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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Day 2: False starts and flying finishes

False starts and flying finishes: Day 2 drama in Daegu

So if Day 1 produced dominance for Kenya, Day 2 produced drama.  It was, in the day's two track finals, a day full of drama.  It began with an incredible final lap sprint in the men's 10,000m final, and ended with the disqualification of Usain Bolt.

It was that disqualification that will hog the headlines tomorrow, and therein lies the first problem.  Bolt false started, there's no question.  His false start was so big that I would estimate that half the stadium realized it before the replay and before the official decision.  The air was let out of the stadium more dramatically than I can recall and the final went on to become one of the bigger anti-climaxes I can recall.  And that is in sport, let alone athletics.

And so spare a thought for Yohan Blake, who went on to win the title (at least keeping the medal and bragging rights in Jamaica) in 9.92s.  But the reality is that the media coverage will be split, and heavily in favour of Bolt's DQ.  And the thing is, there's no absolute guarantee that Bolt would have won the race anyway.  He was a massive favorite, yes, and he looked good in the heats and in his semi, but Blake also looked very strong and the 9.93s was into a 1.4m/s headwind.  That's probably worth a low 9.80s and that would certainly have extended Bolt.  I still would have made him an overwhelming favoirte, but at best, we were denied a really intriguing race, and Blake will be denied the coverage he perhaps deserves.  But, having said that, I can also appreciate where the focus will be placed!

The false start rule under the microscope

This zero-tolerance false start rule falls under the microscope (again) as a result.  Today we had some great posts on Twitter, and so I'd guess people are split roughly 50-50 on the issue.  Here's an article calling the rule either "cruel" or "inhumane", for example.

You may recall an era where every single athlete was given a warning.  The result was that you could have up to nine false starts in a race before you saw a disqualification.  For a few reasons, that rule was scrapped.  First, it means that races sometimes took 15 minutes to get underway!  Secondly, it enabled athletes to manipulate the race by deliberately false starting.

So it was a step forward in terms of time-management when the rule was changed to one false start for the field.  That happened in 2003, and meant that the first false start placed the entire field on a warning, the second would see an athlete disqualified.  That didn't deal with the gamesmanship aspect, and it probably didn't create a fair scenario because one athlete would get away with a jump, others would not.  If memory serves me, this happened to Bolt in Berlin in 2009, and as you'll know, he went on to run 9.58s as a result of the reprieve it provided.

Today, no such luck. The rule was changed in 2010, and suddenly, everyone was on a final warning, from the outset. Bolt made a massive false start - there was no controversy at least - and so he was gone.  The rule has been controversial, and it's not just today's race that has made it so.  There has been a growing sense that this kind of thing would happen soon, and may have a negative impact on the sport.  And Tyson Gay had raised his objections to it back in 2010 and he made a very pertinent points.  I think the key one is pointing out the inconsistencies between starters. He is quoted in the interview as saying:
"They need some sort of automatic sensor or automatic gun so that it goes off the same time every time. We have different blocks, we have different people holding the gun, it's ridiculous"

I can see how that would be an issue, though I can also see some of you reading this saying that's part of the sport, and the elite have to deal with it.  I think that given the severity of the punishment, a more 'secure' method at the start would be beneficial and even necessary, so I would agree with Gay.  I've seen some starters hold guys for an eternity, others not (though having said this, this is not what happened to Bolt).

Stepping back a little, there are a number of things to consider.  Swimming has a one false start rule, and it has been successful (that is, relatively uncontroversial) there.  I can't think of a big DQ in the last four or five major championships.  If I'm missing one, let me know.  However, I'd be cautious about making the direct comparison between the sports and saying that if it works there, it should work in athletics.  There are a few differences between the starts, and even the stadiums where the athletes race.  The starting position in running (in my personal opinion) places more of a premium on the start because it's a less steady position and you have a three-phase start (on your marks, get set, and bang) compared to two phases for swimming.

I can't think of any other sports that punish athletes as severely for making "errors" that are actually part of the purpose of the sport.  By that, I mean that in track, the entire objective is to get out of the blocks fast and get to the finish line as fast as possible.  The purpose thus encourages athletes to be at the limit for speed.  To me, the analogy is that in football (soccer, I mean), players have to win the ball, and are thus compelled to tackle.  Sometimes they mistime challenges.  We don't condone the mistake, but unless it's deliberate or very dangerous, they receive yellow cards - a warning, which is followed by dismissal for repeat offence.  Of course, the difference is that soccer unfolds over 90 minutes, come what may, whereas in track, the race would never start if every guy got a warning first!  As we can remember all too well...!  So I appreciate the implications of warnings.

But the downside of the rule was made clear today - the biggest name in the sport, its icon and probably one of the five most recognizable sportspeople in any sport was eliminated from the marquee event of his sport.  Again, the counter-point to this is that if we were on the warning rule, and say Kim Collins had jumped the gun, Bolt could well have done it second, and he'd also be DQ'd for his first offence - same situation as today, except it would have taken two minutes longer to happen!  So these scenarios can go any way you want them to, and so the more I think about it, the more I realise there's really no "right" way to do it!

For the IAAF, it's a sticky one because let's face it, athletics needs Bolt, and it needs to be able to leverage his success to expand the sport.  Athletics is a commodity, and so it competes with other sports, and other forms of entertainment, and so there's a big regret when something like a DQ happens on the biggest stage of all.

Think for a second of "moderate athletics fans", those who really only watch the massive events, and the massive athletes.  There is no more massive combination than Bolt in a World Championship 100m.  What are these moderates thinking tonight?  That they were denied a chance to see the greatest because of a rule they don't fully understand?  Are these people more or less likely to switch on to watch next week, when the Diamond League race is on in Zurich?  Not that this argues for a rule change, but it does hopefully make you realize the complexity of the problem.  This is not as simple as saying "rules are rules" or that the rule MUST be changed.

Also, I am not that I'm saying that certain people must be excused - if there is a rule, then it applies to all.  I just wonder though whether it might be worth accepting that in a race where hundredths of seconds matter, where so much hype and build-up goes into 10 seconds of running, a mistake should not be punished in the way that it currently is. Perhaps a possible sensible compromise comes from this really good piece by the Robert Johnson of Letsrun, where he makes the compelling point that in a major championship, the rule should stand, whereas if it were to happen in a Diamond League race, where organizers pay appearance fees to get athletes so that fans will spend their money specifically to see an athlete compete, it might be worth allowing the athlete to continue to race unofficially.  Let's not deny people "access" as easily as we are, in other words.

I think that may be the best compromise regarding disqualification and certainly for these events.  For the big championships, I'd still like to see a return to the one false start for the whole race rule, but that's my personal feeling.  And I realise it means that the second guy to jump the gun gets the red card, but at least this allows everyone that first "aggressive" attempt at getting away first.  After that, everyone has to sit back in the blocks, be a little more conservative.

But in all this, let's not get carried away and say that it's the IAAF or the rule's fault.  There have been a lot of people, including Bolt's manager saying things like "this false start rule, it's going to screw us all up", but that's kind of like blaming gravity for your death if you jumped off a high building.  It's clearly the fault of the athlete who false starts, not the rule - the issue is whether the fault is worthy of the severity of the sanction, at least the first time.

I don't have an answer, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.  Unfortunately, the result of all this is that from now on, Yohan Blake is world champion, but when people talk about it, most times they'll say "wasn't that the year that..."  A pity, but well done to Blake - he beat everyone.

Men's 10,000m - incredible final lap

OK, so honest answer, who picked Ibrahim Jeilan to win the gold?  Mo Farah was the big favourite for the gold, and the question was, would Kenenisa Bekele show up out of nowhere, for his first race in two years, and win a fifth title?  The answer was no, he actually stopped at about 6km, and the battle was then on between Farah and the Ethiopians (Kenya's men played second fiddle to the women big-time - they finished out of the medals, in contrast to the all conquering women last night, so a bit of a rebound for them!)

I think Tadese did much of the early work.  I say "think" because I have never sat through such dire coverage of a distance race before.  We saw the first two laps, and then cut to crowd shots.  A few long jump attempts were shown, with three replays on each one, and a healthy dose of more stadium and crowd shots between. Then it was about 15 seconds of the 10,000m race (the race was already at 4,000m) before we cut to the middle rounds of the discus final.  Middle rounds, not the medal deciding throws, mind you.  Again, crowd shots to keep us entertained between throws and more replays and eventually, with about 2km to go, we got uninterrupted coverage of the 10,000m.

I believe that in the UK, there was a better feed - count yourselves lucky, because the rest of the world saw probably 25% of the race, that's all.  It was, as one tweeter said, the equivalent of watching the first 5m and last 20m of the 100m final.  When you combine this kind of diabolical directorship with the general, non-athletics fraternity perception of the 100m final and Bolt's DQ, it wasn't a great day for athletics, all in all.  I honestly believe the IAAF should step in and control the broadcast because most athletics enthusiasts feel this way, some very strongly.  If you look at the "package" that is Formula 1, or NFL or basketball, it's slick, polished and adds to the value of the sport.  Athletics is lagging behind in a big way.  If you want to read a great insight into this, read this article, focused on the Women's Marathon, but it could just as well have been written about the shambolic coverage of the men's 10,000m final.

The end was spectacular though, when it came.  As mentioned, Mo Farah has dominated every race this year, and always with the same approach.  His finishing kick had seen off most runners in the race before this one, over 5,000m and 10,000m, and with the pace being relatively slow, it was looking more and more like his kind of race.  I made the error, with 1km to go, of saying that he really should win it from there, with the kick over the last 300m.

Then Farah went earlier than usual.  He hit the front with 600m to go and wound the pace up, the big surge coming in the home straight, approaching the bell.  The penultimate lap was done in about 60 seconds, and Farah charged through the bell, opening up five meters of Merga and Jeilan behind him.  Down the back straight, that lead grew and then held at about 8 to 10m.  It looked typical of Bekele and Gebrselassie, actually, in the days when they kicked early and then held, before kicking again.

But this time, Jeilan clawed it back, very slightly.  Farah covered the 200m from the bell in about 26.4 seconds, but Jeilan hung on.  With 200m to go, he was still in touch (just), edged back around the bend, and with 120m to go, it was clear that Farah would have to kick again to hold him off.  The final straight was a magnificent race, Jeilan having the speed to close it out.  A high 52 second lap compared to Farah's low 53 seconds was enough to give Ethiopia its fifth consecutive gold over 10,000m.

Did Farah go too early?  I don't know.  I do wonder whether a final 300m kick might have been better, but that's hindsight for you!  He certainly went earlier than most might have expected, but that's not the same thing as saying "too early".  He ran the final lap in a shade over 53 seconds, and that's normally good enough.  That he went from 450m doesn't change what Jeilan did, and to hang on, then claw back the deficit was a magnificent run.  I think the best conclusion is that Farah raced well, he did everything he could, but found Jeilan just that little bit faster in the end.  Farah will have another chance over 5,000m and I still wouldn't bet against him.

Jeilan for his part, was an unknown before this.  The Letsrun analysis of the race (which is worth a read) has some information on him - a 27:02 at the age of 17 says he had enormous talent, and he's spent the last few years honing that in Japan, and he's clearly a class act.  It will be interesting to see if he builds on this, and becomes a dominant distance runner like some of his illustrious predecessors.  He certainly entertained in the victory lap, a much more expressive champion, dancing, posturing, and he speaks good english, which I do think is a "value-add" for the media side of the sport.  His is a name most won't be unaware of ever again!

Other events

Speaking of talented 17-year olds from Ethiopia, Mohamed Aman sprung the surprise of the 800m semi-finals, when he beat Abubaker Kaki in heat one.  Kaki in fact finished third and with only the top 2 guaranteed a final spot, the Sudanese had a nervous wait during semi finals 2 and 3.  In the end, he was the fastest "loser", and in fact, his 1:44 time gave him the fourth fastest time, but his semi-final wouldn't have given him too much confidence.  He was super aggressive, running the first 200m in 23.8s, and hitting the bell in 50.19.  He continued to slow after that and with 120m to go, it was clear he was in for a real battle, with the field, some 10 m behind at the bell, now on his shoulder.

In the end, Aman won the race, Marcin Lewandowski was second and Kaki third.  The other semis were won by Nick Symmonds and the incomparable David Rudisha, who seemed to coast to a 1:44.20 in his. It means the "dream final" of Rudisha vs Kaki is on, and happens on Tuesday.  Rudisha is a huge favourite, but the slightest tightness or messed up pacing, and the field will be close enough to pounce.  Rudisha seems capable of a 1:43-low, and I'm not sure others are, so it will probably take a Rudisha "off day" to produce the surprise, but that can happen - this is the 800m after all!

The men's decathlon gold was also awarded tonight - it was solidly defended by Trey Hardee of the USA, but the excitement came in the form of Ashton Eaton, who entered the final event, the 1500m, in third place and needing about four seconds to overhaul Leonel Suarez of Cuba.  He did just that, running aggressively, but storing up for a huge kick on the final lap, that the Cuban was unable to match.  In the end, Eaton got just over 5 seconds, and the silver changed hands in the final 100m of the two-day event. Hardee was solid, helped by a PB in the javelin, but Eaton's "breakthrough" continued and the two should resume their battle with Suarez in London.

In other events, the men's 110m hurdles heads towards what may be the most closely contested race of the championships.  The big three - Robles, Liu Xiang and David Oliver - are all healthy and have PBs within 0.01 seconds of one another.  The race the semi and final tomorrow.  And LaShawn Merrit laid down a great marker for the 400m with a 44.35 in qualifying.  It's the fastest in the world this year, and given the state of men's 400m running, it's wide open enough that this kind of performance, if carried through, makes Merritt the one to watch.  The semis are tomorrow night.

Also tomorrow are the women's 400m and 100m finals.  Will the 400m give Botswana its first gold from Amantle Montsho. or will Allyson Felix take the first step towards a double gold?  It's a super deep race, and can realistically be won from Lanes 1 and 8 as well, but Montsho starts as slight favorite.  And can Carmelita Jeter be beaten by the Jamaicans?  After today's action, don't bet on anything!

Enjoy the morning heats (if you watch them) and the racing tomorrow!