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Monday, January 02, 2012

Science of Sport awards: Teams of the year - Kenya & Barcelona

Team of the year - Kenyan athletics and Barcelona

Welcome to 2012!  It's an Olympic year, the undoubted highlight of the year for us, but there are Tours, Marathons, meets and matches to cover and we are looking forward to the analysis, debate and discussion.  We hit our three millionth visitor on New Year's Eve, and we're hoping for another million this year!  Dollars, that is...!

I'm still forging on with the recap of 2011 (better late than never), only three to go, and then we'll start looking ahead to 2012.  And today, it's Team of the Year, which is a shared award between Kenya (a pseudo-team, since athletics/running aren't exactly team sports) and Barcelona.

Kenya - total dominance

2011 was the year of the marathon, and it was completely owned by Kenya.  Not just dominated, but owned.  The year-end lists show that the Top 20 times in the marathon were run by Kenyans.  That's right - all 20 were from Kenya.  That list includes a new world record, and the winning performances from every major city marathon in 2011, and the World Championships marathon.  Not only were the majors won by Kenyans, but the course records at every major city marathon were broken too.  Not in that list are the incredible Boston marathon performances, where Mutai and Mosop ran 2:03:02 and 2:03:06 respectively, since those times are not eligible for official lists (the result of that, in case you are wondering, is that Ryan Hall's 2:04:58 also doesn't feature on that list - it's the fastest performance by a non-Kenyan in 2011, but not official).

The result of this Kenyan dominance was that the average of the Top 10 performances was a staggering 2:05:00.  That's almost 40 seconds faster than the world record only nine years ago, and more athletes broke 2:07 in 2011 than ever before (25 did it - 24 were Kenyan, only dos Santos of Brazil is in that company.  2:06 was broken by 11 men, incidentally).  In November, I analyzed the top performances and discussed the "seismic shift" that has occurred, along with some of the reasons behind it - worth a read for more detail.

Perhaps the most remarkable statistic was this one - 70 Kenyans ran faster over the marathon than the fastest European athlete. That was Oleksandr Sitkovskyy, a Ukranian who ran 2:09:26.  Ryan Hall's officially recognized performance from Chicago (2:08:04) is the second-fastest of the year by a non-African (dos Santos being first).

Kenya's dominance does not end with it's men marathon runners.  On the women's side, marathon running is not nearly as dominant, but they still have four women in the top 10, including the second fastest performance of 2011 with Keitany's London win.  Kenyan women swept the medals in the Daegu World Championships in August (Kiplagat, Jeptoo and Cherop), and they won two of the Majors (London and Berlin).  The battle between the Kenyans, particularly Keitany who really should have won New York but for her super fast early pace, and Liliya Shobulkhova, 2011's world number 1 will be one of the highlights of 2012, whether it comes in London in April or in August.

On the track, Kenya had one of their most successful campaigns ever.  At the Daegu World Championships, Kenya finished third on the medal table, winning 7 golds, 6 silvers and 4 bronzes.  The golds were won across the spectrum - Men's 800, men's 1500m, men's steeplechase, men's marathon, women's 5000m, women's 10000m and women's marathon.

Only one missing accolade

The only area where Kenya have yet to figure out a solution to the Ethiopian riddle is the long track events for men.  In the 10,000m in particular, Ethiopian men have shut Kenya out of gold since 1993.  In fact, with the exception of Charles Kamathi's gold in 2001, Ethiopian men have won every 10,000m gold since 1993 (admittedly, of the twelve golds won by Ethiopia in this stretch, 11 were shared between two men - Geb and Bekele!)

Unless Kenya can discover a 26:40 man with 52 second final lap closing speed in the next 6 months, that streak looks set to continue in London, though Mo Farah may have something to say about whether it's an Ethiopian streak or just a 'non-Kenyan' one!

Other than this, however, it's difficult to see Kenyan dominance being broken.  20 out of 20 in the marathon.  Their gold medallists looked peerless in Daegu.  And in Vivian Cheruiyot, they have the world's best female athlete, one of the stars of London 2012 if she maintains her 2011 form.  Kenya will therefore be the best performing African nation in London.

For the rest of the world, competing at the very highest level must feel futile. Hall flies the flag, as does Keflezighi, for the USA.  The promise of Galen Rupp stepping up to the marathon will be interesting, since he brings 26:40-credentials to the road.  That of course is one of the big reasons for the shift in marathon running - the entry of very fast, 26:40 men into the marathon before they have lost that speed.  Mo Farah is the other athlete who will be looked at to challenge Kenya over the marathon one day.

The genetic vs training debate

The scientifically fascinating debate is whether this dominance is genetic or environmental.  That's an unnecessarily polarized question.  To repeat a mantra I used a lot in 2011 - when someone wants to polarize an explanation into one of two things, they are always wrong.  The reality is that the kind of dominance that has been achieved by Kenya is too complex to the result of one or two factors.  If it was one, or even two-dimensional, then the world would imitate it very easily.  The fascinating thought experiment would be to apply the same environmental factors (training, diet, altitude, culture, socio-economic factors) to a few groups around the world, over three or four generations, and see how successful they are.  Of course, this experiment isn't going to happen, so we speculate.

There's no question that the pioneers of distance running in Kenya, the men who won Kenya's first global medals in the 1960s, were the catalyst for a generation of young athletes who could now simply imitate and aspire to follow in their footsteps.  Physical activity is a part of life in Kenya (not always running to and from school, I might add), and so is the desire to become a great runner.  The economic incentives are enormous, there are sufficient competition structures to identify the most talented athletes, and a culture of success that is demonstrated by the 2011 marathon results - "he did it, why not me?"

But none of these factors, as well-described as they are, disprove that some genetic factor is also in play.  The same ingredients applied elsewhere (because let's face it, there are many other regions around the world with similar isolated factors) may not produce the same results.  In a nation of 270 million people, for example, is there not a single athlete who has trained as hard as 100 Kenyans, with the same desire to succeed?  Of course there will be, but the ceiling that can be reached is genetically influenced.

I am something of a believer in the role of genes in performance, as you may recall from our talent vs training debate.  The failure of science to discover that gene, I believe, is more a function of genetic complexity combined with our limited ability to understand it.  As mentioned in the genetic debate, it takes 300,000 gene variants to explain only 50% of something like height.  Only 45% of training response can be explained by vast gene arrays.  How much more complex might performance be?

2011 produced some of the first scientific evidence that the response to training was strongly influenced by genes.  That is, it was found that individuals who had a certain number of specific genetic variants (called SNPs) were "high-responders", whereas those who lacked these specific gene variants saw almost no change in their VO2max or performance after months of training (the "low responders").  You can read more on this study here.  What hasn't been done yet is to show whether these SNPs are present more in certain populations than in others.  That's the study that would show whether the probability of discovering a high responder (and thus potential great runner) is greater in some groups than others.  Of course, as molecular methods improve, and genome-wide association studies become more powerful, these potential links will become clearer.

The fact that Jamaica and the USA dominate sprints and that east Africa dominate distance running is one of the most intriguing areas of exercise physiology.  And exercise economics, when you look at things like incentives, culture, economic factors.  The addition of genes to this mix is what makes Kenyan running so fascinating.

Until those answers are provided, we have only questions and theories.  There's no doubt however, about who the team to beat is in international running.  The only question, for the rest of the world, is "How"?

Barcelona - changing the way coaches approach sport

The second winner of the Team of the Year award is Barcelona's all conquering football team.  On the surface, that's an easy award to give out, because Barcelona have been exceptional.  In 2011, they won the Champions League, Spanish League title, World Club Championships, and a host of other trophies, bringing to 12 (out of a possible 15) the number of titles they've won under coach Pep Guardiola.

The fascinating thing for me, at least from a sports science/management perspective, is the manner in which they have achieved this success.  Yes, they have some of the greatest players in the world - the Player of the Year award title for 2010 (awarded in 2011) was a straight shootout between three Barca players in Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta (Messi won it).  But the Barcelona "way" is so distinctive that it has begun to inspire coaches and sports administrators from other sports to want to imitate it.

Much has been written about the Barcelona style of football, and their now legendary youth academy, La Masia (one such story can be read here), which produced Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Pique, Febregas, Busquets and Valdez of the current typical starting 11.

Barcelona's movement off the ball, the positional awareness of the players, the work rate when not in possession, and the ability to manipulate space and defenders are the "buzzwords" that I've heard a great deal around the sport of rugby, for example!  One rugby coach has expressed that it is his vision to be the "Barcelona of Sevens rugby", such is the influence of Barcelona on other coaches.

And why not?  Barcelona's dominance has been complete and distinctive, technically speaking, to the point that their opposition have likened playing them to playing against Playstation figures.  I'd be going beyond the limits of my own football knowledge to describe the technical characteristics of what the players learn at La Masia, and at the senior team, the specifics of what make them so remarkable.

The success of the club is again not the product of any single factor (in the same way that Kenyans aren't great runners for one reason alone).  So the Barcelona approach to youth development, their focus on skill and movement rather than size, strength and speed, and their desire to teach sportsmanship and creativity ahead of winning are only part of the mix.  Not one of these factors should be viewed as a competitive advantage, however - they are all easily replicated, in theory anyway.

The youth academy concept is now so common in sports, particularly football and rugby, and many of the elements and principles are shared, at least on paper.  The ethos of youth development is not unique, and nor is the attitude that "we invest in the person, not just the player".  This approach to youth-development is now accepted as best-practice, and every academy will have a code of conduct that dictates how young players are to be taught and managed.  So again, simply following the "recipe" doesn't guarantee the end-product.

The challenge for other coaches and sports administrators, even in sports like rugby, who want to imitate the Barcelona way, is to recognize how difficult it is to develop the culture that underscores the technical excellence and the on-field results.

Nevertheless, the Barcelona model will continue to be discussed, and attempts made to imitate it.  It is the sincerest form of flattery.  What we (the outsiders) see is the end result, which is sometimes breath-taking.  The 5 goal demolition of Real Madrid in 2010, the 4-0 defeat of Santos in the Club World Championship final in December, and the defeat of Manchester United in the Champions League Final at Wembley are some of the highlights from Barcelona's on-field "end product".  Whether the system can be reverse engineered, I have my doubts, but when a team is held up as the gold standard for how to play, then they're worthy of "Team of the Year".