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Saturday, July 07, 2012

Olympic buzz: The Tour, Bolt vs Blake and other Olympic musings

The Olympic Buzz: The Tour, Bolt vs Blake, and more Olympic thoughts

July is traditionally our bumper period here on the Science of Sport, with the Tour and the peak of the athletics season, but unfortunately so far it's been a bumper period for "real work" too, hence the infrequent posting.  Between students, writing and recent work for the South African Olympic broadcaster Supersport, I've barely kept pace with all the developments in the lead-up to the Games and the Tour de France, let alone added any insight of my own!  As a result, much of the "energy" of the website has been funneled to our Twitter feed and Facebook page, where I have been posting thoughts and links to keep you abreast of the stories, so if you're not following there, now's the time.

But here are three thoughts, dealing with Bolt and Blake, the Tour de France, and other Olympic musings.

Le Tour - attrition, predictability and doping clouds

The race

As I write this, the Tour is heading upwards and into the mountains for the first real shake-up of the overall classification.  Since the prologue, where Cancellara re-affirmed himself as cycling's best short TT man, little (read: nothing) has changed in the way of jersey wearers.

There's been drama, most of it in the form of crashes and events off the bike, but all the major yellow jersey contenders have bided their time, waiting for today's finish and the mountains and long time-trials that lie ahead.  Some have been unsuccessful at avoiding the carnage and race-damage caused by accidents, and yesterday's stage into Metz saw a number of names lose considerable time, and remind us that while it takes almost 90 hours of racing to win the Tour, you can lose it in a second.  You can catch up on who has lost what in this article, but Schleck, Hesjedal (who has since abaondoned the race) Gesink, Valverde and Brajkovic were among those affected.  By today's 7th stage, 17 riders had abandoned, which is the highest since 1998, and that was only because an entire team (Festina) was kicked off for doping.  So it has certainly been attritional, and not for the ideal reasons!

What the crash does is remove many men from overall contention, but shifts their focus to stage wins, which may mean more aggression at least in terms of break-aways.  On the other hand, the format of the race, with the two long time-trials, means that attacking in the mountains was always going to be the only play for many climbing specialists anyway, and Wiggins and Evans, who will look at the time-trials as their battle-ground to gain time, can assess and respond to those breakaways a little differently now.

Lionel Birnie wrote an interesting piece on the predictability of the Tour, suggesting that the race was in danger of stagnating and the its organizers needed to take action to prevent this.  A few people responded to a tweet about this saying that if you find it boring, it's because you don't understand the sport, which is a) foolish to say given Birnie's history in the sport, and b) missing the point.  Birnie makes the distinction between the quality of the race and it's lack of 'change', for want of a better word. And I agree.

The point is that when sport becomes predictable, it loses value.  Its biggest asset is the uncertainty, and the likelihood that anything can happen.  The first week of the Tour has brought drama and crashes, it has brought great sprints and revealed new superstars (Sagan).  It has brought some debate (Sagan's tactical duel with Cancellara for example), and it has brought the team tactics and speculation over who has what form?  But it has also brought pretty much exactly what most people expected it to bring - jersey wearers on Saturday who will retain their jerseys throughout the first week, the usual hopeful breakaway that is reeled in within reach of the finish, and impressive sprints to the grab stage wins, without shaking up the overall race.

And yes, the overall race unfolds over three weeks, and with the start of the mountains and Monday's time-trial looming, the focus now shifts to the GC, but like Birnie, I feel there's something missing in week 1, and that 'something' is the uncertainty that sport needs.

The doping shadow

Outside the race, of course, there is plenty of uncertainty, and it revolves around the shadow of doping that continues to hover over the sport of cycling.  When USADA announced their investigation into the doping conspiracy by Armstrong and five others only weeks before the Tour, it was inevitable that the story would permeate throughout the race around France.

And when a leaked story emerged on Thursday, alleging that four current Tour riders and Jonathan Vaughters had testified and were given suspended six-month bans, the reaction was swift.  At first, USADA took a beating - how could the anti-doping body negotiate reduced sentences for dopers?  How dare they suspend the sentences for some people, and offer some form of leniency in return for testimony?  Of course, doing this is morally acceptable, and it happens all the time, not only in sport, but in criminal investigations too.  It's as it should be - if you don't incentivize the truth, nobody would ever tell it, especially when they are already in the belly of the beast, as it were.  If cycling is to clean up its act, it requires that its riders, who are almost always part of the complex and intricate doping web (because honestly, who else can reveal how cheating happens if not a cheat?), come forward, and short of incentivizing this, it'll never happen.

But then the story was flatly denied, and the plot thickened.  Much has been written about it since, but this is one of the best commentaries on the leak, what it means, and how one might react to it.  It makes this observation:
"Regardless of where the leak fits into any broader legal or public relations strategy on the part of its U.S.-based source, it seems clear by its timing and its scope — not a full list of witnesses, only Tour de France participants — that it is intended to inflict maximum damage to the public image of the named parties.
As one of cycling’s few crossover successes, the Tour and its news reach the general public and the casual fan, and by timing the leak for the Tour’s first week, the source ensured that the names traveled beyond mere cycling circles, and that they would be perceived by the average news consumer as getting away with something by admitting doping and riding the Tour at the same time. By political standards, it was a shrewd move."
Those within cycling saw this news report, naming Hincapie, Leipheimer, Vande velde, Vaughters and Zabriskie as witnesses, and reacted with little more than cursory acknowledgement.  It's barely news, because the history of the case provides the context to know that they are likely to have spoken out.  That was only fueled when the four riders withdrew from USA Olympic team selection, so most who follow cycling barely registered the names.  To those outside, of course, it's different.

The problem, I guess, for Armstrong and his mighty PR machine, is that these men are more difficult to discredit than the previous witnesses, Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton. Both of them are known dopers, and they (gasp!) lied about doping after the fact.  Eventually, they came clean, and when they named Armstrong, they could be attacked for being greedy, dishonest, ambitious, conniving etc.

The same is not true of "The Five".  So what better strategy than to portray them as a) dopers, b) manipulative cheats who will tell USADA what they want to hear to save themselves, and c) getting away with it?  It's the defense strategy in a crystal ball.

There was some confusion, however, because having initially positioned the PR message as one of "look at how USADA are victimizing me" and "don't believe them, they're cheats", Armstrong later tried to portray the five as victims too.  He also worked himself into the awkward position of basically pointing out that everyone in his own team doped, before trying to argue that he, as the leader and most successful rider, didn't!  So not only did all his major challengers dope, so did his domestiques, his helpers, but he did it clean.  But that again is clear only to those who follow cycling outside of the Tour.  The overall thrust of the leak and reaction was one of strategically placed "explosives" to undermine the case, and one can see now why USADA has tried to keep the names of all its witnesses confidential.  It's a mighty force to come up against.

As for the final question asked by this article, what do we make of the riders who testify, even when they implicate themselves as dopers in the past?  Or are they the whistle-blowers whose testimony may help rid cycling, once and for all, of its affliction (I nearly said "cancer" there, then remembered Paul Kimmage...he is one of the real whistle-blowers, by the way, along with David Walsh, Simeone, Bassons, Betsey Andreu, Emma o'Reilly etc).  The cynic in me says that much of this "truth" has emerged only because these men may have been faced with Federal investigators and the threat of perjury charges (you want an incentive to talk?  That's a good one).  

But I also think that they should be commended, because the bubble has to burst eventually, and who am I to second-guess the difficult choices made by men like these in a team sport where pressure is exerted to dope or "decay" (in a professional cycling sense)?  Their job and future in the sport they loved was held hostage at needle-point, and that's not a choice I'd want to make.  So as long as they may have lied, their truth now, however 'late', is worthy of praise.

If history records that their testimony opened the doors to a cleaner sport, then I'd be prepared to acknowledge their role.  Whistleblowers?  Perhaps not.  But their contribution to cycling may go on to be far more than pulling fellow dopers up Alpine and Pyrenean mountain passes for hours.

Let's see how that unfolds.  Until then, focs on the Tour, and the start of the mountains, a change in yellow and hopefully, some interesting power output numbers!  Remember, if you want quick thoughts, and links, I'm doing what I can do get them out on our Twitter feed!

Bolt, Blake and the 100m intrigue

In sprinting circles, the big news of the last week was the double defeat of Usain Bolt by Yohan Blake at the Jamaican trials.  It has led, predictably, to the inviroration of the "Is he vulnerable?" debate (of course he is - it's perhaps the most prized medal of the Games, and the guy at the top is the target and thus always vulnerable in professional sport).

Most recently, he announced his withdrawal from the Monaco Diamond League event citing "problems" (not of the Yohan Blake variety), and then stated that he was on his way to Germany to consult a well-known doctor regarding apparently tight hamstrings.

Tyson Gay, in the lead-up to the Paris Diamond League meeting last night, suggested that Bolt looked a "little banged up" in his Blake defeats, and he certainly had a point.  If you watch the races, Bolt looks laboured out of the blocks in the 100m, and tight down the home straight in the 200m.  The manner of the two defeats was thus completely different - in the 100m he was beaten out the blocks, and could not make up the loss on Blake, whereas in the 200m, he was ahead before being caught and beaten at the end.  That would perhaps be most concerning to him - the 200m is his preferred event, after all.

Time-wise, Blake was fast (9.75s, a PR), and Bolt was relatively slow (9.86s), having run basically as fast as Blake on a few occasions this year (9.76s).   So Bolt was slower than normal, Blake was faster.  Historically, Bolt's best performances still make him a the favourite.  If Bolt returns to his 2008/2009 form, and gets into the 9.6 range, it's difficult to see anyone beating him.  That's a big if though - since 2009, Bolt has not returned to that form and has, at best been in the mid-9.70s range.  Of course, in the lead-up to Beijing, Bolt ran 9.72s, and then improved from there to run a 9.69s which was actually worth about 9.65s to win gold, so it's conceivable that both he and Blake can dip below 9.70s off their current level.

I received an email last week that suggested that neither has fully shown their hand, and are capable of much faster.  Similarly, there is a line of thought that Bolt may be holding back, playing psychological games and allowing Blake to become complacent.  A few thoughts on that.  First, Blake does not seem like the type to get complacent - you don't earn the nickname "The Beast" for training so hard if you're inclined towards complacency.  Second, few men would get complacent in the final month before their first Olympic Games, especially as defending world champions.  Third, as the most scrutinized athlete in the world, I cannot imagine Bolt would deliberately and knowingly invite the kind of speculation and doubt that the world media have poured on him since the defeats.  And fourth, 100m men are notoriously all about the 'edge', that psychological upper-hand, and to give that away by losing two races just seems inconceivable to me.

I do think that one can say that Bolt's slow start in the 100m was probably deliberately over cautious, that he wasn't pushing the limit there in order to safely qualify.  But there's a difference between holding back in the race and being cautious about the most vulnerable moment in your entire Olympic campaign.  But to lose both races suggests that Blake carries better form right now.  Much can change in a month, however, and by the 5th August, Bolt may well have found the 0.2s that he probably needs to beat back Blake's challenge.

Then, to this already intriguing set of questions you add Gatlin and his 9.80s at the trials, and now Tyson Gay, who last night beat Gatlin in Paris despite an abysmal start.  The manner in which Gay caught Gatlin in the final 30m belies the relatively slow time (9.99s) and given his lack of racing, Gay may be the third name in the mix in London, rather than Gatlin or Powell.  Powell, for his part, was just caught by Bolt in Jamaica, and his start is far superior to Bolt's.  He may not medal in London, but the first 30m may be dictated by how quickly he gets out of the blocks, and that may have a significant bearing on Bolt's relaxation and form, and that of the other big contenders.

All in all, the men's 100m, which until last year ago looked like Bolt's victory parade (quite literally, in the case of Beijing), now has four or five fascinating storylines, and a great rivalry or two to add to the existing privilege of watching the fastest man in history.  That can only be a good thing, and the 5th of August is the most anticipated date of the Games as a result.

More Olympic musings - distance events

Meanwhile, the distance events continue to come nicely to the boil.  Kenenisa Bekele, slowly making his way back to something like his best (though let's face it, the days of 12:37 and 26:20s seem gone), took another step last night in Paris, by running 12:55.79.  That's five seconds faster than anything he'd done before, and it continued his progressive improvements.

That's the good news. The bad news is that eight men went faster in the one race!  Four of them were Ethiopian, and so Bekele's 5000m challenge was effectively ended.  In the deepest 5,000m race ever, six men broke 12:50, with the race being won in 12:46.81.  That came with a final lap of 54.66s (it was probably even faster since this is leader-to-leader), by Ethiopia's Dejen Gebremeskel the winner.  In second was another Ethiopian, Hagos Gebrhiwet in 12:47.53.  It was a spectacular race, probably worth a 12:43 given an average job of pacing - the start was super fast (2:32), then a drop (2:37), followed by a steady middle period (2:34 & 2:36) and a quick last kilometer (2:27).

The question, of course, is whether the Ethiopians can produce this off a slow pace, with surges.  And can they run a sub-52s final lap, which is what seems likely to be needed if the pace is slow (over 13 min).  In the 2011 World Champs, incidentally, the winning time was a pedestrian 13:22, and the final lap was 52.75s and the last 2km were 5:10.  In Paris, the final 2km were quicker (5:03), the last lap slightly slower, and of course, the overall time was much, much faster.

Those are two different races then, and the absence of pace-makers means that tactical decisions and a different physiological requirement become important.  In the two new "Gebs", Ethiopia clearly has two exceptional runners, and their performances in London will be fascinating to see.

Equally fascinating are the women's middle distance events.  We've spoken many times about the 800m event, which was dominated by Jelimo in 2008, Semenya in 2009, nobody in 2010, Savinova in 2011 (though that was really confined to one race), and now a host of athletes have emerged in 2012.  Jelimo has re-emerged from a 3 year "slumber" to run 1:56s again (and the fourth fastest 600m ever).  Ethiopia has discovered Fantu Magiso, who has beaten Jelimo and looks like a frightening prospect if she gets it right tactically, especially in a slow race.  Savinova has raced sparingly, but started her season faster than in 2011, and ran 1:57 in Russia just last week, so she will be tough to beat and is tactically savvy.  And there's Semenya, who has yet to dip into the 1:57s it seems will be required, but clearly has the history to suggest this could happen.  The women's 800m is a fascinating race, both performance and personality-wise.

The women's 1500m is equally intriguing, if a little "worrying".  First it was Dibaba of Ethiopia who looked like a new star.  Then came Abeba Aregawi, who ran a 3:56 earlier this year, the fastest time in many years in an event that has really been tarnished by a doping past.  Then last night in Paris, she was beaten into third by Mariem Selsouli in a world-leading 3:56.17 and Asli Cakir in 3:56.62.  And that was off a relativel slow time through 800m - the third lap was 61s and that set it up.  Arguably, they may go even faster.

The cynical reaction, seen in forums on T&F sites, is one of disbelief, particularly because both women have served doping bans.  That is not by itself anything to judge a person on - second chances are only fair.  But it is difficult to see these huge performances and be trusting when you know the history, and it has to be said, the reputation of certain countries for doping.  The second-placed athlete, Cakir, ran a PB of over 5 seconds last night in Paris, having previously been a doper, for example. So it may seem a snap judgment, but I have to wonder.

In related news, three Russian women were banned by the Federation for doping, having been caught with the Biological Passport system.  Two were middle-distance runners - Zinurova (European 800m champ in 2011) and Svetlana Klyuka (4th in Beijing 800m) were banned, along with marathon runner Yulamanova.

Generally, women's middle distance running seems to find its way into the news for the wrong reason, and that makes any spectacular performances fodder for cynics.  Time will tell whether these athletes follow the trajectory of dopers (here today gone tomorrow) or remain as strong in London, under the brighter spotlight of doping controls.

And finally, speaking of middle-distance races, David Rudisha continued his total domination of the 800m event in Paris, running a world-leading 1:41.54.  If you want to know just how good Rudisha is, this is only his fifth best time.  Rudisha blamed weather conditions for not cracking the world record.  Of all the Olympic medals, his seems most "secure" (as far as Olympic gold medals are secure!).  The most interesting thing in the race will be his tactical approach - clearly, he can run over a second faster than anyone else in the world, and so simply running a 1:41.xx wins gold. But front-running in a semi-final (only 2 qualify, and it's a super tough race) and final is a tough ask, but then so is relying on a furious final 200m.

Should be a fascinating race.  As they all will be!

Hopefully, more comment on the week ahead, which includes Tour developments and athletics news.