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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sportswoman of 2010: Chrissie Wellington

Chrissie Wellington: Moving Ironman triathlon forward
and some interesting male-female comparisons of where she lies in history

I almost withheld this particular award.  Let me explain.  My thinking is that in order to win our award as a sports PERSON of the year, that athlete must transcend their sport, they must rewrite history within their own sport.  It's relatively easy to pick the best woman performer in each sport - track and field, you go with Blanka Vlasic; for tennis, it's either Serena Williams or Caroline Wozniacki; for football, Marta of Brazil.

But to be an overall sports person of the year, you can't just win against your rivals, you need to dominate them, move your sport forward a generation, change its history, and become "mainstream".  You can't just be the best in your sport, you have to be one of the best in history  A few years ago, for example, it might have been Annika Sorenstam, and then Lorena Ochoa, who dominated golf so completely that it moved women's golf up a notch.  Tennis players like Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova did the same for their sport a few generations ago, and Paula Radcliffe (as we'll see below) and Yelena Isinbayeva took women's running and pole vault forward, respectively.  On the men's side, names like Federer, Woods, Nadal, Phelps, Bolt come to mind as athletes who have been so dominant and impressive that they are recognized not merely as tennis players, golfers or swimmers, but as sportspeople.

But women's sport is relatively bare at the moment.  We've spoken about track and field already, how difficult it is for women to stand out in history, when confronted with a doping legacy that makes setting records almost impossible.  Tennis is in a peculiar state, with no one woman dominating, the world number one ranking resembling a carousel over the last three years.  Ochoa and Sorenstam's retirements have left a void yet to be filled in golf. 

But then fortunately for me, one of you (thanks Gus) reminded me of Chrissie Wellington over on our Facebook page.  I guiltily confess to having something of a "blind-spot" for Ironman distance triathlon, because we see so little of it on our TV over here in SA.  Particularly Kona, which is not shown at all on SA television.  However, Wellington's is a name that has shot to prominence in the last few years, as a result of her Kona exploits (among others).  2010 is an anomaly - she didn't even start in Kona this year, withdrawing on race day.  However, that low moment was bookended by some astonishing performances, including a new Ironman event record to wrap up a dominant 2010.

And so Chrissie Wellington is a deserving winner of this award, which is as much an award for 2010 as it is a "lifetime (so far) achievement award".  What's more, she provides a wonderful discussion of human performance and men vs women, and has clearly moved women's ultra-triathlon forward.

Here's why.

Wellington's records - the greatest ever, on the way

Ironman triathlon looked somewhat different before Wellington's instant impact back in Kona in 2007.  Having qualified for the Hawaii World Championships by winning the Ironman Korea event.  She finished 7th overall in that race, something which was to become a regular occurrence in her Ironman career.  In Kona, her impact was instant - a win in 9:08:45, including a sub-3 hour marathon.  That was the second fastest run time in the event's history, and one of the fastest overall times in many years - only Natascha Badmann's 9:07:54 in 2002 had been quicker in the preceding ten years.

2008 and 2009 brought more of the same, and this time included outright records.  There was the fastest run ever in Kona in 2008 (2:57:44), the fastest ever Ironman distance performance in 2009 (an 8:31:59 clocking in a non Ironman event), and a new Kona record in 2009 - 8:54:02, beating the record of Kona legend Paula Newby-Fraser (though second placed Mirinda Carfrae did break Wellington's run record for the course).

Then came 2010.  In July this year, she bettered her own Ironman distance record, this time with an 8:19:13 performance to finish 7th overall in Roth, Germany.   This included records in both the bike leg (4:36:33) and the run leg (2:48:54), in what was possibly her most spectacular performance to date. 

Kona came and went with a DNS as a result of illness, but the training did not go to waste, as Wellington then broke the record for an Ironman event, in the Ironman Arizona race, clocking 8:36:13.  That race was, in her words, "her Kona", and she ended the year with the definitive statement that she is the best Ironman triathlete in the world today, perhaps ever, with a career that may just surpass that of Newby Fraser.  All told, she has six sub-9 hour performances, a record, and remains undefeated over the Ironman distance.

She has also been the catalyst for a new generation of female triathletes - already, Wellington's run record in Kona was broken by Mirinda Carfrae in second place, who then won the Kona event in Wellington's absence earlier this year.  Carfrae's winning time of 8:58:36 puts her within sight of Newby Fraser's previous record, which had stood relatively unchallenged until 2009, and the battle between those two should provide for great entertainment (and profile for the sport) in the years to come.

Challenging the men - where is Wellington in the male vs female distance spectrum?

Wellington's exploits produce the obvious comment that "she's almost beating all the men".  I received a few emails discussing this and it's a really interesting question to try to answer:  Is Wellington unique among female distance/endurance athletes, someone with a real chance of matching the best men?  It's largely an irrelevant question, and Wellington's performances shouldn't really be compared to men's performances.  But whenever the gap is that narrow, one is almost compelled to ask it, and from a performance and physiological analysis point of view, it's too good an invitation to pass up!

Wellington has rarely been outside the top 10 overall of her races - 7th in Roth, 7th in Korea, 8th in Arizona are just some of her performances.  Her marathon times in some of her wins have been beaten by only a few men in those races.  Only at Kona does she find herself outside the top 10 (22nd in 2009, for example).

And let's face it - you don't see this in marathon or track running.  Even Paula Radcliffe's world record places her only 473rd on the 2009 performance lists for men, and 3205th in history.  The elite men are sufficiently "spread out" across the world's top ten or so marathons that the first woman is usually in the top 20, but when comparing 'like to like', the women are well down.

So, is Wellington the greatest endurance athlete in the world?  A woman with a real chance of winning races overall?  Or is "competitive balance" of Ironman events misleading us, much as it does for ultra-distance running events?  By nature, any "niche" event is going to throw up some misleading comparisons, and that may be the case here.

It's a great debate, which I must emphasize takes nothing away from Wellington - when you are breaking records by minutes, setting new records on BOTH the bike and run leg, going undefeated in such long races, winning on debut, you are exceptional.  Judged against women, Wellington, at 33, is on the verge of being the greatest ever.  And her 2010 year deserves that recognition.

However, to fully answer the male-female question, we need a benchmark.  And that benchmark provides an interesting discussion because it must come from men's performances.

Male vs female performance

It's particularly difficult to benchmark female performances in a sport like triathlon.  Three disciplines, differing conditions from one race to the next and within each race (thanks to the length), and the mass participation nature of Ironman events means that simply comparing times doesn't quite work.

You can do this for track and field, however.  The graph below illustrates the comparison between the men's world record and the women's world record for the track events.  You'll note that all women's records are between 9% and 13% slower than the men's times.  Given the long history and the relatively standardized conditions (for world records, which are almost always set in ideal conditions), these numbers show pretty clearly that men outperform women by around 10% (and that is even with the obvious doping by women - the true figure is likely more than this).

Now, let's look at Wellington's performances in the Ironman, as shown by red symbols.  First, what is her place in history compared to other winners?  Below is a graph that compares the winning performances at Kona for women to the men's winning performances since 1995 (three generations of athlete).  This is done so that the varied conditions (and Kona can be very different, with heat and wind) are somewhat controlled for.

The difference, you can see, is pretty much the same as for the track and field events, with a few exceptions, where women are well down on the men (upward of 13%).  Wellington arrives in 2007, and goes from 10.8% to 9.7% to an amazing 6.7% slower than the men in her three wins.  This year, Mirinda Carfrae is only 9.8% off the men's winner.

Clearly, Wellington has been to the Men's Kona winner what most female track and field world record holders are to their male counterparts.  She is, from that point of view, in exactly the right place compared to the best men (admittedly, those track women got there with substantial doping.  I don't know what the doping landscape of Ironman triathlon is - I'd be naive to say it doesn't exist, but if Wellington is as close to the men as track females are while doping, then her performance is doubly impressive)

There are also other exceptional performances - the blue triangle in 2002 is Natascha Badmann's 9:07 performance, which was only 7.5% slower than the men's winner that year (Timothy de Boom in a relatively slow 8:29:56.  This Badmann performance also shows up the flaw in this analysis - year by year is too variable - was that men's performance just very weak that year?  Did race tactics affect it?  The fact that two years later, Badmann wins the race a full 15% slower than the men's winner confirms this - year on year comparisons of winners leaves some variability, and that's why a more "rigid" benchmark is needed.

Wellington - bringing women's triathlon to where it should be

So let's use the men's course record as the benchmark. There are problems with this comparison, too, of course.  For one thing, variable weather from one year to the next can blow out the differences when you compare isolated performances with a 'best ever' performance, but I think the trend will be revealing when combined with what we discussed above. You could do this same exercise with the average of the men's times, incidentally, and subtract about 3% off the difference.

So, in 1996, Luc van Lierde of Belgium won the race in 8:04:08, which still stands as the record today.  Comparing all the women's winning times since 1995 to that performance, Wellington's impact on the sport stands out a little more, as you can see in the graph below.

Now, you can see how women's triathlon may actually be entering a "golden era", where the gap between the fastest ever seems to be coming down.  From 1995 to 2008, women winners were consistently 12% or more slower than the male record.  In fact, in the 1990s, women were on average 16% slower than the men's record.  However, Wellington got closer and closer until in 2009, taking the women's record to 10.3% slower than the men's record with her 8:54 performance.

Note that this is still relatively "normal" - 10.3% is in fact the AVERAGE difference between men's and women's track records (and I don't want to keep harping on about doping and those women's records, but I have to point it out one last time).

The point is that Wellington's amazing performances are not so much bringing women to the point of being able to beat the men, but rather that Wellington has begun to bring women's performances in Ironman events to where they should be, relative to the men!  I know that the magnitude of these improvements are small - 1% here and there.  But bear in mind that if the world marathon record was improved by 1% tomorrow, it would be 1 minute 15 seconds faster.  And we don't expect to see that anytime soon!  So Wellington really has pushed the event forward.

The same comparison for her other Ironman performances is even more impressive.  In the Arizona event earlier this year, she was only 5.9% outside the men's winning time (by Timo Bracht).  However, here again, you have what may be a misleading comparison - as good an athlete as Bracht is, he's not the dominant athlete of his category, like Wellington.  However, it's a special performance nevertheless, and if it continues, then Wellington will be able to stake a claim for being the best ultra-endurance athlete in the world. 

Compared to the men's overall Ironman event record of 7:50:27 (also by van Lierde in 1996, in Ironman Europe), Wellington's fastest Ironman-event performance of 8:36:13 this year is 9.7% slower, so that too is in the right range, compared to what we know of men vs women performances.  It has been pointed out below that Wellington's all-time best of 8:19 came at Roth, as did van Lierde's 7:50, which means the two could be compared - then the difference comes down to 6.1%, which is far and away the closest a women's record comes to a male best performance. 

Certainly, given what we've seen from Wellington - the gradual progression - there's plenty of reason to believe that given the right day, she has a few more minutes left in her and that means the men-women gap may be due for further closing.

Conclusion - dominant female athlete, closing the gap but not unexpectedly close to the men

The conclusion I'd draw then is that Wellington has taken women's Ironman distance triathlon and bounced it forward by virtue of her amazing performances.  However, she's not yet closed the gap beyond what would have been expected given a normal male vs female comparison.  The fact that women were regularly 14% or more behind men in the 1990s, even with Newby Fraser's exploits suggests to me that women's triathlon is only now beginning to grow in competitive depth and quality.

Wellington is at the forefront of that quality.  Her year in 2010 has established a new standard for women's triathlon and I fully expect to see many more sub-9 hour performances in the coming years.  We will even begin to see competitive races at 8:50 pace or faster, within the enormous time-gaps of years gone by, and that's a sure sign of improving competitive quality.

Wellington has therefore slotted in where she should - she's exceptional, but thoughts of her breaking down the male-female performance divide as a little premature.  And she may yet improve more, and then we'll revisit this topic again!