suggested that he enjoyed an advantage of 10 seconds in a 400m race.

The first two stories made headlines here in SA, the third barely registered, though we covered it briefly on the site in November.  But it was the outcome of 18 months of research, led by Prof Peter Weyand and Hugh Herr.  Somewhere on that 18 month journey, a major split in the camp occurred, because the paper alleging a 10 second advantage was published by Weyand and Matthew Bundle,  and was responded to by a rebuttal by Herr and a host of colleagues.

The exchange between the two camps got heated, with Herr eventually borrowing quotes from the great sportsman John McEnroe to try to force home his point ("You cannot be serious").  Herr's arguments also borrowed from video footage recorded off a television screen, which came across as a hastily put together defence that was utterly lacking in scientific credibility.

Weyand's case, on the other hand, revolved around the fact that Pistorius is able to reposition his limbs so quickly, thanks to their reduced mass, and because of the energy characteristics of the blades, which reduced the energy cost of running and allowed increased energy return compared to human limbs.  This had already been shown by Bruggemann as far back as October 2007, incidentally.

Perhaps most amazingly though, the research article from JAP provided a 180 degree about turn in the position occupied by some of Pistorius' scientists.  Weyand went on to say that "We recognized that the blades provide a major advantage as soon as we analyzed the critical data more than a year and a half ago (my emphasis)"

What is astonishing, if this is true, is that for 18 months, Weyand went along with the Pistorius PR machine that was proclaiming that the scientific evidence proved that Pistorius had no advantage.  Of course, I don't know the circumstances and who was pulling strings behind the scenes, but for the CAS to make a ruling on Pistorius' eligibility during this 18-month time-frame suggests that:
  • The full extent of the scientific evidence was not disclosed, which is neglectful and a wrong decision was made, or;
  • The evidence was deliberately omitted and the CAS decision was made based on deliberately misleading science.  Again, the wrong decision has been made.

Either way, the point is that this "new evidence" is not new, and has existed for some time.  But decisions were made without taking it into account.  The legal process has suffocated the science, which, I have to say is what I have written since the CAS verdict was first announced.  Pistorius, then, pulled the victory at the CAS because of legal loopholes and the science which should have been presented never was.  The process was flawed, and 2010 should see it revisited so that the right decision can be made.

To be clear, I think 10 seconds is high.  When the story broke, I felt the advantage might be between 5 and 10 seconds.  For Weyand to vindicate this position means that intuition, theory and a vast body of data are now aligned and in agreement.  Will 2010 see the correct decision made?

Preview:  Marathon explosion

Marathon running (among men) has never been as healthy as it was in 2009 - records fell with extra-ordinary regularity and 2:07 become a pre-requisite for success.  But is marathon running really that healthy?

Join us for the Number 3 story of 2009 to start the debate!



Anonymous said...

Apparently there will a lot more to come on the Semenya saga in 2010 (and 2011, 2012, 2020...)

"By Duncan Mackay

December 26 - Caster Semenya (pictured), the world 800 metres champion, is set to launch multi-million dollar law suits against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and Athletics South Africa (ASA) over the gender row which she claims has wrecked her life.

The South African teenager has retained Greg Nott, the lawyer from Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP who acted for South African double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius on a pro bono basis in his successful effort to overturn the IAAF's decision to ban him from competing in able-bodied track events and attempting to qualify for the Olympics in Beijing last year.

Semenya plans to sue the IAAF for $120 million (£75 million) and ASA for $18 million (£11 million)."

An interesting lawsuit to watch. My guess is that they are all guilty of various things, the IAAF, the ASA, and Semenya. S/he's no innocent little athlete as far as impressions go. My prediction is that the party who will pay the most by being shamed in public will be first to concede to a settlement (read IAAF, with the deep pockets). The ASA probably doesn't have *that* much money or doesn't care about being caught, given the behavior of their officials. And lastly, I bet the IAAF and the ASA can't prove Semenya was in the know without implicating themselves, so they are in a tight spot as far as their accusations against her go.

Let the Semenya saga continue.

And until every medical data were made public, and questions about advantages cleared, I am certainly against her/him keeping any money or medals.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Alessandra

Thanks for the story - amazingly, that hasn't been reported in SA and so this is the first I've seen of it.

I'm really surprised though - I had heard that an agreement had been reached, though I see the IAAF subsequently denied this. They would though, because they wanted this problem to go away, and I honestly was under the impression that Semenya had already settled with the IAAF and that this had been done through these lawyers.

So either things have changed, or this report is incorrect - I'm trying to find out, because I know some people who are close (one degree of separation from the case) to Semenya.

My thoughts were that she'd have the surgery so that she could compete because these massive lawsuits would ensure only that the story remained alive for longer and Semenya wanted it dealt with.

So I honestly don't know what will happen next year. I hope that the surgery resolves much of the controversy. I don't particularly care where the money flows, as long as the on-track competition is kept decent and fair. If Semenya can make that much money, then good luck to her. I'm not sure she is to be blamed for all this. Perhaps now she's starting to fight back, but to begin with, this was certainly not her doing.

Hopefully the medical issue is cleared up, as you say, she goes for whatever surgery is required, or chooses not to, but then the right decision is made with regards to competing.

This is the Number 1 story of 2009, without a doubt, so more to come later in the week!


Anonymous said...

"Of course, once he's into his running, he's absolutely unstoppable, thanks to an extra-ordinary stride and what I believe is unparalleled neuromuscular co-ordination and stretch-shortening cycle activity."

You have mentioned this in several posts on Bolt before. Any chance of a post delving into this a little further ?

If not, thank you all the same! I stumbled upon this site at the start of the year and have enjoyed visiting it as often as I can! I look forward to further informative and thought provoking posts in 2010. I am very appreciative of the service the two of you provide. Thank you and best wishes for the New Year!!!

Newton "Jet" Wan said...

the math on Uain Bolts 200m races seems a bit off.

.18s rxn time and a finishing time of 19.30 in beijing yields a raw time of 19.12

.13 rxn time and a finishing time of 19.19 in berlin yields a raw time of 19.06

we have to factor in wind/altitude/temperature/humidity as basic control factors.

I dunno what those are but prima facie if we ignored rxn time as u suggested; Bolt ran 0.06s FASTER in berlin.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi folks

Thanks for the comments. To anonymous, thanks for the positive words. I'd love to tackle the Bolt question - hopefully in the track season next year I'll be able to do it. It's just a theory, but I believe the key lies in the elasticity, which is a a function of how the shift happens between the eccentric and concentric muscle contractions. There's some research on distance runners and the effect of plyometrics, showing how contact times and running speed were improved by plyometric training. When I watch Bolt, I see a guy who runs with less "power" than other sprinters. If you want to see Bolt's most amazing performance, it's not the world records, but the semi-final performances, where he basically "stops" sprinting after 50m and still runs 9.90s. That's extra-ordinary, where does that speed come from? I would surmise it's muscle-tendon, elasticity.

I'll definitely try to expand on that, but as I say, it's a conceptual argument, just a theory (for now!)

Then to Newton Jet, you got me there! To much Christmas pudding...I've mixed up Berlin and Beijing, can't think why! Thanks for the catch!


Anonymous said...

Well If you have the time it would certainly be very much appreciated!!!

I personally believe he is not only the greatest athlete (physiologically) of the last century but possibly more importantly the most interesting from a scientific stand point.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi again

Agreed. I would love to get a crack at the muscle and analyse it.

INterestingly enough, I have a colleague in Cape Town who is looking at the muscle composition (which includes the usual fast and slow twitch fibre breakdown, but also the enzymes, which may be even more important) of wild animals.

Not sure how much interest you have in wild animals, but some (like the red cat) are able to leap about 5 m into the air from a standing position. And no doubt you've seen antelope running from game - they possess something humans don't when it comes to sprinting, changing direction and accelerating. So this colleague (Dr Tertius Kohn) is looking at the muscle.

So far, i can tell you that they don't have the massively high percentage of Type II fibres that one probably expects from 'sprinting animals'. So if anyone wants to tell you that Bolt is fast because you has a high proportion of fast-muscle fibres, they're oversimplifying enormously.

That's about all I know so far - his work is in its infancy, but I wonder if that kind of research will improve our understanding of athletes like Bolt?

We can only hope!


Roger said...

Glad to see that - finally - someone else notes the compensation effect in exercise and weight loss. My main sport is x-c skiing, with some citizen racing. What I see every spring/summer when training - e.g., cycling, rollerskiing, hiking, strength - picks up is a cycle in which appetite and weight go up initially, then gradually stabilize and then head down, seemingly on their own. My sense of it after many seasons (cycles) is that it takes awhile for one's metabolism to adjust anew to the training (more frequent interval sessions and winter racing really push the process). I look forward to your more detailed comments next year.

BG said...

To your comment that under 19.00s isn't likely:

I've done a bit of snooping around in the 100m and 200m WR archives, and I happened to notice that NEVER before has the average speed of the 100m WR been faster than the average speed of the 200m WR. Assuming that Bolt isn't much much better at the 100m than the 200m, running (9.58 x 2 =) 19.16s is a very conservative estimate of what he should run. The last time the WRs got set at the same games was 1996, with a 9.84 and a 19.32 (= 9.66 x 2). That 200m WR is 0.18s faster per 100m! It usually isn't that big of a gap, but even with a gap of 0.10s, we'll see a (9.48 x 2 = ) 18.96s.

I'm confident that if Bolt has two or three more injury-free seasons, we'll see sub-19.