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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Olympic Thoughts and looking ahead

Some thoughts on Vancouver 2010

It has been a quiet period here on the site, in spite of the Winter Games which I have been watching as much as I can.  Lectures and students are demanding masters, and although the  good news is that our enrollment in Kinesiology is up (over 700 students now), the "bad" news is that I get my fair share of those students, 150 to be exact, which in turn means plenty of contact hours per week plus marking lab reports and exams.  Combine that with Ross's hectic travel and work schedule with the SA Rugby Sevens team, and the result is low frequency of posts and analyses!  But mid-terms are finishing up and Ross is back in Cape Town, so we hope to be returning to a more regular output very soon.  In the mean time let's start with some thoughts on Vancouver 2010!

History, both real and fabricated

Often times the stories  that come with the Olympics compete with the games themselves, and this year was no exception to this.  It started tragically with the death of Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was killed during a training run just a few hours prior to the opening ceremony.  Thankfully this is an extremely rare event with the list of deaths containing only seven athletes since 1912.  (This excludes the 11 Israeli athletes who were killed by a Palestinian group in Munich in 1972.)

The "fabricated" historical events then lead the way, with everything from the "most medals by a [enter nationality here]" to most golds to most medals over most games to whatever category one can dream up.  Admittedly, it is interesting to know some of these stories as for some countries the medal drought has been particularly long and sustained, and knowing that an athlete has just won the first medal for his or her country in 36 years adds a more human aspect to the performance.

The Vonn rope-a-dope?

Anyone watching in the USA is likely suffering from Lindsey Vonn fatigue.  She gets mentioned any time alpine skiing is the topic and I feel she lays it on pretty thick in her interviews.  Going into the games it was all doom and gloom as she claimed to a have serious shin bruise that would hamper her chances of even competing.  However when it came time to perform she won gold in the downhill by 0.5 s, which is quite a margin, before going on to claim bronze in the Super G.  One has to ask if she exaggerated the effect of the bruise to psych out her competitors, because how can her status go from questionable to start to winning by half a second?  Is she so much better than the others that even injured she beats them handily?  Tactic or not, she was successful and might still pick up a medal or two in her remaining events.

On the topic of alpine skiing, seldom does a sport demonstrate the tiny differences between athletes at the top.  The margins of victory are often  in the hundredths of seconds, and one has to ask how on earth you make up 0.04 s in that event.  It seems that even the smallest mistake, a missed edge somewhere, or a barely noticeable mistake on a landing from a jump, is the difference between gold and silver.  And this brings up an interesting aspect of high performance sport and the management of athletes and performance.

Assumption:  Everyone trains hard

Going into the high-profile events we have to assume that the top five athletes are all "equal," meaning they are all talented, trained hard and long, and are all motivated to win and believe they can win.  Of course the results do not reflect this equality as we never see ties and in the end someone walks away with gold.  So we have to look at how to gain an advantage at this very top of the sport, and to that we look to other intangibles outside of physical training, such as the role of management and sports psychology.  Our resident maven Jim Ferstle sent us this article that highlights the role of sports psychology.  I suspect the different techniques and methods the sports psychologists use are as varied and diverse as the athletes in the Olympic village.  The take-home message is not that one has to believe in oneself to win, although that is certainly a prerequisite for success.  Rather, the message is that that at the top of any sport the opportunities to separate yourself from the competition are small and rare, and any approach that can indeed produce some degree of separation is beneficial.

No dopers caught---yet

Over halfway thru the games and not one positive test has been returned, and this brings the normal cries of triumph (mostly by the IOC)  that the games are clean.  Nothing could be farther from the truth and by now we hope our readers understand fully that the number positive tests is in no way related to the number of athletes doping, because by now we have enough evidence of athletes who have admitted to doping without ever being caught, as well as national federations covering up positive tests.  However there is now a test for human growth hormone, and in fact English rugby player Terry Newton tested positive in November and has been banned.  We do not know much about the details of this test, and no one knows if it will be used on the samples from Vancouver, so perhaps down the line we will see some positives as the games end.

Looking ahead:  Marathon season abounds

Seeing as it is already the end of February, we can start anticipating the spring marathon season which will kick off with the Boston Marathon on 19 April and London one week later.  Those are still some weeks off, but watch for favorites to start testing themselves in shorter races in March as they finish up their training.  You can be sure we will cover these events with what has become our standard live splits and immediate post-race analysis.

For now enjoy the last few days of competition in Vancouver!



Tucker Goodrich said...

In defense of Mrs. Vonn, I watched an analysis of her gold-medal run, and the analyst pointed out how at some moments she was clearly favoring the injured shin and at one point was actually skiing on only one ski to avoid putting pressure on the injured shin. That's a pretty elaborate performance to try to put on!

I'm a skiier myself, and the notion that she could win a gold medal with that sort of injury is pretty mind boggling. She deserves an extra dollop of credit in my book.

Sean in NY said...

Not to pile on, as Tuck has already defended Vonn, but I had another perspective on it. Vonn is heralded as perhaps the best women skier ever, not just from the USA. With that in mind, we could compare her to the likes of Michael Jordan, perhaps the best basketball player ever. I'm then reminded of Michael Jordan's stomach virus that was supposed to keep him from a game 5 appearance vs. the Utah Jazz.

It reminded me that the most elite athletes, even at 50%, can often outperform other elite athletes and rise to meet the challenges in front of them. Perhaps Vonn played the injury up some, but I'd hazard to say that even at less than 100% she could still handily beat the majority of her competition.

Jordan article - http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/espn25/story?page=moments/79

Howard said...

Great to read your insight into the games, and good luck with that work load - I am sure the students appreciate it!

Mark Boen said...

To pile it on, I believe the announcers mentioned that Vonn was the only woman, at least during the downhill race, that was using men's skis.

Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that her injury is some kind of phony stunt to throw off her competitors. It would be way too risky to get caught in that lie.

She almost won every World Cup downhill this season for pete's sake.

Julie said...

Well, heck, I'll pile on. I also caught that bit about Vonn being the only woman to use men's skis. Apparently it takes significant strength to handle them. I tend to think of Vonn as the Paula Radcliffe of skiing: an outlier or genetic freak of some sort that no one can currently equal.

Steven Sashen said...

I'm not sold on "sports psychology." Human beings, when presented with uncontrollable outer circumstances, look to manipulate instead what's closest to them -- their behavior and thoughts (to the extent that one can manipulate either). From this, we find athletes that are remarkably superstitious.

The athletes I know (other than myself) who have kept logs about how they felt, what they were thinking, levels of "confidence," and performance, have found the same thing I have: no correlation.

Some days, I feel great and I can't move my legs. Other days I'm literally physically ill and I set a new personal best.

I can't imagine there are well-designed studies that demonstrate the efficacy of any one of the numerous techniques used under the umbrella of sports psychology.

When a number of athletes are equally talented, when any one of them could win on "any given Sunday," it's nice to think that some inner cause lead to the outer effect of winning... but that's usually just hindsight bias.

Apolo Ohno is an interesting example, in a way. Prior to the games, in interviews, he was supremely confident, not only of his physical conditioning, but of his "head" (which he referred to repeatedly). In this case, his results in the 500m matched his self-reported level of inner and outer preparedness... but only because a minor physical error by the Koreans put him on the medal stand.

Are we really prepared to say that the Koreans weren't as "psychologically prepared" rather than that they simply made a minor mistake, which happens all the time, that had major consequences?

MJ said...

In terms of what seperates the top 5 in a skiing event I have to think while sports pyschology plays a role there are other equally important differences. For instance, the course itself is subject to a fair amount of variation. The changes in light/shadows and snow condition from the beginning of the competition until the end seems like it might be an equally important factor. Of course some of the skiing events control for this aspect in the second run, but not all of the competitions (correct?).

This seems like one of disadvantages to having athletes not competing directly head to head. Any small differences in course conditions may contribute to the outcome.

steve.d.runner said...

These are Olympians who can stay focussed through substantial pain. Just look at Petra Majdic who broke 4 ribs and still skiied 4 heats and won the Bronze in X-Country Skiing... while severely injured. If the injury is non functional, unlike a torn muscle needed in the event, the pain part can be overcome. This just makes these (Vonn's and Majdic's) performances that much more incredible!

Gene said...

Anyone who's watched a top-level tennis tournament, or golf tournament on Sunday, especially one of the majors, won't doubt the role of individual psychology in sports. It's obvious on screen, and the announcers - often previous champions themselves - remind viewers of it repeatedly. No one - and certainly not Jonathan or Ross - would claim that the mental aspect is all that's involved in winning or consistent top-level performance. But the ability to put oneself in a position to win, and then to pull it off - or at least do all one can - requires a mindset that is not uniformly distributed across the population. When many competitors have the same talent, training and equipment, that mindset typically separates the winners from the losers on any given day. And, in the case of athletes such as Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Shaun White, on a regular basis.

Sean in NY said...

Gene, I think you're right about giving credit to someone's mindset for their primary levels of success, as opposed to physical attributes being the reason, but for the wrong reasons.

It's not a fair generalization to say that elite athletes have the same talent and training as one another. They don't. Having the right mindset fuels athletes to train harder and smarter. Once a higher level of fitness/talent is achieved, the athlete can then amend their mindset so to push even further. There is this necessary give-and-take relationship between the two.

Bode Miller (right now) is a great example of an ideal mindset coupled with a physically inferior body. While he may be a much smarter and more tactical skier, his fitness ended up being the limiting factor in a few of his runs. Yet, he still proved he could be successful just the same in some other events.

In closing, I think it's wrong to say your mind-set is what separates two equally trained athletes b/c the fallacy is that they are equally trained to begin with. The one with the stronger mindset, all things considered, would undoubtedly prevail b/c of their progressive interplay between mental and physical achievement. Your thoughts?

Gene said...

Sean, humans have a tendency to go back after the fact and pick a variable or two that seems to differentiate the winner from the rest and claim that was the cause (a lot of religious conviction also uses this form of logic). "They trained harder" is a common one. And sometimes that really is the separator. But is it usually the case? The fact is - and TV announcers and coaches who were champions themselves say this all the time - that at the top levels in most sports athletes are pretty much doing the same level of training and practice, have the same commitment, and have similar skill levels. Even key physiological factors, such as VO2max capacity in endurance sports, are typically similar. Yes, there are exceptions in this regard - Norwegian x-c skier Bjorn Daehlie's VO2 max of 96 comes to mind (Lance Armstrong achieved something similar for a cyclist). But even having such a gift from one's parents is not enough: it takes drive, i.e., the right personality generally and in particular the ability to deal with stress in competition, that allows such individuals to get the most out of what they're given. We hear all the time about athletes who train or practice hard and have 'more talent in their little finger than the others combined,' but when it comes down to crunch time have great difficulty winning. That's mental - and, if you're close enough, they'll tell you so.

Sean in NY said...

Gene, I definitely appreciate your respect for the mental side of things. However, I can't help but disagree with your belief that mental and physical preparation can stand that far apart from one another in their effects on elite athletes.

You seem to have fallen victim to your own reasoning and have chosen "mental toughness" as your quick answer to why some people succeed more than others (similar to the "I succeeded b/c it was God's will" argument).

It's irresponsible to use such wild generalizations as "all top athletes are at about the same fitness level," as well as, "all fat people are equally out of shape." If you were to ever hang around a group of elite athletes and/or coaches of elite athletes, you will surely realize that while the gap between physical/mental talent/toughness is much finer, it still very much exists.

Mental and physical progression go hand in hand, and they compliment one another. The drive and ability to deal with stress in competition (that you mentioned) does not come from sitting on the couch. As most athletes know, it is accumulated and built-upon each time you lace up your shoes, hop on the bike, or get in the pool. You train yourself to be mentally tough by putting in the work and suffering through workouts.

And with that training comes new physical achievement... and with that new physical achievement comes new expectations... and with those expectations comes more training, more suffering, and more mental toughness. It's a cycle, Gene. The two are inextricably linked, and that is what proves to be the difference, even when it's ever so slight, between elite athletes.

Sam, Dawg Fan said...

Not sure how mentioning that someone has won the first medal for his/her country in the winter games or an event is fabricated history.

I have had the pleasure of meeting many athletes and knowing some sport psych folks. Many athletes take advantage of the skills the sport psych folks teach and are successful with them. A good sport psych person deals with the individuals. Also pretty hard to do a study on elite athletes since a control group of elite athletes would be hard to come up with.

As for Vonn, there is no mystery on how she has performed. She was one of the best female skier's coming into the Games. The weather delays gave her time to heal. With an injury you get better over time (and with treatment) and then one day you are good to go. She was favoring that leg in many places.

As for no positives for doping, you have to keep in mind that many Olympic hopefuls were caught for doping prior to the Games and thus did not even arrive in Vancouver. Not so say that no dopers are there, just that out of competition testing or testing at other events caught many folks.

Anonymous said...

So sorry to have to inform you, 30 athletes were kicked out prior to the olympics.


I think it is safe to say those athletes were either dumb or unlucky in regards to their doping program.

I suspect another dozen detections announced well after the Olympics, none of whom got medals. The TdF does it like this. They are happy to adjust daily finish results by eliminating dopers, but mysteriously the top-5 in GC *never* dope any more...

Unknown said...

Thanks for the great debate and posts.

Anonymous, to say "Mysteriously the top-5 in GC *never* dope any more..." is surely a big call.

Remember that certain TDF winner that got caught, it was not so long ago!

Surely cycling authorities cant be accused of covering up doping(at least not more than other sports) after the last few years of high profile cases?

Zoe Brain said...

To give an idea of the medical conservatism - some would say eccentricity - in the IOC:

In 2005, Gian Franco Kasper, FIS president and a member of the IOC, said that he didn't think women should ski jump because the sport "seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view."

One little problem with that. The evidence.
Lindsey Van holds the record — among both men and women — for the longest jump off of Whistler, B.C.'s normal ski jump, built for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The 25-year-old skier trains six days a week, 11 months a year and has been jumping for the past 19 years. But when games kick off on Feb. 12, the 2009 women's ski jumping world champion will be nowhere in sight. That's because women aren't allowed to ski jump in the Olympics.

Women agitated to be included in the 2002 winter Olympics. And again in the 2006 ones. And yet again this year.

Here's the IOC's petulant response:
So will the IOC approve women's ski jump for 2014? "We'll have to wait and see," IOC member Dick Pound said in an interview for an MSNBC.com documentary on women's ski jumping, Frozen Out of the Olympics. "If in the meantime you're making all kinds of allegations about the IOC and how it's discriminating on the basis of gender," he warned, "the IOC may say, 'Oh yeah, I remember them. They're the ones that embarrassed us and caused us a lot of trouble of trouble in Vancouver, maybe they should wait another four years or eight years.'"

Given how embarrassing to the IOC the existence of Caster Semanya is, I don't expect the IOC to be particularly swift in acting on her case. And she better make no comments about her treatment.

I wonder if Mrs Vonn will now face an investigation into her biology too?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Zoe

Really interesting comment, thank you for raising that.

First off, Lindsey Vonn won't face an investigation into her biology, no. In fact, I hate to say it, your bringing that up as an almost petulant shot across the bow is the lowlight of an otherwise well thought out post. Why would they? You imply that the IOC have one agenda - the discrimination against women. And I don't believe this is the case.

having said that, I did a bit of reading on the ski-jumping issue and it is a bizarre case. I can't find any reference as to why the IOC feel that women should not compete - and please don't respond by saying that it's a simple case of discrimination. In the past, when people have discriminated, it's because of stupidity or ignorance, but it's always been grounded by some real perception. For example, when women were not allowed to run marathons, it was because they were deemed physically too weak. Of course, the men were wrong, and they've been proved to be, but they did have a reason. It just happened to be an ignorant one.

So I'm wondering on what basis they have decided that women should not ski jump? What is the "medical point of view" that they're thinking of, however wrong it might be (and I do believe it is wrong - the best ski jumpers are usually pretty small guys, and I don't believe that absolute strength is a crucial part of ski jumping success. Van's record is testament to that).

In any event, hopefully they can have it pushed through, there's really no reason, scientifically or medically, that I can see to exclude anyone from ski jumping.

As for Semenya, I think you're mixing your issues. Completely separate debate - the Semenya issue is not a debate on women's eligibility to participate, it's about one woman. And I still maintain you should be asking other women how they feel about that one, not representing them collectively.


Sam, Dawg Fan said...

There is no serious rationale for excluding women from ski jumping and I predict it will added in 2014.

At one time the argument was that it was not widely practiced (even within sports with winger sports culture). However, I believe evidence was presented to the IOC showing competitor numbers in a variety of women's sports that were fewer than in ski jumping. BTW, the FIS was suppportive so that helps a lot.

Zoe Brain said...

So I'm wondering on what basis they have decided that women should not ski jump? What is the "medical point of view" that they're thinking of

Because they might damage their ovaries.

No, I'm not joking.

Not that there's any actual evidence of this, but the same belief was held about women running marathons.

The argument that running the marathon or ski jumping could damage women’s ovaries and lead to infertility is also deeply rooted in the historical oppression of women. The need to protect women’s health from harm was one of the reasons that women where initially barred from higher education in the 1800s. An article called “Early College Women: Determined to be Educated” cited one influential medical professional in particular: Some of the harshest were medical personal who felt that
“…a girl could study and learn, but she could not do all this and retain uninjured health, and a future secure from neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, and other derangements of the nervous system,” according to Dr. Edward Clark in his widely respected Sex and Education published in 1873.


I tend to dismiss such claims about "generalised oppression" of women. That's not the object of the men who do it, far from it. The object is to protect the poor silly dears from hurting themselves, as they don't know any better.

I'll try to re-locate some of the IOC delegates remarks (e.g. those of Norman Cox) about allowing black women to compete in the Olympics after 1948, as they were obvious hermaphrodites, lacking the well-rounded curves of Europeans. Oh yes, here's some. Source.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, when African-American women began to excel in track and field, their success
was seen through a mainstream prism of success in a “mannish” sport and reinforced disparaging
In the late 1940s, an Olympic official, Norman Cox, sarcastically proposed that in the case of black women,
“The International Olympic Committee should create a special category of competition for them — the
unfairly advantaged ‘hermaphrodites’ who regularly defeated ‘normal women,’ those less skilled ‘child bearing’ types with ‘largish breasts, wide hips and knocked knees.’ ”

Anyone familiar with the history of women in sport would be aware of this kind of rubbish that we've faced. And continue to face.

Ms Vonn of course will not face a sex-test, regardless of any actual physical advantage she may have. She's too pretty, and it's all about appearances.

One of the recommendations by an expert in Miami was that all female athletes should send her photos, and she would decide based solely on their feminine appearance whether further testing was required.

I think that on the evidence, at least some members of the IOC take the scope of "conservatism" beyond rational bounds. Superstition substitutes for Science.

Since the issue seems to be about "not upsetting the others", anyone with an actual genetic advantage is allowed through as long as they look feminine enough, but anyone who appears too masculine will be required to have "treatment" (for their own good of course) before being allowed to continue.

I took some convincing of this myself. But having read what has been said in the past, sometimes the recent past, by some (emphasis some) in the IOC, I don't see any other conclusion is possible.