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Saturday, January 09, 2010

2010 crystal ball - year preview

2010 sport preview:  The Crystal Ball

We trust the second decade of this century has begun well for all of you, and that your new year's resolutions are still in tact!  So far, it has been a relatively quiet year in sport - there has already been a 2:08 marathon (Feyisa Lilesa of Kenya in China), and a few sports events have taken place around the world.  It seems as good a time as any to bring out the Science of Sport crystal ball, and also lay out what we'll be looking at covering on the site this year!

Tennis - an open season for the men, and a boost in interest for the women

Things hot up over the next few weeks - the Australian Open in Melbourne always produces great drama, and with Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Del Potro and now Davydenko and Soderling all realistic title contenders, the men's tournament promises to be as hot as the weather conditions that often plagues the Aussie tournament!

Even the women's tournament holds some intrigue this year - I say "even" because in the last two or three years, women's tennis really has lost much of the excitement that comes from having big-name players challenging one another regularly with unpredictable outcomes.  The return of Kim Clijsters and now Justine Henin changes that, because you finally know that there are two, perhaps three women (if Maria Sharapova can stay injury-free) who can consistently produce world-class performances and challenge the Williams sisters over the course of a season.  It is a much needed boost for the women's game.

Some science of tennis is on the cards for the tournament, particularly if it is a hot one - there is some great research on pacing strategies in tennis, looking at how the temperature affects the game, and we'll bring you that discussion during the course of the tournament. 

Given how the men's game now has eight men who could beat one another on any day, 2010 will be the most open year since Federer began winning Grand Slam titles in 2003.  Federer was a name on just about everyone's list of the top 5 sports people of the 2000s, and deservedly so.  However, I have to wonder whether we didn't see dominance in the absence of any real competition during the period from about 2003 to 2006, when Rafael Nadal (aged only 20 back then) turned his attention to hard and grass-courts to go with his clay-court dominance.  Remember, the man who Federer most often kept from winning Grand Slam titles in that 3 year stretch was Andy Roddick, and with respect, he's not a name that many would put on a list of great champions.  Was Federer great or was the game at the time in a lull outside of his high standard?  The eternal debate, I guess.

So Federer's monopoly over tennis in the first half of the 2000s was gradually challenged, though his consistency - 22 consecutive semi-finals and at least one Grand Slam win each year since 2003 - has been perhaps his greatest achievement.  Look for the former streak to end in 2010 - at some point this year, Federer will fail to reach a Grand Slam semi-final.  The competition is now too deep, and the gap, once large, is now no longer existent.  In particular, Rafael Nadal will look to 2010 as a year of redemption, especially on the clay, where his 2009 fell away.  Reports from Qatar are that Nadal has worked on flatter, more aggressive ground-strokes to go with his heavy topspin, and if he can successfully implement that more aggressive game, he'll be nearly impossible to beat.  It should be a great year.  I pick Nadal to win 2 grand slams, Djokovic one (the US Open) and the fourth - at Wimbledon, anyone's guess.

Athletics - marathons, Diamond Leagues and world records

Athletics, and road-running, are our staple diet here at the Science of Sport, and so 2010 will feature a great deal of coverage, as always.  The big 5 marathons will be the focus, as always.  Starting with the Boston Marathon on April 18th, the marathon season should produce some amazing racing.  Again, the men's competition looks deeper and stronger than ever, with last year's record of 103 sub-2:10 performances likely to be challenged again.

Wanjiru, Kebede, Gebrselassie, Kibet, and I dare say, two or three names we've not heard of yet, are likely to produce the year's fireworks.  The first shot at a fast time comes in a few weeks in Dubai, where Gebrselassie always begins his year with the Dubai Marathon, his time-trial.  He has pushed for the world record in each of the last two years, and this year should be no different, but whether his aging body (he seems ageless, but surely at some point it must begin!) can produce another sub-2:04, even a 2:05 remains to be seen.  I feel he'll fall short, and then in Berlin, where it seems (for now) that the race against Wanjiru may well happen, we'll see his swansong in the marathon.

Then Boston features the American hopefuls Meb Keflezighi and Ryan Hall against the African contingent - the field is not confirmed just yet, but we'll cover it in detail as the race approaches.  London is the week after, and that's where the fireworks really fly.  Wanjiru, Kebede, and Martin Lel should all be there, looking for a fast time in what is always a race to boot.

Another name spoken of for that race is Zersenay Tadese.  He got burned by the distance in his 2009 debut, but 2010 provides a second chance and surely, with his 10km and half-marathon credentials, he cannot fail at the marathon again.  He may be the next big name over the distance.  It would be difficult to bet against Wanjiru in London, given how he has fared in his last three marathons.  But if Lel is healthy, that will be the race of the year.  Lel is also aging, and 2010 may be his last big year.  I'll pick Lel to win London, but Wanjiru to storm back and win in Berlin.  New York and Chicago - we'll look at those later in the year!  And the world record will survive the year - mid-2:04 will top the world lists.

The athletics season, meanwhile, sees the introduction of the IAAF Diamond League, which replaces the Golden League in 2010.  More high-profile meetings is not a bad thing, provided it ensures head-to-head matchups and races, which is what the sport requires to continue its growth.  Usain Bolt has put athletics right back on the map of public interest with his astonishing performances, but it's the races that the sport needs to sustain the interest - after all, world records cannot continue to fall every race.  Hopefully, the addition of more meetings doesn't spread the talent too thinly and prevent those races.  You can see the calendar of meetings here - the action kicks off in mid-May, and peaks in July, when the meetings come two a week.

The athletics season this year is "unencumbered" by any major international meetings, with the exception of the Commonwealth Games (more on this below).  The big global games this year are the Winter Olympics, in Vancouver, in February, but for the track and field athletes, the absence of a global games means more flexibility in the training and competitive season - no qualification championships, no periods off, no heats and finals, just racing.  That usually means more aggressive approaches to record attempts, particularly in the distance events, so that should be interesting to see.

However, I feel that the cupboard is pretty bare in the distance events, with Kenenisa Bekele so dominant, but I don't think up to the challenge of running 26:15 and 12:35 for 10,000 and 5,000m respectively.  He has stated that his intention is to break the 3,000m and 5,000m records, so perhaps he'll come to the season prepared for it, but I just feel they'll be out of reach.  Those records are now more than 5 years old, and getting back down to 12:35 range after spending 4 years running in the 12:50s is a mighty difficult challenge.  So I think 2010 may well fail to produce a world record.  Maybe the exception will be the 3,000m steeplechase.

In the sprints, it's all about whether Usain Bolt can continue to shine.  There's no reason why he won't, but to continue breaking world records in a year where there is no major final may be asking a little too much.  He'll probably scare the 200m record on more than one occasion, and should produce the most exciting moments of the year, but I would be surprised if we see more than one world record, at most, from the world's most famous athlete.  What will be fascinating will be the match-ups with Tyson Gay, assuming we get them.  Gay ran 9.69 in Shanghai at the end of 2009, and spent much of the season nursing a groin injury.  If fully recovered, he may be closer to Bolt than many think, and if Bolt is not quite at 100%, Gay may well take the win at least once this year.

On the women's side, Tirunesh Dibaba has a 2009 to forget, hampered by injury and poor form, and she'll be one to watch.  I'd pick her to bag a world record in the 5,000m, and be the dominant distance runner of 2010.  In the sprints, Carmelita Jeter ended 2009 running faster than any woman since Marion Jones (we all know how that ended), and it will be interesting to see if she can replicate that in 2010, against the usual combination of Carribean islanders, particularly Shelly-Ann Fraser from Jamaica.

The Commonwealth Games - finding meaning among the "what ifs"

The other big global event of the year (aside from the Winter Olympics) is the Commonwealth Games, in Delhi, in October.  The Commonwealth Games are always a little tricky to interpret or pin down, because in the absence of the USA, South America, Asia and most of Europe, they lack the depth and quality of performance in most events.  Yet they are still one of the largest multi-sports events in the world, and for the nations competing, remain a focal point of the calendar (though for different reasons).

There are some events where the quality is equal to that of the Olympics or World Cups - Rugby Sevens, for example, has long had the Commonwealth Games as its showpiece tournament, and with New Zealand, Fiji, England, Kenya, Australia, South Africa, and Samoa all competing with their strongest teams, the Commonwealth title at rugby sevens is equal in quality to the pinnacle of the sportThe same cannot be said for track and field, or swimming.

The absence of the USA makes sprint events much weaker, and Jamaica tends to send second-tier sprinters (not sure if this will happen in 2010).  The field events, normally dominated by European nations, are considerably weaker, and the distance events have no Ethiopian threat, and Kenya tends to send its junior, second tier athletes.  For swimming, no USA, no China, no France or Japan or eastern European nations means much the same thing.

So October is likely to produce a confusing mixture of excitement and congratulations, but an empty feeling of "what if" for many medal winners, depending on the event (if looked at objectively - those who win always disagree).

Back in 2006, I analysed the performances that won Commonwealth medals (in Melbourne, 2006), and found that they were only 85% to 90% of the level that was required to win medals in the preceding Olympic Games (Athens, 2004).  In other words, you can produce an 85% effort and be Commonwealth champion (and that's two years later).  This was true for swimming and track and field.

What the Commonwealth Games CAN be is a great platform for Olympic preparation, and provided the coaches and sports administrators understand the context of performance, they are valuable as part of the process towards 2012.  However, those who decide they are world-beaters having beaten only the second level of competition miss this chance and end up falling further behind the rest of the world in subsequent years.

That should produce some discussion at the end of the year.

Football (or soccer, if you wish) - the World Cup comes to South Africa

And then finally, how can I not mention the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which happens right here in South Africa in June/July?  The biggest single sporting event on the planet, the World Cup will stop South Africa for a month.  Already, the buzz is huge, the country expectant and giddily optimistic.  I'm sure it will be a success - FIFA would not allow it not to be, to be honest, even if it means stage managing everything. 

Unfortunately, the global football year has gotten off to a terrible, tragic start, with the attack on a Togo team bus in Angola claiming the lives of two men linked to the team - an assistant coach and a spokesman.  The bus was traveling through Angola, where the African Cup of Nations takes place this month, when gunmen opened fire.  There were reports, now being denied, that Togo had withdrawn from the tournament (one can hardly blame them), and other teams questioning whether sport is worth that much risk.  It clearly is not, and the issue of safety in sport is going to be a big one in 2010, particularly around the Commonwealth Games, described above, in India.

Also unfortunately, many have asked questions of Africa's capabilities of hosting the World Cup as a result of this incident.  I must stress that this is a completely unrelated event, that while tragic, should have no bearing at all on South Africa's capacity to host the 2010 World Cup in June.  However, the local committee have had to respond and provide assurances as a result, and in a way, they are 'victims' of their own promotional campaign.

I heard a spokesman for the 2010 World Cup saying that he didn't understand why people were linking the events in Angola with South Africa.  The simple answer is that we've designed it that way - all the talk leading up to 2010 has been that South Africa is merely the stage, but the 2010 World Cup belongs to the African continent.  The organizing committee have been (too) quick to point out that this is Africa's time, Africa's tournament.  So, when the tragic events unfolded in Angola, it was inevitable that people would link them to South Africa - we basically told the world to do this in anticipation.  Sadly, the world listened.  Again, however, those events will have no bearing on the World Cup in SA.

The science of football - our focus

What will have a bearing, or at least, will be discussed, is the science of football performance, including the impact of altitude on football matches.  South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that can host high altitude sports events (2000m) only a few hours away from sea-level competition.  As a result, teams who play at the coast and then have a match at altitude have the eternal problem of how to adapt to the reduced air pressure and oxygen availability.

I am actually presenting on this topic at the ILSI International Conference on Nutrition and Hydration in Football, in Johannesburg in April this year.  My topic is Altitude and football, but the programme includes some well-known researchers in their fields, including Louise Burke (a reader of the site - thanks Louise - speaking on travel and performance), Ron Maughan, and Prof Tim Noakes (speaking on heat and football).  It should be very interesting and will hopefully throw up some great discussion which I'll cover here on the site.  There is a lot of science in football, ranging from injuries to performance to the physiology of elite football players, and given that the World Cup is right here, June will be a good time to cover some of that!

In closing - a very busy year

So that's only four sports to look forward to, with only their surfaces scratched.  There's also cycling, the Tour de France with Contador against Armstrong (which is much like 2009, except this year they'll race against each other, not fling accusations in the media and undermine team leadership on Twitter), plenty of doping I am sure, in all sports.

Doping is a guaranteed topic of discussion in sports, unfortunately.  Perhaps, for the first time, even in boxing, which, until Floyd Mayweather brought it up, had zero interest in doping control.  As someone who follows cycling and running, I find the argument over doing doping controls 14 days before a fight absolutely hilarious, and damaging to the sport.  Boxing should be ashamed of its policies if a request to implement WADA policies is met with such indignation, and all boxers and officials should ask how thousands of sportsmen subject themselves to testing the day of competition, in the middle of stage races, and accept it as part of the requirement to achieve clean competition.  I can only assume that clean competition has never been a concern for the sport.

In the interests of time, I'll stop there.  The crystal ball can't see that much anyway.  Tomorrow, I'll do a brief post just covering one or two ideas for series in 2010, topics of interest and science that can be applied to your training.  We're always looking to improve on our content and style of the site, and so we'll introduce some of that tomorrow.



Gene said...

Look forward to your commentaries and research reports this year.

An article I read recently has got me thinking about something you might be interested in commenting about: which sports does performance doping not occur because it's of little or no use? I don't know to what degree it's a real issue in boxing, but gymnastics and ice skating seem more interested in competitors' birthdates than drugs, and I can't recall hearing anything about it in soccer (football). The subject is another way of defining what it is that drugs do and can't.

Britspin said...

Soccer has a recreational drug reputation & like boxing a poor record of testing, so if you are not looking for something you will not find it, gymnastics? I have no knowledge of..

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Gene

That's a really interesting angle to take.

I suspect that both soccer and gymnastics would have a doping problem, and not just recreational. In soccer, there is a massive benefit to be gained from improved recovery, and because that's really the biggest benefit of doping, I think it would be very prevalent - Growth hormone, EPO and insulin would be used to aid recovery and also strength.

For gymnastics, I don't know enough about the preparation and training, but I suspect that because a great deal of time would be spent on strength and power, it would be much like sprinting or rugby, and therefore doping would aid performance.

Ice-skating? Not so sure. I don't know enough about the sport to say. I'll give some thought to sports where doping would not provide a performance edge for future posts, perhaps. Cricket comes to mind, at least for batsmen.


Gene said...

My question is really about performance related drugs. My sense re the banning of recreational ones is that it has primarily to do with social control/regimentation and PR.

I mentioned gymnastics because, aside from high bar specialists, flexibility and balance are key and not what I understand drugs help provide. Also, at least among the females, they are mostly teens and on a very tight leash.

Has doping been frequent in marathoning? There was the Greek case around the Olympics, but I don't recall hearing of post-event DQs for it. But then I don't follow it as closely as you do.

In a sport such as cross country skiing, the complaint right now is sort of the opposite, about the discrepancy between what test results show and what's actually banned and therefore grounds for suspension. As one official noted, there are 98 varieties of EPO on the black market that fall outside the list.

Doug said...

Ross & Jonathan,

Thanks as always for the interesting content. I'm always interested to see what you'll have to report on next.

One suggestion for the coming year. Give us some Winter Olympic coverage. Maybe a post on how cold affects performance? The impact of ski & skate technology in various sports? Heart rate control & the shooting portion of biathlon? Aerodynamics in the ski jump? Head injuries in hockey players - which has become a big issue in the US due to the football head injury issues.

I know it's outside of your wheelhouse, but I think you could find some interesting new avenues of inquiry in the somewhat quirky sports of the Winter Games.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Gene

Yup, I'm talking about performance enhancing as well. And I do think that gymnastics has a massive potential improvement as a result of doping - you've mentioned the high bar as an exception, but I think all of the disciplines require massive strength. Yes, balance and flexibility and are key, but even the floor routine requires power and strength that is well beyond what most other sports require. The pommel horse would load the shoulders and forearms enormously, and the vault requires speed, explosive power, strength. I can't think of a single discipline that would not benefit from added strength work and hence doping would impact on all of them.

For women, it may be different, you're right, I'd be interested to know. I'll try to find out from some coaches.

Then re the marathoning, I don't know of any major high profile cases either, you're right. It may just be that they get away with it, like cycling did for many years, and like cross-country skiing is doing now, apparently. There have been allegations, especially in the late 90s, early 2000s, about Ethiopian athletes in particular. And some Kenyans, but never proven.

Quite why this is, I don't know. Perhaps it's clean, perhaps it's not tested for stringently enough.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Doug

Absolutely, I'll be trying to cover it. It's difficult for me here in SA, I think we've had one winter Olympian since 1992, but I've already started looking for some research on the sports, and I plan to try my best to cover some of it. I know Jonathan also has access to some people who are involved with the US Olympic team, and so he will have some insights as well (I've only seen snow 3 times in my life...)

I've got some papers on the physiology of downhill skiers and nordic combined athletes, and should be able to find some on sports like bobsled. So hopefully I can cover it a little. It will help if the Games are shown on TV here in SA, which I'm not even sure of yet, but I'll do my best to do something on the Games, even if it is minimal!


Marcos Apene do Amaral said...

What about the triathlon battles? IM sprint decisions must be part of that year preview specially on an year where Lance Amrstrong (the best cyclist triathlon ever produced) is planning a Kona IM, Chrissie Wellington is making history each race she's in, ITU races are brighter and richer and the non-drafting races are as high as in the Mark Allen Dave Scott era! Waiting on your thoughts on the subject, cheers, Marcos

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Marcos

Yup, you're right, we need to cover triathlon more. It's always been a 'hole' in our content, because we cover the running, and the cycling and the swimming independently, but for some reason we've never combined them into triathlon posts!
Part of it is that we have virtually no triathlon on TV here in SA. THe occasional highlights package, but nothing substantial. No live races from overseas, so I'd be speaking as a real armchair expert, which I hate.

But it's high time we did something, so 2010 should be that time. I'm actually planning to do a couple of interviews with triathlon coaches, and I'm also involved with SA Triathlon now, so I'll have more to say, hopefully, in the upcoming year.


Anonymous said...

My point about soccer was that the 'testing' seems to be lax, lacking out of competition & wherabouts testing/notice, the only notice being (it seems from a small matter & Ferdinand a few years ago) told who is coming to test & when, so the testee can inadvertently leave the training ground early...as such I could care if someone is smoking/snorting/whatever but I believe soccer here in the UK puts up the recreational catches as proof the system works, ignoring the contradictory lack of performance enhancing positives.

Britspin said...

Sorry that should be Britspin again not anonymous

Anonymous said...

I'm rather intrigued by the silence in your '10 preview and for that matter, the '09 retrospective about elite womens' marathon results.

elite mens' and womens' times have gone in quite different directions recently. do you think that it's because of a lull due to the combination big names not producing and the absence of newer contenders, or some other reason?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

That's a really great question - the reason it wasn't covered is pretty simple - lack of time, and also the length of the post would have become mammoth!

But it's something we must look at. I mentioned it in single paragraphs once or two in 2009, and Jonathan and I spoke about it during the year, but never got round to post (too little time, so many posts to do!)

I think without question, there are no new contenders, because when you look at the average age of the top 10 finishers, you find that women's races are dominated by women in the late 30s, whereas men are in the early 20s (with the exception of Geb, perhaps).

I have no logical explanation for why this should be. It's not as though Africa is not producing fast young women over shorter distances. Mary Keitany may be the next big thing in the marathon, given how she's going at the half. And then of course there are a couple of Ethiopians who will step up in the next 3 or 4 years, and that should produce fireworks.

But why the dip now, I have no idea. It would make a very interesting analysis - one would have to go all the way back to the late 90s and look at what was happening when Paula Radcliffe began and then track whether the depth was not present, or whether athletes avoided the marathon because of her, who knows?

I will give it some thought!


Anonymous said...

Cite: "Remember, the man who Federer most often kept from winning Grand Slam titles in that 3 year stretch was Andy Roddick, and with respect, he's not a name that many would put on a list of great champions." Roddick has won twice against Federer but never at a Grand Slam.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

To anonymous:

Your point is? I don't follow....

So he's beaten him twice. How many has he lost, especially in finals? A lot more. And without Federer, Roddick would have been the eras (1999 to about 2004) greatest player.