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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

London day 5: Sporting Giant claims gold

London Day 5: GB on the golden board as Sporting Giants bears fruit and other thoughts

Two very quick thoughts on medal-stories from the day's action

1)  The "Tall and talented" programme bears fruit

So the hosts got on the Gold medal board today, courtesy Heather Stanning and Helen Glover who absolutely dominated the  women's pair rowing final at Eton Dorney.  It was the cue for relief and wild celebration for the home fans, with an announcement on the London Tube one of many ways the word got round.  One has to say that the home support has been incredible - just look at the support for the cycling time-trial today and you see an Olympic Games that has truly been embraced by its hosts.

But apart from the obvious, the gold medal is significant because it represents the first Olympic delivery of UK Sport's Sporting Giants programme, which was created five years ago to identify future medal winners for Team GB.  Entry criteria - you had to be tall - 180cm for women, 192cm for men.  At least, that was the start.  Athleticism helped, of course, and Helen Glover met those standards, applied and found herself undertaking a journey that culminated in gold today.  Her story was already being held up as an example of targeted talent identification - I first heard of her (and the programme) at a sports science conference in the UK some years ago), and it's sure to be even more well-known after today.

Some of the programme's numbers are laid out at the end of this article, and it's interesting to see that the next phase is already in place, with the creation of a plan for Rio to build on 2012.  That plan takes a systematic approach to a) characterising the success factors for different sports, and b) identifying where "weak" sports may exist.

It's a cold and calculating approach to sport, it has to be said.  Last year in London, I attended a conference ahead of the Games, and one of the more interesting concepts was that the UK employed a "horizontal jumps specialist".  A PhD in engineering, his full-time job was to deconstruct long-jump and triple-jump performance, to ask what determined the length of the jump, and then knowing what would be required to win medals in London, how best to advise coaches when working with athletes.  It's a comprehensive approach where every percent matters.  But that's the kind of approach that produces results, though of course it's expensive and intensive.

Those of you who watched the Tour de France this year were watching one of the many outcomes of this approach, because systematic and logical "deconstruction" of cycling performance was one of the factors that drove Sky to the title for Wiggins.  They spoke of "marginal gains", which is another term bandied about in the conversation around high performance management.  It works, and it is impressive, and Glover is testament to that.

What is also intriguing is the cost-benefit analysis, and I have no idea what that might be, without knowing exactly how much money goes into it.  Comparing this programme to the alternative is equally challenging (that is, if you didn't spend X million on Sporting Giants, how would you spend it?).  But it's a fascinating illustration of one area that sports science is being applied, and there are sure to be more athletes who fly its flag in the next 9 days, starting tomorrow with another rower, Vicky Thornley in the women's eights.

2) The doping story that will not go away

All day, the emails have come in regarding Ye Shiwen's performance, not least of all because news outlets like CNN and VOA seem insistent on continuing the discussion. I must confess to being a little tired of it now - it's an issue that will receive no clarity, and is only creating tension between those who have a cynical view and those who do not.  Racism enters the picture, the debate is clouded and it ends up being a losing situation all round.  I am sure there will be a need for more thoughts on it, but for now, let me try to wrap it up and then focus on the upcoming athletics in future posts, rather than this draining discussion.

Take a look at the following two articles.

First, here is an article that points out that GB's Rebecca Adlington and Australian Ian Thorpe have done similar kinds of performances, with respects to finishing laps and improvements, as Ye Shiwen.  It makes some good points - I don't think they're all relevant, but what they do highlight is that this is a debate where one person can say X, and another can just as easily come along and say Y.  You'll recall that the Guardian recently ran a lengthy interview with a swimming insider John Leonard where he said pretty much the exact opposite, and the article linked to above takes his quotes and "exposes" them as insufficient in the current debate.  Fair enough.

It's just too easy to counteract each argument, each "reason" with one of your own, depending on which side of the doping-accusation divide you stand to begin with.  The point of giving the counter-view, then, is to show that this debate really shouldn't be polarized in either direction.   Unfortunately, the media have done this in a big way already.  I tried to analyze her pacing the other day, purely because it was an interesting physiological concept, and that too was turned into proof that she was doping, even though the relationship is indirect at best - the "hunt" leads to mass confusion, helping no one.

Truth is, if you are taking up a position at the extreme, whether you're the side of those saying "She must be doping", or whether you're on the side of those who say to leave it altogether, you're probably wrong.  This is a debate that calls for a comfortable seat on the fence, and then we can wait it out (it's not often I'd say that, but it's true here!)

This is also the reason why performance analysis will never constitute proof.  Let me repeat that - performance analysis will never constitute proof.  Put differently, in case you missed it - you cannot analyze someone's performance, be it their age, their improvement, their splits, and infer that they are doping based solely on these observations.  Why?  Because performance is too complex, and we have neither the sensitivity nor the reliability to make a strong conclusion.

So, what performance analysis can do is ask questions.  That's all.  The questions are asked based on what we see, but they are answered based on what we can find.  I'm all for questions - I think that questions drive transparency, and transparency is the key to cleaning up sport.  If you ask the hard questions, you force people to reveal more, or you show them to be liars who are trying to cover things up.  I, for one, WANT to trust the system, but history has made me hesitant.

If you are new to the site, then you'll have missed it, but for the last four years, every July, we spend hours dissecting cycling performances, because every year there are allegations of doping.  They're often allegations without "proof", but they're not unreasonable, because cycling has shown itself to be suspect.  If you wear yellow, you are under the spotlight. It doesn't matter whether you're Spanish, French, English, Italian or American.  Wear yellow, someone will ask you.  It's a magnet for anti-doping speculation.  Sad reality.

More broadly, anyone who succeeds at sport is also under a spotlight - if you want to find a "suspicious athlete", just look for who is wearing a medal!  OK, that's extreme, and I'm being over-cynical to make a point (I don't really believe this, by the way), but that's the climate of sport.  When Bolt, or Blake, or Gay, wins the 100m title on Sunday, you know that people are going to wonder.  Winners are marked as 'questionable'.

Unfortunately, some winners are more questionable than others.  That too is valid, albeit harsh on some, because it's largely historical.  And those in sport have been lied to too often to just believe denials.  In this second article, Craig Lord asks some harsh questions of coach Denis Cotterell, who has vehemently defended Ye.  He is on one extreme, in the same way that some media have adopted an extreme view that "she must be doping", he's gone the other way.

My point, again, is that neither extreme is right.  Let's ask questions, but let's seek answers over time, with proper testing.  The only answer will come from testing, but not in-competition, and not even the sporadic testing that is done.  "Aggressive" longitudinal testing, the kind that 'scares' athletes into less doping, the kind that changes behaviour and which forces doping to levels so low that it may not discernibly affect performance, that's what is needed.  If that means that some swimmers are affected more than others, good.  If it means the entire sport slows down, then even better.

But that's where the answer lies.  The question is found in performances, in history, and while these can easily become generalizations, they are not bad, in and of themselves.  The answers, however, lie in "detective work", and testing.  Stop looking for "smoking guns" - you will not find them.  Rather accept the challenge faced by anti-doping authorities, and push for transparency, so that we can all trust the performances.  And focus instead on the gold-medal wining performances, not racist allegations and retaliations.

In any event, athletics is on the horizon, and that is where the Games get really interesting.  Previews will come soon, along with recaps.