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Friday, June 15, 2012

Olympic buzz: Nike's super-fast clothes, USADA's Armstrong case and on-track action

Olympic buzz: The USADA charges, the Nike Turbospeed Track Suit and on-track action

Three relatively short comments today, as we move into the final six weeks before the London Olympic Games start.  We look today at the USADA charges against Lance Armstrong, then shift to the Games to look at Nike's new suit and the claims it makes for performance, and wrap up with some brief thoughts on Ethiopia's emerging medal prospects in London, including Bekele's return and Ethiopia's women.

USADA charges Lance Armstrong: Pieces worth reading

First, a story that is not directly linked to the 2012 Olympic Games, but is without doubt the biggest news in the world of sport (and sports science and sports law) this week - USADA announced that it would be bringing charges against Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France champion.

Much has been written about this in the two days since the story broke, and anything I write is merely repeating what other have stated in more detail, so I rather direct you to the following excellent pieces for further details and insights:
  • The letter sent by USADA to Armstrong and five other "accused" informing them of charges.  In case you've missed it, this is NOT a case about Armstrong and doping.  Rather, it casts the net wider, and most significantly, is pursuing the "conspiracy" (the word used in the letter) to dope by teams of which Armstrong was a member.  As such, those five men accused along with Armstrong include manager Johan Bruyneel, three doctors including the infamous Michele Ferrari, and a coach who worked for US Postal during the Armstrong era.  The letter has some explosive allegations and lists them in some detail.  It also includes mention, but not details of the "numerous former riders and employees" of Armstrong's teams who will testify that they witnessed a range of offences including possession, trafficking, administration, aiding, abetting and covering-up doping offences on the team. 

  • The significant point about the case is that it is not a pursuit of one cyclist for doping.  As mentioned, it is about process, and the best piece I read on this features on "The Inner Ring" website.  It describes the case, and the focus on doping system, rather than on one case.  It also introduces the important point that the absence of a positive test is relatively meaningless (see: Ullrich, Basso, Jones, Montgomery, Valverde), and it explains what happens next.  If you have time, go through the comments section as well, they're very insightful and thought-provoking.

  • Finally, a concise summary of where this has come from, and where it may lead, comes from Bonnie Ford and TJ Quinn of ESPN.  It explains the link to the Federal investigation of Armstrong that was dropped in February (that was a criminal case, this is not, and more), issues around jurisdiction and sanctions, the intriguing mention of the samples from 2009 and 2010 tests which were "consistent" with doping, and speculates on who might testify.
There are many other good articles on the subject, but I'm sure most have seen more than enough by now!  I have also used our Twitter account to send those links out as I stumble across them myself, so if you haven't followed us, and want to keep more up to date, Twitter is where it's at.

I'll say the following three things about the Armstrong case:

First, many people are saying that it's time to move on, that too much time has elapsed and that the focus should be on the future.  I disagree, for a number of reasons.  The first in principle.  Saying "it's too late, let it go" is saying that if you can get away with something illegal for long enough, then you can get away with it forever.  That doesn't work.  And yes, I appreciate the concept of a statute of limitations (see the ESPN article I linked to above for more on this), but I would take the view of John Lancaster in this piece, where he argues that "determining the truth about Armstrong's past is vital to the well-being of cycling's present".

This is particularly true in this case, because, for the third time (sorry to labour the point), this is not exclusively about Armstrong.  It is about the system, and the most "exciting" thing about it is that the evidence presented may expose the internal doping system from the top-down.  That is something that has long been lacking, because the sole spotlight always falls on the doped rider, when it's the organization that enables doping that needs to be carved down.  So my view there is that any cycling fan who wishes to see the sport advance even further should celebrate the opportunity to fully expose the corruption that put it there in the first place.

The other important point there is that UCI stand to lose considerable face if the verdict goes against "the conspirators".  That is, part of the allegation is that the UCI contributed to covering up Armstrong' doping positives.  Prof Michael Ashenden, always outspoken about doping cases, including this terrific interview where he states the science behind Armstrong's EPO positive in 2001, alludes to this in this article, saying that a finding of a cover-up would be fatal for the UCI's credibility.

Returning to the case, I'd say that anyone interesting in seeing cycling move forward should probably take very seriously the prospects that the sport is run by people who would cover up the tests as is alleged.  So this is yet another angle that makes these charges relevant today.  Bottom line - don't believe the PR machine that says this is a "vendetta" and that everyone should leave the retired rider alone.  There's more to this than that.

Second point - there need not be a smoking gun.  A lot of people are still pointing to the "more than 500 tests" that Armstrong passed (since rounded up to 600).  That's all good and well, but again, see: Ullrich, Valverde, Basso, Jones, Montgomery.  This is a point we've laboured in the last few years here on this site, but the truth is that a positive test does not necessarily equal a ban, and a negative test does not equal innocence.  Such is the climate of anti-doping these days, so the sooner we leave this dependence on a clearly beatable system, the better.

That, and realize that witness accounts, particularly from direct witnesses rather than hearsay, are often used to convict people of murder.  So doping?  It's not the weak evidence that is argued.  One person making an accusation?  That can be dismissed as a disgruntled former employee (a bike mechanic, perhaps).  The second accuser? Dismissed as malice or vendetta.  But when the slow drip turns into a raging torrent, then even with the right incentive to testify, you can't just discount them all as malice or jealousy.  Of course, each witness account must be corroborated, and there's still a standard to uphold, but it's too lazy to simply dismiss everyone with the same strategy.

And finally, I hope that the evidence emerges.  In all likelihood, much will happen behind closed doors at first, and perhaps with every intention of keeping it that way.  But this opaqueness has long been part of the problem, and I'm all for more transparency.

The Nike Turbospeed Track Suit: Technological doping or marketing games?

The next story is that of Nike's unveiling of its Olympic track kit today (see pic right).  They claim that it will improve 100m sprint performance by 0.023 seconds, the importance of which they illustrate by pointing out that it would have been the difference between a bronze and silver medal for Walter Dix in Beijing.  Their secret is strategically placed dimples on the fast-moving arms and legs that improve aerodynamics in much the same way that a dimpled golf ball flies considerably further than it would were it smooth.

There are two interesting questions arising out of this story.  First, does the suit actually work?  It's all good and well to say, as the Nike Olympics Creative Director has, that "We've tested them over 100m, 200m and 400m and couldn't believe the numbers".  Call me a skeptic, but until I see the results of that testing, and perhaps more importantly, the methods, I'm not convinced about a 0.2% difference.  The only mention I am able to find of the testing is that it comprised 1000 hours of wind-tunnel testing.  The fact of the matter is that this kind of claim is made every four years - the marketing battle between Nike and Adidas ensures that every new design is "revolutionary".  And this seems further advanced than most, but given the financial stakes here, the default response is "believe with caution".

Performance-wise, the advantage they are touting, the 0.023 seconds, amounts to just over 0.2% in a 100m race.  The improvement over longer distances would be even smaller, if this suit behaved in the same way that swimsuits did, because as the speed drops, so too does the relative aerodynamic benefit (For example, the breast-stroke events got the smallest advantage from the suits, freestyle and fly the largest).

This 0.2% is a tiny improvement, and while it can indeed make the difference between gold and silver, it's small enough that even the slightest "error" in the testing methods (either deliberate or unavoidable) could easily undo it.  I'm no aerodynamic engineer, of course, and so I'll bow to those who have specific expertise, but I do worry about the validity of testing a garment in a wind tunnel.

The second issue relates to technological doping.  Of course, this issue assumes that the garment works to begin with - I have my doubts, but many in the media seem to have swallowed the science whole.  But if it does, then the inevitable questions and comparisons will arise - remember the swimsuit sage of 2008 and 2009?  Back then, super-fast, buoyant suits helped swimmers break 25 World and 65 Olympic records in all but two events in the pool in Beijing.  They then saw 43 world records fall in the 2009 World Championships.  In the three years since those World Championships, we've seen a grand total of two world records!

Inevitably, these running outfits are being compared to the swimsuits.  That's a misplaced comparison, because this advantage (0.2%) is nowhere near what the suits seem to have provided.  For example, the difference between 2009 (suit-aided) and 2011 (non-suit aided) performances in the swimming sprint events was about 1.6%, so that's almost 8-fold greater than the running suit.  Bottom line - the swimsuits were another level of technological assistance, Nike's Turbospeed suit may or may not work, but by comparison, it's a tiny benefit.

There is the philosophical question, however:  Should the suit be banned in the same way that doping would (and should) be banned, even if it produced a debatable improvement in the range of 1%?  As I see it, a ban on a substance is for numerous reasons, and performance advantage is only one of them.  One such reason is a health risk - a crucial reason doping control exists is to protect athletes who don't want to risk their health in order to compete and win.  Then there is whether the device creates an unequal playing field because it is inaccessible or unobtainable for some.  Certainly, the latter issue can be debated here.  It was a problem for many swimmers, who were tied into sponsorships that prevented them from getting into the super-fast suits in Beijing.  The same would probably be true of the Nike Turbospeed Suit, but then it's not a health risk.  And again, I'm not convinced about the performance advantage.

Taking an even broader view, one can argue about modern tennis rackets, cricket bats, baseball bats, golf clubs, starting blocks, gymnastics apparatus and just about every piece of equipment which has morphed (or transformed) over time into what we now accept as 'normal'.  So do we need to draw a line?  As far as I'm concerned, with the CAS ruled that carbon-fiber prosthetic limbs conferred no advantage, they opened a door on many technological advancements.  In this instance, I'm just not convinced of the performance benefit.

One last thought - I was watching the Beijing Olympic highlights today and couldn't help notice that Usain Bolt doesn't even run in a tight-fitting skin-suit.  And that's true today - Bolt races in a vest, which flaps around in the considerable wind that he generates as he hits 44 km/hour!  The creative designers at Nike would be aghast!

On-track action: Diamond League takes a break for trials, but London is building nicely

And finally, much has been happening on the tracks around the world with the Diamond League athletics series crossing the Atlantic between Rome, Oslo, Eugene and New York.  There have been a number of notable performances - David Rudisha cruised to a sub-1:42 in New York, Usain Bolt had a bad run in Ostrava, then bounced back with two sub-9.8s to remind everyone that he remains the alpha-dog of men's sprinting.  Yohan Blake's statement ended rather flatly in New York as he ran "only" 9.90s, hours after Tyson Gay returned to racing with a 10.00s into a 1.5 m/s wind.  Gay attempts to qualify for the USA team this weekend, but the men's 100m has some questions against it yet. 

Kenenisa Bekele continued his comeback, quietly finding improvements in all the right areas.  His debut didn't exactly light up the track world, as he ran only 7:40 for seventh in the 3000m in Doha.  Then he ran 13:13.89 in admittedly poor conditions in Shanghai, finishing sixth.  He then got down to 13:01.48 for fourth in Eugene, where his lack of final lap speed was exposed again.  And finally, he ran 13:00.54 in Oslo.  That was in an erratic race, badly paced, but his final lap was faster than in Eugene (around 56s vs 57s) and augurs well for Bekele.

Elite athletes are elite precisely because they respond so rapidly to training, and given eight weeks of training from that race, Bekele cannot be ruled out as a medal favourite, particularly in the 10,000m.  The attribute that he seems to have lost, and which is often most difficult to regain, is that ability to shift gears at the bell, and to sprint.  The fascinating question for Bekele will be 1) can he continue the current rate of improvement, and 2) how will he race, assuming he doesn't have the ability to control the race in the final lap as he did so brilliantly in Beijing four years ago?

The biggest "change" in the world order, however, has been the emergence of Ethiopia's women.  Only a month ago, it seemed that Kenya had all the women's distance events cornered.  Then came Fantu Magiso in the 800m, Genzebe Dibaba and Abebe Arigawe in the 1500m, and now the return of Tirunesh Dibaba in the women's 5000m and 10,000m.  Of course, Vivian Cheruiyot awaits in those events in London, and that may well produce the races of the Games.

In New York, Dibaba was spectacular in defeating Meseret Defar - in an admittedly slow race, she hit the front with three laps to go and ended up running the final 1500m in about 4:05.  Defar was crushed by 50m, and Dibaba didn't even look troubled.  Given that Defar had been challenging Cheruiyot, Dibaba looks like a real problem on the horizon for Kenya's medals.  And so remarkably, the return of Dibaba and the emergence of middle distance stars means that where one month ago, Kenya looked good to win four or five gold medals, they now face a struggle to win one!

Such is the pull of the Olympic Games, and the raised stakes it can produce.

With six weeks to go, there is undoubtedly more to come!


Monday, June 04, 2012

Four quick thoughts on Comrades 2012

Four quick thoughts on the 2012 Comrades Ultra-marathon

A more "South African-centric" post today, since it covers a very South African race.  Hopefully, one that promotes or encourages more international presence for the race though.  Here are some thoughts on the Comrades Ultra-Marathon.

Yesterday saw the 2012 running of South Africa's biggest ultra-marathon, the Comrades Ultra-marathon.  This race, for those who don't know, takes runners between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, a distance of 89 km, just over 55 miles.  The race alternates direction, so that one year, it's called the "up" run (Durban to Pietermaritzburg), and the year after, it's a "down" run (Pietermaritzburg to Durban).  The 2012 race was a "down" run, and the profile of the race is shown below (courtesy a runner in the race), just to illustrate the challenge faced by the 15,000 odd runners who typically start.

Added to this are typically warm temperatures and humid conditions in Durban - yesterday was a relatively mild day, with a temperature of about 23 degrees celsius in the shade, and bright sunshine for most of the day.  The temperature in direct sunlight, incidentally, was about 28 degrees for the warmest four hours of the day.  These are temperatures that come with health warnings in standard marathons in the USA and Europe, I must point out!  Cut-off time is 12 hours, the winning time is typically 5:30 for the men and 6:15 for the women.  It's a race that has managed to weave itself into the running DNA of South Africans, and for good reason - it is an epic race and if ultra-marathons are your thing, then I'd highly encourage you to come along and run this race one day!

But yesterday, my involvement was with the television broadcast, as I was part of the commentary team.  I've done the odd stint before, more as a guest contributor, but this was the first big involvement, and I thought I'd share some insights on the men's race, the women's race, the TV broadcast and the race in general.  So herewith, four quick thoughts on one of the world's great Ultra-marathons.

1.  The men's race: Some trash-talk, a lesson in realism, and a race of attrition

Understanding the men's race requires going back to a press conference held the Thursday before the race.  At this conference, the race became all about three men, who influenced the race more by their words than their strides.  Defending champion Stephen Muzinghi, course record holder Leonid Shvetsov and SA marathon record holder Gert Thys produced one of the more memorable press conferences leading up to a running race, and ensured that all eyes would be on them.  For example, it was revealed that Muzinghi has already been driving a sponsored car with the words "Comrades champion 2012" emblazoned on it.  Leonid Shvetsov said that his only previous defeats at Comrades (2009 by Muzinghi among them) were more because he lost the race, not that they had been good enough to beat him.  So the two of them were set up as the heavy-weight contenders, with a little more trash-talk than we're used to seeing from ultra-marathon runners!

Then there was Gert Thys.  One of South Africa's marathon legends, he now talks as fast as he used to run.  He claimed that a sub-5 hour Comrades would be "easy".  Not "possible", but "easy".   Just to give you the context, the current record is 5:20:49, and taking 20:49 is the equivalent of lowering the marathon record from its current 2:03:38 to 1:55:36....

Even if you think that the Comrades record is a little weak, you just don't knock around 3% or more off a record at once.  The basis for Thys' claims was that he's South Africa's fastest ever marathon runner, and a legend of the marathon discipline - back in 1998, before the days of 2:03 marathons, Thys was a world class performer, there is no doubt about that.  His 2:06:33 in 1999, along with a few other sub-2:08s made him the most consistently fast marathon runner in the world at the time.

So Thys was of the opinion that if you can run a 2:06, then running a 2:20 would be easy.  And if that was easy, then doing another would be possible.  Add on 5km and you have your sub-5 hour Comrades.  One might point out that the 2:06 was 14 years ago...  And that when you're training to run an 89km race, you don't keep that kind of marathon shape, but he felt confident.  It might also be worth pointing out that earlier this year, Thys raced in the 56km Two Oceans marathon, where he finished in 3:09.  To run a 5-hour Comrades would require that he ran the SAME pace for 89km as he had done for 56km.  It was just never going to happen, but it was this claim, and Thys' attempt to deliver on it, that set up the pattern of the race.

So to his credit, he did exactly what he said he would.  When the first pictures from the course were beamed through the darkness at the top of a famous climb called Polly Shorts at 8km, Thys was already ahead of the pre-race favourites.  The gap as early as that was over a minute, and the hammer was clearly down.  There may have been a gap, but everyone was being pulled into this super fast early pace.

Thys wasn't the early leader, but he did assume the lead inside the first two hours of the race, and then all the talk was whether he was actually capable of sustaining this pace.  And of course, the answer would be no, for the obvious reason that he was running pretty close to his personal maximum speed for 50km, and hoping for another 40km at the end of it.  He went through halfway in 2:35, projecting a 5:10 finish, but by this stage he had already slowed from the fast early pace.

Behind him, something of a group had formed, but they were also beginning to pay for a fast early pace.  The big chase group went through in 2:43, eight minutes behind, which may seem a big gap, but this is with a marathon plus 5km still to run, and much can (and does) happen.

Sure enough, at around 50km, Thys got the invoice for his early effort, and paid heavily.  He stopped to walk, and alternated walking and running for the next 30 minutes, as that eight minute lead was steadily cut and eventually completely eroded.  Shortly before the 60km mark, Thys abandoned the race.  He would later say that it was problems with blood sugar (he has had these problems before, and has some 'peculiar' ideas about energy replacement and glucose during exercise, but that's another story).

Nevertheless, Thys' fingerprint remained on the race, for his early aggression had done damage to the main field.  The dilemma they faced was that while none honestly believed that he would stay in the lead and actually run the pace he promised (the three podium finishers all hinted at this in the post-race press conference), they were nevertheless drawn into that pace.  Thys was an enigma, a first-time Comrades runner who talked confidently and called on his 2:06 to back him up, and that unknown quantity sucked everyone into a fast start.

That would tell in the second half of the race, which became more about survival than it was about attack.  Given the profile of the race (see above), the Comrades Down run is normally run with a negative split, the second half being much faster than the first.  This is the optimal way to run it.  But pulled along by Thys, the main field started incredibly fast, reached halfway in 2:43 (already slowing down considerably from the first 25km) and then ground out the second half.  Ultimately, not a single top ten finisher managed to run a negative split.  Even those who finished strongest were running big positive splits and for that, Thys can take much of the credit.

The result, at the sharp end of the race, however, was that time gaps were established very early, and the strongest runner of the day found himself in the lead with about 35 km still to run.  That man was Ludwick Mamabolo, who had come second the last time the down run was held in 2010, and this year, committed to going one better.  He assumed the lead from a walking Thys and never relented.

The only thing that changed was the identity of his challenger.  One by one, a potential threat emerged from the chasers, but soon fell away.  And then there was the ever-present threat of a Stephen Muzinghi challenge, the Zimbabwean hovering back at about 2 min down pretty much the whole way. That challenge never materialized, as Muzinghi too would fade at the end, probably paying for his own early pace, and the Two Oceans title he won in April.  No man has won both the Two Oceans and Comrades in the same year since 1974 - it's just so physiologically demanding to race both within 8 weeks.

So what we eventually got was a solo run to the finish line, which appeared to lack the usual drama of Comrades, where a bunch splits up progressively after halfway, where leads change hands, athletes fold and the excitement builds in the final 20km.  This race, in hindsight, was created with 89km to go, and then it was decided with 40km to go.  That's not to say there wasn't drama behind.  The top 10 at the finish line was completely different to the top 10 with 15 km to run - it was as if the cards were being shuffled in the pack.  Some runners went backwards, some came through strongly, then blew, others did finish strongly, most notably Leboka Noto who got third, and Shvetsov, who grabbed fifth and beat Muzinghi, a mini-victory of sorts for the Russian.  None of this was seen on TV, unfortunately, because only one motorbike camera was on the course and so much of the drama happened "anonymously" (more on this below).

But in the end, the ace in the pack, and the only man who didn't change positions in the final 20km, was Mamabolo, who won in 5:31:03.   Second went to Bongmusa Mthembu, and third to fast-finishing Noto.  As for the big three pre-race favourites, a DNF, a fifth and a sixth are reminders that when you race over 89km, the margins are small.  So perhaps best not to talk before you run.  And invest in a new coat of paint for your car if you're Stephen Muzinghi.

Women's race: Same outcome, different process, as Nurgalieva wins.  Again

The women's race, as has become tradition, was won by Elena Nurgalieva of Russia.  This was her tenth race, and she claimed her seventh win, to go with two second places and a third.  That level of consistency is remarkable given how much can go wrong in a race of this length.  She's managed to avoid, or overcome, all those factors, as well as rivals, who it must be said, have been thin on the ground in many races.  Usually, the biggest threat is twin sister Olesiya, who missed the 2012 race after having a child a few weeks ago.

This year, however, she did find herself in a race.  Here too, the identity of the challengers changed.  First it was America's Devon Crosby Helms who showed strongly, but soon faded.  Then Natalya Volgina pressed at the front, but dropped off after halfway.  And then it was Eleanor Greenwood, an accomplished ultra runner from the UK, now living in Canada, who really did extend Nugalieva.  She linked up with the Russian around halfway, and showed more than enough aggression to drive what had been a sedate early pace faster and faster.

That would get rid of Volgina's challenge, but unfortunately, the pace would also tell on Greenwood, who started to feel cramp coming on with about 20km to go.  It reduced her to a walk on Cowie's Hill, though I have to say it was one of the more aggressive walks I've seen.  She may have had to walk, but she was going to minimize any time losses by power walking up the hill.  In the end, she succeeded, remarkably managing to keep the gap to just over one minute, despite a mix of walking and running for the final hour and a half.

Nurgalieva has the race perfected, however, and she went on to record her fastest ever time, a 6:07:12. She showed her quality, to resist a very good challenge from Greenwood.  The women's splits show how the race should be run - 3:07 to halfway and 3:00 for the second half.  The gap between second and third was enormous, fully 23 minutes, which does reveal that there is still something of a lack of depth in the women's race, despite its ever growing appeal.

As for the South Africans, first was Kerry Koen in sixth place, and the usual post-mortems about why our South African women cannot compete with the Russians (and now English) women.  The simple truth is that our women Comrades runners are too slow over standard marathons.  Most of the SA women in this race have marathon bests of around 2:50 to 3 hours.  So here again, if the Comrades winning time is going to be 6:10, you need to run back-to-back marathons in 2:55, with an extra 5km.

Can you do that, when your best marathon is 2:50?  Simple answer, no.  So in the same way that Gert Thys demonstrated that a 5-hour Comrades is not possible, SA women reveal the key principle that running distances are inter-connected, and so you need to recognize that just because your performance at the Comrades distance is the problem, the root cause lies elsewhere.  In this case, it's the lack of marathon credentials that our women bring into the race.  Until SA can develop a group of 2:30-something women marathon runners, who then turn to Comrades, it will continue to be a good day for the GDP of Russian athletes.

And the same principle, incidentally, is true for anyone reading this.  If you are stuck at a longer distance, my advice is to turn to the shorter distance to find the improvement.  It's not always true, of course, particularly among the elites, but for most, get faster shorter, and build on that as you increase the distance.

3.  The TV broadcast:  Criticisms and experiences

Right, so on to my involvement, the TV coverage.  The feedback from the viewing public has not been great - the Twitter comments were not great, and neither are those on the running boards here in SA.  In fact, they've been scathing, of the production more than the commentary (we pretty much worked off the concept "Here are the pictures, talk").  I hope that my own commentary wasn't too much part of the problem (if you have suggestions, especially criticism, then I really would love to hear them.  In a positive way of course, but please don't hold back - how else can anyone improve without criticism?)

I think the bigger issue, which is regrettable, is one of budget.  Followed by politics.  I don't know much about either, but it's quite clear that there are limitations in what can be achieved.  I'm loathe to be too critical, because having now been part of the machine, I recognize the challenges faced by people responsible, who are, for the most part, working hard with good intentions to deliver a quality product.  And honestly, I think it's relatively good.  It can always improve, yes, but some of the criticism is just destructive, and I'd again encourage you to be constructive with your views.  There are many global races that have at least a similar standard to what I saw yesterday.

And yes, there are problems.  I mentioned above that in the men's race, a lot of the drama was happening off camera, because there was only one motor-bike for the elite men.  That's because the second bike had a mechanical failure, and so where normally, we'd see the chaser and the changes in position behind, yesterday we only heard about it and watched the eventual winner.  That's a budget thing, through and through.  If you watch the Tour de France, realize that there are three helicopters and four motor-bike cameras, for a race of 180 cyclists bunched tightly together.  Here's we're on one helicopter and two bikes (one men, one women), for a race with time gaps of many minutes.  And yes, "budget" is a frustrating excuse, but it's the reality.  I do wish it were better, however, and I sympathize with this frustration.

But commentary-wise, my thoughts.  First, we don't seem to appreciate the value of silence.  Sometimes it's good to let the pictures do the talking.  Not for minutes at a time, but sometimes a pause is more powerful than forcing comment.  What happens instead is that there's a lot of direct pressure (there's a director in your ear) to keep going, keep talking, and the result is that people often start saying things because they're pushed to, not because they want to.  That adds up to inane and meaningless commentary, sometimes.  I did it myself yesterday, on numerous occasions, though it was better than usual.  There've been times in the past, depending who else is in the commentary team, that it feels more like a competition to see who can say the most in the shortest time!

Then one of the issues we have in SA is a language one.  We need, quite rightly, to take this race to all followers.  That means the commentary team has to have English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa.  It also needs males, females, and because this is SA, it needs black, white in each category.  Reality of SA, unfortunately (if you are international and bemused...welcome to SA).

So the team is put together this way, and it swells under the demographic pressures.  Add another white male, another white female etc and eventually, it's too many people, and the quality is inevitably to be diluted, even if only because they chop and change so often that as a commentator, you can't tell a story, work with characters.  There is a belief in the SABC that variety is better, but that's only true when it does not come at the expense of quality.  And yes, Comrades is a mammoth day, 12 hours of talking, but five or six excellent commentators will do better than ten, if they have more quality.

This also introduces the problem with what many of you suggest - you can't have split audio feeds because then you would need a team of commentators for each language, because it would be boring to have the same person for 12 hours.  So rather than have a squad of 30 commentators (imagine the quality then), they go with alternating language.  An english commentator, Zulu (or Sotho or Afrikaans) insight and so on.  A lot of people got really irritated with that, but it's a reality of SA, and I don't have a problem with it at all.

Next, is the training of commentators.  Now, I'm one of them, and for all I know, it was painful to listen to.  I got some feedback, some good, some bad, for which I'm grateful, but here's the thing - there is no training, no mentorship.  The way it works is improvement by experience.  That is, you mess up, you practice, you hopefully get better.  Problem is, unless your learning is guided by someone outside, you adapt in the wrong direction.  Maybe get more verbose, more monotonous.  So it really requires some investment to teach people the basic skills, and review their performance.

I don't expect to get any official professional feedback from my own commentary performance, for example.  I may get the odd comment, which is usually a compliment (because people throw out compliments in passing, but rarely divulge criticisms because they're scared of hurting feelings).  And I hate this, because I had to have made mistakes.  I was either unclear, too verbose, too monotonous, inaccurate, irrelevant.  Not eloquent enough. Something will always go wrong, but unless you know specifically, how do you improve?  So I beg for someone to criticize, be negative, make suggestions that will help me improve.  Constructive criticism is hard to come by...

And I use myself as an example, but the point is that every one of us is in the same boat.  There's no official platform for self-improvement.  I'm begging to be criticized so that I can get better, but that facility doesn't exist.  So when you are watching and tearing your hair out at the commentary (and trust me, I can relate), just understand that everyone bar one or two in that Comrades commentary team is an amateur, who is knowledgeable and doing their best, but they're soldiers without weapons.  This lack of attention to quality is not unique to this situation - it's always easy to do something, it's much more difficult to do it well.  Recognizing the investment in people and that quality matters is the difference between average and good, good and great.

Finally, the other big criticism is the number of inserts and interviews that they run in the last part of the race.  Once the elite runners are in (by 7 hours), they have another 5 hours of TV coverage to show everyone else finishing the race.  I hope that we realize how special this is - it's unique to have a full day of TV broadcast when it's "only" the public running.  But this is Comrades, and this is what makes it special.

The result of this, however, is that there is footage of thousands of runners finishing, and the pressure is really on the commentators to provide some kind of audio to the image.  Appreciate how challenging that is for 5 hours.  What do you say?

So in answer to this, the SABC puts together a range of short inserts on stories within the race.  A man running for charity, a guy doing his 40th run, a historical reference of some sort.  And they show these in this five-hour period.  All good in principle.  Some of the inserts are good.  But the problem is that it really angers the viewers, because they are watching specifically to see their loved one finish!  So having sat in front of the TV screen for 2 hours in the hope of seeing that loved one for 2 seconds, they suddenly find that they're taken to an insert or an interview with a sponsor, or dignitary, or a charity, and that causes them to miss the footage they've spent hours waiting for.

It's rather like having the power fail as that key moment in the match is about to happen.  And it's here that it feels that perhaps we're a little out of touch with what the viewer really wants.  I wonder if the viewer wouldn't be happier just watching footage, getting the stadium announcer for long periods?

The best compromise, of course, is to have a split screen, and have your insert or interview playing, while you keep the camera on the runners as they finish.  And when doing interviews, don't show the presenter and interviewee, rather cut to the footage and keep it going.  I'm not sure whether there are financial implications to the split screen idea, but it does seem an easy win, based on the feedback I was seeing on Facebook and Twitter yesterday.

Anyway, that's a very South-African discussion topic, and I welcome your thoughts, as always.

4.  Comrades has a quality that must be experienced

Last point, and it's a short one.  The Comrades has a quality that really does need to be experienced to be understood.  Even if you just watch it.  It's part of our DNA in South Africa, this race, as it is so ingrained in our running culture.  Zola Budd, South Africa's famous barefoot champion of the 1980s,  ran Comrades yesterday and said tongue in cheek that she had to do it because in South Africa, you aren't recognized as a runner until you do!  (She ran with legend Bruce Fordyce, incidentally, and they finished in a respectable 8:06.  Fordyce was aiming for silver in 7:30, but had a difficult day.  Maybe also glucose problems with insufficient carbs...)

But until you experience the day, and in particular the last two hours, when over half the field finishes, you don't see the appeal. The most agonizing part of the day, but also the hook for most (consciously or not) is the 12-hour cut-off, when a gun is fired and whether you're within 3m of the finish line or not, you get no medal.  It's amazing to think that over 12 hours, 2 seconds can make the difference between a happy memory, a medal and contentment, as opposed to frustration and heart-ache when you have failed.  But that is the point, the challenge, and it's the reason to run the race, regardless of your ability.

 I was interviewed yesterday on TV and asked when I'd run it.  I dodged the question then, but I know it's the future, just because it's an event worth being part of.

Perhaps next year, this article will have been the seed that brings you to South Africa!