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Sunday, April 01, 2012

The weekly Olympic Buzz: Around the rings

Weekly Olympic Buzz: Around the rings - sports news of interest

With only four months to go before the Olympic Games of 2012, there's so much going on in the world of sport that builds towards those amazing 2 weeks in London.  Sadly, much of this has flown by us at The Science of Sport, and we've been posting at insufficient frequency of two articles a month this year!

So to "force" myself to keep the momentum going a little more, I'm today starting a new weekly feature, which I'll call The Olympic Buzz: Around the rings.  Five rings, five news stories per week that grab my attention for their sports science, sports performance and sports management content!  Not a full analysis, but some quick thoughts and links to try to at least peel away some of the interesting stories as we build to the Games.

These are stories that will also come up on our Facebook page and our Twitter feed, where I have tried to keep the 'discussion' going when 'normal' work suffocates the longer posts, so if you haven't joined the social network for The Science of Sport yet, and want regular "thought droplets" in those barren patches, please do so now - Facebook and Twitter!  For now, let's kick of the Buzz...

This week, I'm looking at the recent World Indoor championships, Fabrice Muamba's cardiac arrest, Kenyan women's emergence, the women's 800m with Semenya and Jelimo, and the Olympic fashion 'controversy.

1.  World indoor champs - new names to watch for

The World Indoor championships results are often quite difficult to interpret, particularly in an Olympic year, because so many big names are absent, there are differences in racing strategy as a result of the track length, and the focus, even of those who are there, is often five months in the future.

But the recent World Indoor Championships in Istanbul did ask a few interesting questions for the rest of the year.  A few potential stars emerged - Helen Obiri outkicked Meseret Defar in one of her first ever races over 3,000m (she's a 1500m specialist), running the final 1500m in a shade outside 4:05.

Genzebe Dibaba served notice that she may be ready to emerge from her sister Tirunesh's lengthy shadow by dominating the 1500m event all season, being particularly spectacular in the World Championships, where she front-ran and got faster and faster on route to gold.  Front running is certainly made easier indoors because of the tighter bends and short straights which make overtaking a little more difficult.  But she is a name to look for.

Among the more established names, Kirani James had a poor semi-final and ended up in Lane 1 for the 400m final, and was never in the race on the tight inside lane, which adds a layer to the men's 400m, which seems incredibly open ahead of the outdoor season.

Mo Farah raced in the men's 3000m, and was outkicked in the final by Bernard Lagat, eventually finishing a shade outside the medals.  You could have thrown a blanket over silver, bronze and Farah, and so he was only just outside silver.  The British media have since dissected and analyzed this is a sign of the impending apocalypse, but the reality is that 3,000m is just a touch short in distance for Farah, and to be that within hundredths of a second of silver is hardly a disaster.  At worst, it's neutral, at best, encouraging.

This assumes, of course, that the media scrutiny as a result doesn't undermine Farah's preparation moving forward - as much of an honour as it is for an athlete to race in the Olympics for their home fans, the microscope on GB's athletes is intense!

One other interesting point re Farah - last year, Farah was preparing for his ultimate gold-silver combo by racing and winning the New York Half Marathon.  This year, a 3,000m season indoors.  That's a huge departure from a successful formula, which is not necessarily bad, but must carry some small risk.  The training may not be as radically different as one would think, but certainly one would not be racing 3,000m indoors and a half marathon on identical training in March.

With that change in training, however subtle, the dynamic of maintaining speed, doing the necessary endurance base, all change, and that's an interesting deviation from approach by Farah with his coach.  One would forgive an athlete coming off a really strong season for repeating exactly the same template.  Perhaps this is the small difference that turns a gold-silver to a gold-gold combo... only time will tell!

2. Fabrice Muamba and cardiac arrest

Another dramatic story in the last few weeks was the collapse of Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba.  Thankfully, he received excellent care almost immediately, and is now seemingly on the way to recovery.  The media coverage after the event focused, as is typical after these incidents, on the fact that all sports people should be screened for these conditions before playing.

And while in theory this is attractive, there are some real challenges to overcome.  One is cost, and this sounds somewhat callous (because any life saved should be worth any expense), but it's fairly complicated.

One of the problems, for example, if that the heart muscle of an elite athlete is thickened as a result of the training they perform.  This is a favourable adaptation, but it can easily be confused with conditions including Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, where the heart muscle thickens enough to compromise its blood flow.  The result is that normal screening processes can produce false positives between 2% and 5% of the time (it used to be 15%).

I hope it's not necessary to point out that if you falsely diagnose an elite athlete as being a "ticking time bomb", you are making an incorrect life changing diagnosis.  You have to be really sure that you can distinguish pathology from the normal changes and remodeling of the heart associated with training, otherwise you destroy players livelihoods, and lives, unnecessarily.  At that rate (2% to 5%), if you test a Super Rugby or professional football squad of 40 players, you could well identify two false positives, players who you'd tell they have a risk when there is none.

So the point is that physicians have to be very well qualified to read the signs, to make the correct interpretation because these are not normal screenings.  And I don't know if we have that level of expertise, certainly not here in South Africa.

On this note, if a problem is identified, it has to be managed - is the automatic response to force the player to retire?  This would depend on the case, of course, but it's an interesting ethical one.  Consider for example that some conditions, even when present, have a risk of death of only 1 in 10,000.  If I'm making $200,000 per week playing football (or any money, for that matter), I might well say that I'll take my chances when they're 1 in 10,000.  

But screening, if compulsory, may mean that disclosure and confidentiality issues arise - if you're the owner of a team, paying that salary, do you want the risk, however small, that your player collapses and dies while playing?  This is an interesting ethical debate also worth considering.  Of course, screening can provide management to reduce risk, which is only a good thing, but there's always a question of how medical information is handled, particularly if the testing goes the genetic route, because here, having a gene is often even less likely to produce a clinical outcome.

Another problem is the sensitivity of the tests - a physical examination (a basic screen) is really not sensitive enough to identify the common conditions, let alone the rare ones.  So physical exams are not particularly reliable, and it would need more comprehensive tests (ECG, both resting and stress), and this is where a cost-benefit question becomes relevant.  The cost, not only of doing the testing, but of providing the required follow up support and service would cripple many sports bodies.  

And this is important because there's a question of who is responsible for the athlete?  It's easier for Spurs or Bolton, or any professional team, to know that they are responsible for their contracted players.  It's less clear whether this drive to test also requires the Football Association (FA) or say the SA Rugby Union to take on the responsibility for all its players.  That would include club players, school players in sanctioned competition, and in the end, it spirals dramatically out of control and would destroy the sports organizations.

So I think that testing would help, undeniably, but it has to be implemented very sensibly, because blanket screening for everyone must mean everyone.  I think professional sports teams can offer comprehensive screening - the risk far outweighs the cost, however small that risk may be.  But the questions are who gets screened, and how often, and then who pays?  Because there has to be line somewhere, unfortunately.

For more on this, here is an excellent podcast and if you have the time, I'd highly encourage you to listen, because Jon Drezner is one of the world's authorities on cardiac screening, and he spells out some statistics and facts that are worth knowing in the aftermath of Muamba's incident.

Two points he makes that are most important:
  1. First, the prevalence of these conditions is quite a bit higher than had been thought - it's easy to identify cases like Muamba's, less obvious are cases where media and immediate treatment are not documented.  So the prevalence, always thought to be 1 in 200,000, now seems to be more like 1 in 40,000 to 50,000.  That's definitely worth paying attention to.
  2. The provision of adequate medical care when these events do occur makes an enormous difference to the prognosis and survival rate.  The chances of surviving cardiac arrest during sport goes from 5 to 8% when there is no emergency defibrillator within 3 to 5 minutes, to well over 50% (64% in one study) when a defibrillator is present.  That's an enormous improvement, and it points to the importance of providing that medical service at events, even if the person using the defibrillator is used by a lay person, and not necessarily a trained medical practitioner.

    I think given the complexity of screening, there is a bigger impact to be made by making sure that the treatment quality is improved through the provision of defibrillators - this is the secondary prevention concept.  Muamba's case was testament to outstanding medical provision.  And so I'd suggest that the money that people are saying should be spent screening, at least once you get down below the professional ranks, might be better spent on training and supporting medical care at events.  
3.  Kenyan women set to dominate in London

Here's a bit of a quiz  (answer below this post):  Name the first Kenyan woman to win a medal at the Olympic Games?  How about the first gold medal winner at the Olympic Games?

The hint is that you don't have to go too far back - while their men have long been dominant on the track, their women have only recently emerged at the same level.  But now, in 2012, they have potential gold medalists in every single track event from 800m to 10,000m, as well as in the marathon, and may even out-medal the men.

In the 800m, the re-emerging Jelimo (more on this later) runs with Jepkosgei, though Jepkosgei may not quite have the capacity to run the 1:57s it might take, so it will probably be up to Jelimo to win gold.  Over 1500m, Helen Obiri will race alongside defending champion Nancy Langat (assuming she makes the team after a fairly disappointing period since Beijing).  In the 5000m and 10000m, Vivian Cheruiyot is arguably the best distance runner in the world right now, and unless Ethiopia can find a way to get Dibaba or Defar back to their 2005/07 form, Cheruiyot should win double gold in London.  Then in the marathon they have an amazing squad, headed by Mary Keitany, and their team strength may be crucial in helping them overcome the challenge from Shobhukova.  The 3000m steeplechase sees Milcah Chemos, though she'll have a Russian challenge to overcome for gold.  Then of course there is a group who've yet to emerge, but don't be surprised to discover a new name or two by July.

So while nothing is certain, Kenya's women look good for a handful of medals, possibly all gold (though that would be extra-ordinary).  Their men are less 'secure' - I can't see them winning 5,000m or 10,000m gold (in fact, I'd be surprised if they pick up more than two minor medals here too, if Bekele is back in good condition).  Rudisha, the steeplechase and a marathon look "certain", and the men's 1500m is open, but Kenya have chances there too.

So the Kenyan women look set to contribute at least half Kenya's medals, and that would be a first.  There is no doubt a fascinating social, economic and cultural discussion to be held about why it has taken the women 40 years to reach the same level as their men did from 1968 onwards.  The floodgates may now have been opened, however, and perhaps the complexity of some of those answers help to further uncover the "secrets" of Kenyan distance running domination, which I believe is the most fascinating question in exercise performance physiology today.

4. Pamela Jelimo re-emerges.  And Caster Semenya kicks off 2012

Every event is of course a drama, but there will be few with as much human interest as the women's 800m.  In 2008, Pamelo Jelimo emerged from Kenya to dominate women's 800m like we've rarely seen before - her crushing, front-running displays and regular 1:56 or faster performances (I count six sub-1:56 times in 2008, including a best of 1:54.01) to win the Olympic Gold and the Diamond league jackpot that year (the only winner of a $1,000,000 jackpot).  All this at the age of 18, it was an unparalleled dominance of the event.

Over the course of the next three years, however, things slid dramatically - first a 1:59.49 failure to make it beyond the semi-finals of the World Championships in Berlin.  Then a best of 2:01.52 in 2010, and a failure to qualify for the African Championships.  2011 saw a best of 2:09.12.  An astonishing fall from the highest peak, fully 15 seconds off her consistent times from 2008.

And now she may be back - 2012 has seen Jelimo return to sub-2 minute territory for the first time since 2009, and that's been indoors.  She won the World Indoor title recently, in 1:58.83, a second sub-2 min clocking on the boards, and won the gold convincingly.  And yes, it is difficult to use indoors as a barometer for the Games, but it's nevertheless a good start and the talk from Jelimo has been promising.

She'll hopefully be back and ready for an event that has seen its fair share of drama, even without her.  There is no athlete in the world more "mysterious" (which is to say, not understood at all) as Caster Semenya.  Jelimo's "disappearance" in 2009 was barely noticed in the storm that gathered around the South African.  Also 18, she too exploded onto the scene, winning a few low key races before making her debut for the world in Berlin.  There, she won easily, and the heavens opened with accusations that she was male.  Controversy, gender verification tests, controversy and a return to the podium for silver in 2011 followed, amidst allegations of deliberately running slowly and losing on purpose to deflect attention, and of still being a man.  Semenaya runs under a microscope few others can imagine.

She'll do the same in 2012, until there is more transparency regarding what happened with regards to her treatment during 2009 and 2010 - the athletics fraternity will remain untrusting and the media will continue to cheer her defeats (as allegedly happened in Daegu when Savinova overhauled her).  She kicked her 2012 season off with a pretty slow 2:03.60 in a local meet here in SA.  That's fully 6.6% off her best, and is the equivalent of David Rudisha kicking off with a 1:51!

It would be "typical" for an elite athlete to start their season and improve by 2 to 3% (2 to 3.5 seconds over 800m), and 6.6% is a big jump to make.  But it's difficult to interpret, because an athlete like Semenya doesn't to be fast to win against weak local opposition, and has the 'luxury' of starting gradually.

So it will be interesting to see how she goes in the first few races of the European season.  Her large variability in performance (last year she was going from well outside 2 minutes to well inside fairly regularly), her racing strategy and apparent ease of running will attract more speculation.

All in all, there are few events with more intrigue than the women's 800m.

5.  The Olympic fashion show begins - why the kit is more important than one might think

If it's an Olympic year, and that means the race to unveil the latest in sports clothing is on.  Some nations have gone for designer kit, like Italy with Giorgio Armani, Great Britain with Stella McCartney.  The GB reviews were not great - not enough red, they said, even though it seemed to have about as much red as they always have.

I get the feeling you can never win with these high-profile kit launches - recently, in Australia, adidas launched the super lightweight kit and hurdler Sally Pearson commented that it was so light it was like being naked.  Of course, that's the quote that was sent around the world, and once taken out of context, "super light" no longer seems super complimentary!

This kit launch topic got a few people talking over on our Facebook and Twitter pages.  I can appreciate that people want to watch sport, and don't appreciate when it gets transformed into fashion.

But I think this fashion focus is good for two reasons.  One is that if the kit was low-key and understated, the sport would reach far fewer people.  The reality is that sport doesn't appeal to everyone, just as fashion doesn't appeal to everyone.  But by overlapping them, even if only for a day or two, it raises awareness of the athletes and the events.  If there are 100 people who have now seen Jessica Ennis or Phillips Idowu because they were shown on Sky News and in newspaper modeling McCartney's designs, then the sport of athletics is better off for it.

Secondly, I think the importance of good kit is undervalued as a performance enhancer.  Not for the obvious reason that it keeps athletes cool or light or any of the other "gimmicks" that are often sold with kit, but because it says to the athlete that "we invest in you".  This psychological factor is more obvious in the other direction - if you neglect to look after the athlete's image, then you undermine their professionalism.  I'm lucky (or unlucky, actually) to experience this in SA, where our Olympic Committee often bungle the kit - in Beijing, we got what the athletes themselves described as grandma's knitting, and many refused to wear it for training, saying it was just too hot, itchy and uncomfortable.  Ahead of London, nobody knows what we're getting, but among the athletes I'm involved with, nobody is exactly holding their breath.

I worked with SA Canoeing, who didn't even provide kit to their aspirant Olympic paddlers, other than a suit to race in.  No out of competition kit at all, and that contrast between us and the likes of Germany, GB and France at the World Championships I attended in Poznan in 2010 was stark - clothes don't necessarily make the man, but they help the athlete a heck of a lot, especially when he doesn't have any compared to rivals who have everything!  The clothes are a symptom of the system-wide attitude to excellence, and the reality is that if the powers that be shared a mindset of excellence, they'd recognize that kit fits into that ethos.  Some nations succeed despite their kit, which again points to a larger problem of professionalism and "elitism" of attitudes towards success and excellence.

And there's a snap reaction to that, where athletes (and me) can be labeled "primadonnas", but that's not fair either (in this case).  I have been lucky (and I mean it this time) to have worked with SA Sevens, where we've tried very hard to foster professionalism, and recognize that this kind of thing really matters.  So if I'm an Olympic athlete, racing in kit that has been commissioned by my management from Stella McCartney, made by adidas (or Armani, in the case of Italy, or Hilfiger for the USA), then that's worth a tiny bonus.  And who knows, perhaps those tiny bonuses add up to difference between reaching a final or not, between winning a medal or being fourth...?

That's a wrap for this week's Olympic Buzz around the Rings.  It was a long one - that's only because I had a month's worth of news to sum up!  From now on, a weekly Buzz should be shorter!

Bring on the Games!


Question answers:

The first woman to win an Olympic medal was Pauline Konga, who won silver in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic 5000m race.

The first Kenyan gold was as recently as 2008 - Pamela Jelimo in the 800m. She was followed only days later by Nancy Langat in the 1500m, but Beijing was the first time that a Kenyan gold medalist was female.  By the end of London, they may have doubled that number...