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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Top 9 of 2009: 7 to 9

Marathon deaths, miraculous wins and a Tour de France "without" drugs?

We trust you all had a wonderful Christmas yesterday, and are still enjoying the festive season!

As promised, we begin a recap of the year's top sports stories, as viewed through science, and featured here on The Science of Sport.  Nine stories for 2009, and today, we recap 7 through 9.  That will be followed by brief reports on 4 to 6, and then single posts looking at each of the top 3 stories.

9.  Sudden death during marathons

This is something of a recurring theme, it featured in the Top 8 of 2008 list as well, courtesy some very high profile cases during marathons and also soccer matches in Europe.

We have covered the topic fairly extensively in the past, and this year, it popped up again with the death of 3 runners during the Detroit Marathon and half-marathon.  All three actually happened in the half-marathon, within about 15 minutes of one another, leading to media coverage, debate and the same old speculation that running is harmful to your health.

In response, we did a couple of posts, and the one that got quite a lot of debate going was one where we summarized some research from 2008, which found that while cardiac deaths did occur during marathons, the hosting of races which required road closures actually prevented 20 more deaths than would be expected without the race.  In addition, we looked at risks of running vs other activities, and tried to explain that the media, which has never met a sensational story it didn't enjoy, miss the key point that regular running may greatly reduce the risk of sudden death, even if those individuals who are susceptible are more likely to experience cardiac events during exercise.

If you're really keen to get stuck into this issue, then I can recommend no better read than this - a report by Amby Burfoot, Editor-at-large of Runners World.  Also, this post, which we wrote two years ago, looks at the practical implications of running and sudden death.

8.  Meb Keflezighi wins New York, and sparks debate about nationality, genes and performance

In November, Meb Keflezighi pulled one of the surprises of the marathon year when he beat a quality field to win the New York City Marathon.  Keflezighi's win was celebrated because it was the first win by an American man in New York since 1982

Keflezighi's win sparked some major publicity in the USA, which can only be good for the sport - talk-show appearances, media reports, news stories, and a lot of debate in the aftermath made for great exposure.  Not all of it was positive, however, and a rather controversial debate about whether Keflezighi was really American got many people heated.

The debate was around whether Meb, born in Eritrea, but who moved to the USA aged 12, could be claimed by the USA as one of their own, given that he was not born in the USA.  Without rehashing the debate, the fact is that Keflezighi learned his running, and owed pretty much his entire running development (and life, for that matter) to the USA.  Celebrating his win for the USA thus seems completely appropriate.  The debate took on racial overtones (a recurring theme of 2009, as our Number 1 story will illustrate).  People became ultra-defensive, or attacking, and the argument got heated.

I am not personally that interested in the debate about what qualifies someone as being American (or any other nationality, for that matter), and the introduction of race is only a hindrance to the debate.  What I found interesting about the debate is that it once again highlighted the issue about East African running dominance, and whether it is genes of lifestyle that explains why these athletes dominate running.

Those who follow the sport will know that distance running is utterly dominated by Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and more recently, Uganda.  No one is 100% sure what factors are responsible for this dominance, but it includes genes, lifestyle, environment (particularly altitude), culture and financial incentives, all of which mix together in a melting pot that has produced almost all the world's distance champions since the 1980s.

Keflezighi's genes link him to those athletes - Gebrselassie, Bekele, Tadese, Yifter, Tergat and co., but his environment as a runner is unquestionably American.  Those who challenge his designation as an American champion are implying that genes entirely determine performance - his success is not American, but African like 'all the others'.  Those who celebrate his win as one for America are in the school of thought that genes may be important, but are only part of the package.  Would an American born athlete, given the same experiences and upbringing as Keflezighi have achieved the same success?  Or is his success solely due to the "selection" of his parents and the fact that he may share whatever undiscovered running genes predispose one to performance?  We may never know the answer to that one, but the debate was certainly one of the more interesting of the year.

7.  The Tour de France - no high-profile drug positives, the return of Armstrong, and cycling still under suspicion

I'll be honest, I was not even going to bother putting this into the Top 9, because I'm tired of cycling and the eternal doping debate.   And then two days ago, it was announced that Team Astana, the team of the tour winner (Alberto Contador) and the returnee who finished third (Lance Armstrong) was under investigation after equipment including drip bags and syringes were found during the Tour.  No wrongdoing in that (yet), but it is the latest in what has been a trickle of allegations around the Astana team since July - reports of evading testers, delaying the provision of samples, and Lance Armstrong's suspicious blood values have leaked out ever since the race finished in Paris.  Suddenly, the dope-free Tour was looking more and more like the facade that we are used to seeing from cycling.

My opinion on this has been stated a few times before on this site - I don't believe that the highest levels success in cycling are possible without some form of doping, and I do not believe that the Tour de France produces clean champions, and hasn't since at least the early 90s (I say this for scientific and personal reasons).

However, the 2009 Tour was noteworthy because there was not a single high-profile positive in the race.  In 2008, we had Ricardo Ricco, Stefan Schumacher and Bernard Kohl, and the revelation that the doping authorities had been lying in wait for cyclists who were using CERA, a new form of EPO which was supposed to be undetectable.  By the time the dust had settled on the 2008 Tour, multiple stage wins, the King of the Mountains, and fourth overall had been exposed as drug cheats.  It was business as usual for the Tour.

Jump ahead to 2009, and the Tour passed with not a single high-profile positive test.  Is that a sign that anti-doping efforts, most notably the biological passport system, are having the desired effect?   Or does it mean that the very best cyclists are just that little more sophisticated, able to dope beneath the level that would produce positive test results?  I believe it is more likely to be the latter, though I have little doubt that the sport is heading in the right direction.

During 2009, we interviewed Prof Yorck Olaf-Schumacher, who has been at the forefront of the battle against doping, a pioneer of the blood passport system.  His insights in that interview are intriguing, to say the least, and he gives me some hope for the future of the sport.

Returning to the actual race, the 2009 Tour was  punctuated by some really great debate about the physiology of cycling performance.  We covered the debate about Alberto Contador's VO2max, which a French engineer had estimated at 99.5 ml/kg/min, based on some assumptions of his power output and efficiency.  That debate led me to my own calculations, which I'll save for another day (or another year), but which suggests that a sustained power output above 6 W/kg is decidedly unphysiological, achievable only with "assistance".  Therefore, when I witness Tour riders climbing at 6.2 W/kg for an hour, I cannot help but be skeptical.

Cycling has, and will continue to make fools of those who believe it to be clean.  Yes, other sports are likely just as bad, and cycling is scrutinzed more than most, but my lasting impression of 2009 is that something is wrong with this picture.

Preview:  What do exercise and weight loss, marathon revolutions and Usain Bolt have in common?  

They're part of our next installment, looking at the Top stories of 2009, 4 through 6.  Join us then!



Jot said...

I think the "[...] hosting of races which required road closures actually prevented 20 more deaths than would be expected without the race" is horrid.

This is because it asserts that the roads that are closed are resulting in a net loss of vehicle traffic equal to the total average volume. The fact is that a vast majority of the traffic that would have been on those roads still exists, just on different roads, and as a result the total number of deaths would likely be unchanged.

Thanks for the great columns. Have a great holiday.


Nicholas said...

What about Mikel Astarloza?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jot

Thanks for the comment. I'm afraid you're wrong on this one - you make a good point, but it's one that was covered in the research study. They actually controlled for the diversion of traffic and found the net loss was 20 deaths due to road accidents. So while your concern is theoretically valid, the research actually controlled for it, and still found a reduction.

If you click on the link I've put in this post, referring back to that post, then you'll be able to read more about it and you'll see this aspect is covered.

To Specialist, touche, a name I forgot. Astarloza was 11th and tested positive and won a stage. His positive test actually came before the Tour, out of competition, and I'm not sure he constitutes a huge name in the Tour. Big yes, but nothing like Kohl, Schumacher and Ricco the year before, or any of the dozens in the years before that. But you're quite right, he's a name I might have mentioned!


Jot said...

Thanks for the reply. I had missed this from the abstract referenced in your earlier post:

"The net reduction in total deaths could not be explained by re-routing traffic to other regions or days and was consistent across different parts of the country, decades of the century, seasons of the year, days of the week, degree of competition, and course difficulty."

Thanks for clarifying here. It's good to be wrong every once in a while. ;)