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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sports news and sports science in the news

Sports variety – tennis insights, athletics anticipation and Caster Semenya viewpoints

It’s been a frantic few weeks in the world of sport. Sadly, our schedules have prevented us from doing it justice! I am now in the UK for two weeks, and likely to have as little time, but while I had a moment on a flight, I thought I’d recap on some of the bigger sports events of late, and some sports science/management issues that struck me.

Tennis – the red clay and Nadal back on top and finally, some analysis using technology

The clay-court tennis season is building to its usual Roland Garros climax, and it has been a return to 2008 in the men’s game. Rafael Nadal had a relatively poor season in 2009. His year began unraveling in Madrid last year, where he lost convincingly to Roger Federer before going on to lose for the first time ever in Paris. This year, there was to be no repeat, as he beat Federer in straight sets to win in Madrid, becoming the first man to win three consecutive Masters Series events (having won Monte Carlo and Rome earlier this year).

What I found most interesting was an analysis shown during the final using tennis’ Hawkeye system. It showed where Nadal’s groundstrokes were landing in Federer’s half of the court, and where Federer was standing when hitting his strokes in return. This is data that is obtained from the Hawkeye system, and it is an illustration of just how powerful this technology could be if it was used to enhance the viewing experience.

Alas, this was the only time I’ve seen such an analysis, and what it showed was a comparison of Nadal’s shot depth in 2009, when he was beaten by Federer, and 2010, when he won at the same event. To sum up, in 2009, 32% of Nadal’s shots were landing inside the service box. As a result of this lack of depth to Nadal’s shots, Federer was hitting most of his shots from on or inside the baseline. Jump to 2010, and only 18% of Nadal’s shots were landing inside the service area, and Federer was playing from 1m behind the baseline, and up to 3 m behind the baseline at least a third of the time.

Was this a difference caused by Nadal’s relative fitness levels (last year his knee problem was hampering his mobility and power), or was it that Federer was either more negative or off his game on the day? Nadal has certainly worked on his game – I often felt (guided by good commentary, I must admit) that Nadal had a problem of going for too much topspin, which tended to drag the ball down short. He also fell into defensive play easily, especially in pressure situations. This year, there has been a clear effort to play more directly and maintain the depth, and perhaps this is responsible for the shift in Sunday’s final.

You’d need more data to investigate this fully, but I found the analysis fascinating. I wish it were done more. I actually emailed the company Hawkeye last year to ask whether I could obtain some of the data, I offered to analyze it for them. They wrote back to say they don’t keep it. Which is clearly not true, given what they showed on Sunday. Their lack of vision of their own potential is tennis fans’ loss.

Athletics – Diamond league kicks off

On a more positive note regarding broadcast and sport, the Diamond League began in Doha last week, and the TV package was definitely improved. Shorter, fewer breaks, and very helpfully, real-time graphics showing who was in the groups of the middle-distance races made watching it more interesting. Particularly for those who don’t follow the sport, watching middle and long-distance events can be daunting, but to “personalize” the athletes, simply by flashing up graphics of where they are in the race at say 1,000m helps a great deal. It’s a simple thing, but hopefully a sign of more to come.

On the track, the action was hot. So were conditions – up above 30 degrees, but the performances didn’t seem too affected. Eliud Kipchoge produced a 12:51.21 over 5,000m, maybe the most impressive performance, given the heat. David Rudisha of Kenya continued to show impressive form, running a 1:43.00 in the 800m for men. On the other end of the distance spectrum, Asafa Powell was impressive in his heat (9.75s) and the final (9.81s with a very poor start) to win the men’s 100m. Powell was impressive, but I was struck by what I felt was a peculiar running style. He seemed to really be reaching out for the landing in front of him. Imagine a horse doing dressage and kicking out in front and you have the idea. Maybe Powell has analyzed Bolt’s 100m races, and noted that Bolt takes 41 steps while everyone else was taking 44, and he has developed a plan to increase his stride length! I’m being partly facetious here, but certainly Powell does seem to have changed something mechanically. His hamstring contraction at the end of the float phase and during the first moments of ground contact must be enormously powerful to the leg back before toe-off. Or am I alone in noticing this?

Powell’s performance was followed only 2 days later by a Tyson Gay 19.41 s world record in the rarely run 200m straight race in Manchester. Reports are that Gay ran the 100m from 50m to 150m of the race in 8.72 seconds, which is about as fast as Bolt when he broke the 150m record last year. Gay also broke 45 seconds for 400m recently, becoming the first man in history to crack 10 seconds for the 100m, 20 seconds for the 200m and 45 seconds over 400m, and he is clearly in great shape at the start of 2010.

The third member, and the most illustrious of this sprinting triumvirate, Usain Bolt, is in action tomorrow. He has already reportedly run a 8.79 s relay leg (reportedly) and so all three big guns seem ready to fire this year! Already, only a few weeks in, and 2010 is looking like a magnificent year for sprinting!

Caster Semenya – Tim Noakes’ view

On another athletics note, the Caster Semenya story is drifting slowly and mercilessly towards its own climax. First, Lamine Diack, President of the IAAF, announced that results were certain to be released by the end of June (this was not news as much as it was confirmation of what has been said for a while now).

And then just this last weekend, Prof Tim Noakes, who I have the highest respect for as my PhD supervisor and now employer, was reported to have said that Semenya was the victim of an “image management campaign”, and that she should be allowed to compete since her advantage did not make her as fast as men.

He was quoted as saying “As many as eight intersex women may have been expelled from athletics in the past and I gather that they were warned that if they made a fuss, they would be exposed. So it seems it's not about athletic advantage, it's about keeping the Olympics free of unwanted complications. It sends the message that women must do what men say and if the eight athletes had to be sacrificed, so be it, which I find very disturbing,"

He goes on to say “My view is that Caster Semenya should be allowed to run. She is not running as fast as men nor is she running as fast as some other women. If she was running 1:41, then we would have a problem. There are some genetic variants allowed in sport. I would argue, for example, that Usain Bolt is genetically different. If these genetic variants are linked to gender, then so be it”.

I agree with Noakes on the image management issue and that athletes may have been threatened before. The management of the whole intersex issue has been an absolute disaster for sports authorities. There is without doubt an agenda to keep the image of the sport “clean” (whatever that means – it’s open to interpretation). Whether it is driven by male chauvinism, financial pressure, archaic thinking, I don’t know. I would say, somewhat in defence of the IAAF and IOC, that if they did not act, then they would undoubtedly face objections to Semenya’s participation, and many (possibly most) would come from women. So the IAAF, as the custodian of the sport, is in a difficult situation, where they have to act on behalf all parties, and from this perspective, it is very much about athletic advantage because that would be the basis for the challenges and complaints by others. As many would be unhappy with inaction as are currently unhappy, though for different reasons, which some will disregard as trivial.

As for the second issue, Semenya’s eligibility to compete, I have already written a great deal on this topic, in particular the argument that any genetic advantage that Semenya possesses is analogous to that possessed by an Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. To read that post, click here. My position is that the two are dissimilar because we don’t compete in categories of fast-twitch fiber or enzyme type or lung volume or foot size (or whatever you believe makes Bolt and Phelps the world record holders). We do however compete as males and females, and thus the distinction between the two should be defended. A genetic advantage that pushes an individual from one category into another is not the same as one which moves an individual up or down within the same category.

Consider basketball. People are largely born to play it, because if you’re 1.70m tall, your chances are slim. But we don’t compete in categories of height, and so within the “open population”, we accept that height is advantageous. If we had a category for under 1.70m, then the line would have be enforced, and a genetic “abnormality” causing someone to be tall would exclude them from competing at the lower level. The same goes for male and female.

So I respectfully disagree with the assertion that gender variants linked to gender are acceptable. And this is fine, because everyone is entitled to a position and I certainly don’t think that Prof Noakes is wrong. This is not a matter for which there is overwhelming proof (even the PIstorius controversy has mountains of proof compared to this). Nor is his opinion an isolated one – many will agree with it. I just don’t see the issue that way.

I also would not agree that there is no problem with her participating, just because she is running slower than 1:41 (which is the men’s record, by the way). My position here is that she runs against women, and so whether an advantage pushes her into the men’s range is irrelevant. The issue is that it pushes her out of the women’s range, and well into a higher percentile of men’s performance than women can achieve, without suspicious circumstances.

As for not running faster than some other women, if you look at the history of women’s 800m running, and you see some of the women who have run 1:54 or faster, you’ll appreciate that only women with massive amounts of testosterone (that is, dopers) get to those levels. I am sure Prof Noakes and I will debate this one in due course, and I look forward to it! We’ve discussed it before, and so I wasn’t surprised by the quotes, just as I’m sure he knows my views. This kind of debate is the fuel of research, after all. I suspect the difference in opinion is because I am coming from an athletics paradigm, where he is speaking from outside it. Nevertheless, an intriguing viewpoint.

Upcoming events

As I said upfront, I’m in London, with the SA Sevens team for the last two events of the International Rugby Board Sevens Series. At some point, when the science and sports world is a little quiet, I will look at the commercial failures of rugby to capitalize on the Sevens product, and what a shame it is that the Unions and the International body have failed to recognize that they posses rugby’s equivalent of 20-over cricket. It would revolutionize the game, but for the lack of desire and vision of those driving it forward commercially. Meanwhile, the 15-man version of rugby is suffering through a recession of interest and money, based on TV figures and financial reports, as clutter and competition detract from rugby’s following everywhere but in the UK and South Africa.

Failure to act may bring to those exactly what is deserved for inaction, but that is for another day, another post, on the management of sport.

There’s the FIFA 2010 World Cup to look forward to – 24 days to go, and much science to be discussed there. Plus, with the Diamond League now on the go, athletics will take centre stage!

Apologies again for the snippets today, but hopefully one of the three stones hits a bird!

Chat soon!



Anonymous said...

Comparable tennis stats has been shown occasionally before. It is interesting plus for us fans. But actually as important as that lenght of Nadal´s balls was their bounce height. Previously Nadal has caused problems to Federer´s backhand with high bounce. Now he made it risky for Federer to attack even with his forehand because of high bounce. Madrid is some 600 meters above sea level and that has an effect on bounce. I´ve also heard that Nadal has changed racket strings and new strings help him to achieve more spin and bounce.
Federer used also this high bounce effect and avoided it in some cases by just putting ball from height as a short slice stopper. All in all match was a very high level contest and even. Players won same number of points but Nadal won some more crucial ones, including that bad bounce ball in a decisive match-ball.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Thanks for the comments. Good points.

I remember once seeing a Hawkeye graphic of where Federer was hitting the ball from a front-on view, showing this issue of high bounce, especially to the backhand. Sadly, we don't see these kinds of graphics often enough for my liking.

Thanks for the other insights, very good points. Regarding the altitude, I'd have thought it would favour Federer because of the pace of the ball, rushing Nadal more and negating some of the clay-court advantage.

It was a good match, very tight, and as you say, it was won because of the timing of when points were won. I look forward to a rematch in Paris, if Federer can negate the many Spanish challengers likely to stand in his way! I guess the same goes for Nadal! Not forgetting the Latvian, Swede, Brit, Serb and so forth!


George Beinhorn said...

With respect - love the blog - can't agree with Dr. Noakes (to whom all runners should be eternally grateful - an expansive creative thinker and scientist). If I'm not mistaken, Semenya's VERY unusual physiology gives her VERY unusual amounts of male hormones that give her a VERY large advantage over women who fall within the norm (+/- what?). Sorry, I don't buy the argument that people's feelings should weigh more heavily than their unfair advantage over others. If Semenya sets records, they will evoke the inevitable thought forever: "Yeah - with testosterone doping." By any reasonable definition, it is an unfair advantage. What matters in sports? It comes down to the individual, doesn't it? What's "good" is expansion of personal awareness, which always delivers a corresponding extra shot of joy. How depressing will it be for other athletes, who fall within the norm, to work as hard as they can, only to be trumped by a new (and perhaps growing) race of female athletes who have testicles?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Boris,

Thanks for your comment here.

You do not need to apologize for not agreeing with Prof Noakes. Although we studied under him and although Ross still works for UCT, the opinions we express here are entirely our own.

So it is entirely acceptable to disagree with him without disrespecting us or the site.

The important part of your comment is that bit about sport being about the individual and enhancing personal awareness. That is why people everywhere ultimately engage in sports---it is a form of self expression that helps us discover and push personal boundaries and identify ourselves.

The really interesting debate around this issue is what Ross mentioned above, that although Semenya should be treated with dignity and although previously athletes may have been the victims of mistreatment under the guise of a "grander" issue, at the end of the day the IAAF must navigate this situation for the best of the sport.

Admittedly, that is a huge ask, and I do not envy them in any way right now, because whatever their decision they are going to get ripped apart by one side or the other of the argument, no matter what the final decision is. In that way it is a "no-win" situation, although I think that making a decision, whatever it is, and moving forward is the best thing they can do right now.

Either way, this is going to be a historical debate, and an issue that we will not forget about soon. But as Ross mentioned, this is the fuel of scientific research, and these kinds of debates serve only to advance our understanding by forcing us to think and analyse the issues and concepts.

Thanks again for your comment!

Kind Regards,

Farid said...

on Semenya....
I think it fair that she be allowed to race simply because there are no rules as to what the genetic limits are for distinguishing between someone who is just physiologically gifted and someone who possesses an "unfair" advantage, whatever that may be.

However, this issue will never rest until the IOC, IAAF and so forth make a concerted effort to draw boundaries for physiological traits.

There are over 10 scientifically established indicators for gender. Until these various organizations rigorously analyze which ones are implicated in athletic performance and what the boundaries are/can be, there will forever be a debate as to the unfairness in a sport.

Considering how far science as a whole has come today, it's foolish that inroads have not been made to clarify this issue. The entire farce surrounding Semenya is proof of this. It detracts from the sport, it affects individuals, and it sheds negative light on institutions when they try and save face by lying to the public.

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Oliver said...


With all due respect to your involvement in the Rugby 7's, we just can't see the point of it.
I am sure there is some good commercial value in it, there will always be people with shorter attention spans that want to see people running the length of the field continuously and measure the exitement by the amount of tries per minute.

However, despite the series being live on Pay TV, none of my rugby following friends seem to even watch one of it, yet they follow the S14 fastiduously, sitting up to 5am on Sunday mornings.
Rugby (real 15 man rugby) has really blossomed this year with one of the best S14 comps yet, and 6 teams in running for finals in last week.
Looking forward to the finals starting this weekend...you should rather be at Newlands, a short walk from your office.

Just my view from a fan perspective (and I am by no means speaking for myself who would rather tape the games to watch at a decent hour).
Yes, 7's takes rugby to more of the non-rugby countries, but hasn't rugby always only been strong in the countries you mention?


Anonymous said...

Hi Ross,

I'm glad you noticed the change in Asafa Powell's stride, I watched the 9.81 the other day and I was really surprised how jerky and forced Asafa's stride looked - particularly on the left side. My first thought was maybe he had changed some mechanics because of his previous injury problems.

I feel he's been trying to switch from a fluid sprinter to a power sprinter for a couple of years now (he's definitely bulkier than back in 2006/7), but the change in style seem very marked in Doha.

Thanks again for all your insight on this website, as a hobby runner, a big athetics fan and an avid tennis watcher, it doesn't get much better for me!

Robin, UK

Frans Rutten said...

Pamelo Jelimo continued today in Daegu her international come-back after a dramatic 2009 season.

She finished 2nd in 2:01.52.

I always suggested, that Semanya's case cannot be seperated (sort of entanglement) from Jelimo's case.

Apparently Jelimo's case is cleared.


I agree 100% on what your saying on the Semenya issue, well said!

Zoe Brain said...

Testosterone is not magic.

If someone lacks the cellular receptors to make them sensitive to it, then they can be shot full of the stuff and it will have no effect.

Ms Semenya, if reports are accurate, appears to have high-grade partial androgen insensitivity. Meaning that she's not completely immune to it - hence her slightly anomalous appearance - but is mostly immune.

This is about appearance, and yes, how others feel. I'm sure that, not so long ago, there would have been many objections in SA to any black female competing against normal, which is to say white, girls.

Then again, I'm Intersexed, so am unable to be completely objective here. Any more than a Black South African treated like this in the 60's would be "objective" about it.

Zoe Brain said...

At the risk of being repetitious - we've seen this kind of thing before. Athletes, and sports officials, objecting to those who looked insufficiently feminine by their standards, regardless of inherent advantage - or lack thereof.

Remember what was said back in the 1940's:

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.’ ”.

He was referring to all African women, who were not deemed "feminine enough" for the standards of the time in comparison with their white counterparts. And he was mocking those who objected to competing against them.

I'm all in favour of any athletic boycott of Ms Semenya.In fact, I'd help the boycotters by placing lifetime bans on each and every one of them, so they don't run the risk of having to compete against the genetically impure. Those like me.