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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Science of Sport Awards: Surprise of 2011

Science of Sport awards 2011: Biggest surprise of 2011

Thank you all for your suggestions/nominations for the Science of Sport awards.  I'm really glad I asked, because I'd completely overlooked some of the suggestions you made.  I'd have felt foolish leaving them out!  There was, as expected, quite a lot of overlap, but some "fringe" nominations as well, which is great because it is a useful way to get news out and introduce athletes and performances to people who might otherwise have missed them. 

So first up, biggest Surprise of 2011.

Let's begin with some of your nominees:
  • The collapse of so many professional cycling teams.  While arguably true, the cynic in me says that this is more an indictment of the times than a huge surprise.  What is surprising perhaps is which teams have vanished (and which teams have replaced them).  But cycling's "carousel" was in overdrive this year as big names found themselves, temporarily, without rides.  The economic times, perhaps?  A reluctance to be associated with a potentially risky sport?  Certainly a few years ago, the latter was a big driving factor, but I suspect more global factors are in play now.
  • The Kenyans taking the whole top 20 in marathon times this year.  This was a surprise only because of the extent of the Kenyan dominance.  I covered this in a post in November, shortly after the New York Marathon.  The Kenyan dominance didn't end at times, however.  They also won every single major marathon, the World Championship title (men and women), and generally moved marathon running into a new era.  But this is a topic for discussion when we give out another award later this week...
  • The passing of Sammy Wanjiru.  On May 16 this year, the world woke to news that perhaps the greatest marathoner who ever lived, Kenya's Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru, had died after a fall from his balcony after a domestic dispute.  Wanjiru, who was Kenya's first gold medalist in the Olympic marathon, was one of the great competitive marathon runners, and that winning performance from Beijing may well have been the catalyst for a new attitude towards the distance.  Wanjiru raced without fear, he was aggressive and courageous.  Sadly, his life off the roads was slowly unravelling, which made his death, while shocking, the saddest end to a sadly inevitable spiral.  An incident at the end of 2010 with an AK-47 machine gun and his wife was a precursor.  No one could have forecast the way it would end, of course, but the warning signs were there. Less of a surprise, perhaps, than a tragic shock.
  • Cadel Evans winning the Tour de France.  Australians everywhere, rejoice.  Cadel Evans had long been a contender without being a serious challenger.  There had always been an air of inevitability about Evans' Tour de France - solid riding, competitive, stubborn, but unable to produce the five or six high quality climbs to win and then defend yellow.  This year was different.  Evans was the race's strongest man - he rode assertively, if not in the aggressive manner of Contador before him (though other factors may have influenced this), and he defended when he needed to, most notably when attacked by Andy Schleck on the Col d'Izoard and pulled everyone back on the final climb of the Galibier.  Evans consolidated the Tour that day, and then emphatically underlined it in the final time-trial.  Given the 2012 route, Evans looks a good bet to defend the title, and this time, it wouldn't be a surprise.
  • Vernon Philander.  This is a South African-centric suggestion, but worth a mention.  Philander is South Africa's newest bowing Test cricketer, and has exploded onto the international cricket scene, taking 5 wickets in an innings in his first three matches (only the fifth player in history to do so).  He won Man of the Match twice (MVP equivalent), and Man of the Series in the Australia series.  Few would have predicted that success, and it'll be interesting to see how soon he regresses to the mean (as he must do, unless he's on route to becoming the greatest bowler in history)
And the winner is...Ibrahim Jeilan winning the 10,000m title in Daegu

There's been a lot that has surprised me in 2011.  Apart from the list above, even the "expected" can sometimes be surprising.  For example, I'm surprised that Novak Djokovic was as dominant as he was.  I was surprised by Chrissie Wellington's remarkable run performance in the Roth Ironman, though she has clearly been building to that for some time.  It's still a "surprise" of sorts.  I'm still surprised by how South Africans reacted to losing to Australia in the Rugby World Cup...

But my criteria for "surprise" is something that I absolutely could not have seen coming.  Something that even in hindsight is remarkable.

And no single moment has been as surprising as the final of the men's 10,000 m in the IAAF World Championships.  And not just because the winner, Ibrahim Jeilan of Ethiopia, was largely unheralded before the race.  Sure he was a talented youth/junior, but he hadn't even raced in Europe, training instead in Japan.

Rather, it's because of the way the final lap unfolded.  Mo Farah of Great Britain was the overwhelming favourite - he'd been outkicking rivals all year, over 5,000m and 10,000m, and so when the race was unspectacularly slow, it was all set up.

Farah then "took" the race on with 500m to go, and opened up what was a winning lead.  Or so I thought.  With 300m to go, it was going according to script.  No surprise at all.  Then, with 200m to go, a slight problem - the gap that had been opening suddenly held at about 5 or 6m.  With 150m to go, I was officially surprised.  The final 100m have to be seen, so watch it below:

So that was a race, or more specifically, a final 53 seconds, that had me saying "Wow, I could not have seen that coming".  And so for that reason, it's my surprise of the year.

Feel free to make more suggestions below!

Later today...Villain of the year and Comeback of the year.


And to wrap up this post, a moment to remember Sammy Wanjiru.  This is a clip of the final few minutes of the 2010 Chicago Marathon, where he raced head to head against Tsegay Kebede of Ethiopia.  It was classic Wanjiru - he didn't have his greatest form (his personal problems perhaps had begun to chip away at his quality), but he fought, attacked, surged, in what was one of the most brutal finishes to a marathon I've ever seen.  It was also the last we saw of Sammy Wanjiru.  Strictly, this clip belongs in 2010, but 2011 is the year that took Sammy Wanjiru, so worth remembering now.