08 July, 2017

The "javelin option" or how to reset the world records

In my post on the tabula rasa for records I mentioned an option which was considered and discarded by the European Records Credibility Project Team, the "javelin option". It was named so in reference to the changes in the javelin specifications which had made the introduction of new records mandatory. I find the idea behind such a revolutionary change in athletics quite appealing but, in the same time, I am aware that such an option would never come to pass given the conservatism of the governing bodies. In fact I am not quite sure that the "1913 option" will meet with success (but time will tell). 

Since this blog, inspired by Juilland's writing, does not baulk at extreme proposals I will, in what follows, formulate my own "javelin option". I have made over the years several revolutionary proposals, so, my "javelin option" will essentially be a compilation of the latter interspersed with some recent ideas of mine.

Let us start with the track events. In my post on “Metric vs. Imperial” units I was suggesting that the official distances should become

100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000 and 20000 m

with the Marathon replaced either by a 40 or by a 50 km.

In a subsequenct post I tackled the question of relays, hurdles and steeplechase. (The question of the 110 m men’s relay was addressed also in another post).

At the end of my post on Metric vs. Imperial I was pointing out that in order for the imperial to metric conversion to make sense the stadium circumference should be increased to 500 m. If that came to be then all the old records would bhave to be replaced. The single exception is that of the 100 m, which does not depend on the stadium circumference. I think that in this case we should just bite the bullet and decide that all track records  must be erased including the 100 m.

Of course, we should not hold our breath. The stadium dimensions are here to stay. So what could one do given this situation? One crazy proposal (technically crazier than that of 500 m stadia) is to have the athletes run clockwise. (Again that would not solve the problem of the 100 m). In fact the races at the 1896, 1900 and 1904 Olympics were ran clockwise. 

And, I'm sure the 1906 Olympics were run clockwise
in this magnificent Panathenaic Stadion

This is another “imperial” influence. Oxford and Cambridge athletes were running clockwise and continued doing so till the late 40s. Curiously it’s at the London, 1908, Olympics that the running direction was reversed becoming counterclockwise, something that became the international standard.

Having disposed with track events we can turn now to jumps. In my post on Longer Jumps, I made a proposal, which I consider quite reasonable, namely to replace the 20 cm take-off board by a 60 cm one and measure the true length of their jump. It is pefectly feasible with today’s technology and has in fact been tried in competitions.

Vertical jumps pose a special challenge and will be the object of a separate post.

Finally we turn to the throws. In my post I suggested that throwing circles should be enlarged to 3 m for all three disciplines of shot, discus and hammer throw. Moreover the weight of men’s shot and hammer could be raised to 8 kg as argued in that same post. It remains that the javelin has been recently modified (well, not really recently, but compared to the history of athletics the modification is recent). There are two directions we can go to from where we are now. Either further limit the flight of javelins by moving the centre of mass slightly forward or allow for a textured surface (which was banned in the new specifications) that would allow longer throws. 

Oh, and just in case you were wondering about race-walking: scrap the records and forget about this discipline.

01 July, 2017

An interview with N. Debois

A few months ago when I set out to write a post on the difference between decathletes and heptathletes I was impressed by the fact that the heptathlon world record for 800 m is still standing, after 30 years. It is held by a french athlete, Nadine Debois, and what was amazing is that I could not find a single photo of hers on the web. However I did find a professor of Sport Psychology at INSEP (which is the french National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance) with the same name and I wrote her asking whether she was indeed the ex-heptathlete. She was! We exchanged some mails and Mrs. Debois provided most valuable insight on how the heptathlon differs from the decathlon for my article on “the battle of sexes”. Thus I came with the idea of an interview to be published in the blog. It took us some time to find a convenient date but finally we managed to find one at the end of January. 

We met at Mrs. Debois’s office at the INSEP where she answered my questions. Obviously our discussion was in french. In what follows I tried to transpose the interview in english in the most faithful way. The questions and answers are marked by our initials and whenever I insert a remark of mine I do it by putting it in brackets.

BG How did you come to choose combined events as your specialty?

ND I would rather say that it was the combined events that chose me. In fact, before coming to athletics I was a swimmer. At the end of 1976 I decided to drop swimming but wished to continue with some sport. Since at high-school I was good at athletics I decided, around February 1977, to join the club of Boulogne. I participated at my first competition in April. My coach decided to have me compete in pentathlon just to see how it would go. I had learned to run the hurdles, throw the shot and high jump. However my first experience with long jump and the 800 m was during that first competition. That was a competition at the county level. I did fairly well, finished second, enjoyed the competition and was qualified for the regional championships. I finished second there also and narrowly missed a qualification for the national championships.

I realised that I could excel in combined events. I had talent for several disciplines. I also liked the fact that one passes from one event to the next one particularly interesting. A competition extending over hours was also appealing. 

Specialising in heptathlon did not prevent me from shining in middle distances. In fact I ran a 2:16 as a junior without any special training. But, to tell the truth, the events I liked most were the 100 m and the high jump. Much more than the 800 m. In fact when I was a swimmer I hated it when I had to swim a 400 m or an 800 m. 

BG But a 400 m in swimming is already an event of more than 4 minutes.

ND It is not only this. What I did not like were the monotonous training sessions, where one had to swim a number of pool lengths. What I did like was training of speed and explosiveness.

BG Wow, You managed to run a 2 min 800 m without training?

ND No, that’s not true. I did train but not as much as a specialist. Still, with hindsight, I realise that I could have done better over 400 m and 800 m. The question is would I have kept the motivation for this ? When one’s career is over, one can talk about talent and potential but the essential thing is to enjoy what one is doing. 

The arrival of the heptathlon signalled for me a moment where I had to take a decision. I had a substantial handicap with the javelin throw. My PB is just 34.70.

BG I know. In Talence you threw just 31 m. Perhaps you did not like to train in javelin throw.

ND No, it's not that. In fact I did play the game, training for the javelin, for one or two seasons. But I never managed to make substantial progress. 

As a junior, competing in the pentathlon I was not bad in the shot put and was good in the remaining 4 disciplines. I was steadily progressing from 1977 to 1980. The same held true for the indoor pentathlon. With the heptathlon I was hoping to find a solution for the javelin and thus I remained a combined events athlete. This is the reason I did not convert to a middle distance runner. I am sure I could have run faster if I enjoyed the middle-distance training. The problem is that I like variety and, for me, even a 30 min jogging was boring.

BG How did you manage to combine a champion's career with a scientific one?

ND I have always been good when it came to studies.. I have two older sisters and a older brother who could not go to higher education due to financial reasons. I had the chance to be the youngest one. My high school professors did help too. 

From the start, I had an obligation to succeed. The first two years at the university were compatible with training. But one professor pointed out that that year’s group was not sufficiently good and recommended me to join the INSEP. I followed her recommandation,essentially for my studies project towards the CAPEPS. [BG A french competitive exam leading to tenured positions in physical education]. I pursued my training but my main effort was on studies and the preparation of the exam. I obtained my CAPEPS in 1983 and started preparing for the 1984 Olympics. I had missed the french olympic team in 1980 by a mere 3 cm: jumping 6.42 m, the minimum being 6.45 m. Unfortunately I did not manage to qualify for 1984 either. It took me a full two years to come back in optimal shape; I was in shape only in 1985.

I started working as a physical education professor and three years later I got a position at INSEP which allowed me to work part-time on a full salary, devoting the rest of my time to training. I did not find that situation totally satisfactory. So, I started interesting myself in research and the possibility of a doctorate in sports sciences. For this I had to follow a masters's course but the only one available was at Grenoble, geographically out of question. Thus I started by obtaining a state diploma on athletics and the diploma of INSEP which provided the basic preparation for research. This made possible to obtain an equivalence for the master's degree.

For me all this corresponded to an intellectual need and served also to evacuate the internal tension associated to sports. These points are essential because I believe that some athletes who live only fo sports are inherently fragile. 

Proposition :  This point is essential because I believe that athletes who do not organise their life outside of sports, who live only for sports are inherently fragile. Having another pole of interest does offer stability.

Having obtained the CAPEPS I decided to try the Agrégation [BG another french competitive exam more prestigious than the CAPES, leading to better careers]. That was in 1988 (an olympic year) and I immediately realised that I could not reconcile high level preparation and demanding studies. Thus the Agrégation had to wait till 1992. In fact I passed the CAPEPS drawing on all my resources but, after that, I decided to take my time and do things calmly. For instance I passed my PhD in 6 years while in parallel pursuing my work. People usually take 3 to 4 years to complete a thesis (but, then, they only do this and nothing else).

BG When did you retire from competition?

ND After the 1988 Olympics. I participated with my patellar tendon partially torn off. The injury was detected just before the 1987 World's and I was advised to have it fixed by surgery. That would mean missing out at the Olympics and after having missed those of 80 and 84 I could not seriously consider it. As a consequence of the injury, I could not jump correctly and my performances fell to just 6 m and 1.75 m, meaning a loss of circa 300 points. So, at Seoul I participated only at the 4x400 m. I got operated on after the Olympics, came briefly back to athletics in 1989 and then I decided to have a child. Thus I retired from competition at 28 years of age.

BG The years 80 saw athletics become gradually a professional sport, first in the US and later in France. What was your experience of this?

ND Yes, that was the period when we started obtaining some financial support from the French Athletics Federation. There were also some modest bonuses for participation at competitions and the beginning of sponsoring. In 1988 all this made some substantial addition to my salary. 
Later on the system was amplified and sportsmen could live from their gains related to sport.

However for me athletics was essentially a hobby and not a profession. I was feeling a need for physical activity but on the other hand I was afraid that sports were incompatible with feminine traits [she laughs]. The first time I watched sport at the TV was during the 76 Olympics games. I was admiring Nadia Comaneci but on the other hand I was afraid to come to look like Cornelia Ender (remember, I started out as swimmer). That’s one of the reasons I decided to drop out of swimming !

BG What do you think about women's decathlon?

ND There are already elements of my answer in the mails we exchanged [BG see the blog post on the battle of sexes]. A decathlon would be much more appropriate. An athlete who is just fast and explosive can become a very good heptathlete. For decathlon one must be more complete. Of course the scoring tables should be adapted in order to take into account the differences between men and women, in particular in new events like pole vault. 

On a more personal level, I would welcome a women's decathlon because for me the second day of heptathlon, with just three events, is too short. I remember some competitions where the second day was already over at noon. (This is the reason I prefer the pentathlon where all five events take place in a single day). Two full days sound better to me. Also if you have one weakness in some event, you can hope to overcome it if there are 9 other events where you can excel. 

For me the javelin throw was too penalising in the heptathlon. This had also to do with the fact that I am ambidextrous. I do write with my right hand but I prefer the left. At the beginning I was using my left arm for the shot put but I soon shifted to the right one. I never managed to do this in the javelin. Speaking about the decathlon I think that I would manage the discus throw without difficulty: with my long arms I would have reached a level comparable to that of my shot put. My main difficulty would have been the pole vault where my coordination would have, perhaps, been insufficient.

BG The 80s have also been the decade of doping. Were people aware of this at the time?

ND Certainly. There were persisting rumours concerning athletes from USSR and DDR. But also athletes from the USA. I ran the 4x400 m in Seoul next to F. Griffith-Joyner and was impressed by the transformation of her body in just one olympiad's time. 

BG And in France?
ND There were already regular controls and we were convinced that the cheaters would be caught.

BG How about now-a-days?

ND Of course, there are people who take drugs. It has also to do with the question of money. Look, I do not have any objection to athletics as a profession. It is simply something that did not sit well with me. For me, high-level athletics was a choice (and I do not like it at all when people are talking about the "sacrifice" one must do in order to reach this high level). I had precise objectives. At national level I was aiming at victory. At international level I was trying to break my own records and to "reach the final". In fact, being relaxed, I often obtained excellent results. Perhaps, if I had a better chance for a podium position I would have been more nervous.

I remember the 1987 world championships where I participated already suffering from my knee injury. My heptathlon javelin throw attempt did coincide with the famous 400 m hurdles race, where Moses managed to beat Harris and Schmid by a hairbreadth. I concentrated and used the cries of the crowd as a source of energy. That was my best throw ever, a 34.70 m personal best (poor performance for others but so good for me !). 

BG What do you think about the changes of allegiance we see in the recent years?
ND As I was saying the athletes are professional and choose accordingly. For me it does make sense to chance one's nationality in case of marriages or when one really emigrates. But it should be a real, personal, choice, not something motivated by money and politics.
I could imagine people going to foreign clubs, just like in football, but participating with their national team at international competitions. There is also a question of culture, something that the medals wars are distorting.

The questions and answers ended there but we spent some more with Mrs. Debois talking about combined events. Two things of this chat are worth mentioning. 

The first was the idea to run the 1500/800 m of deca/hepta-thlon as a handicap race (just as in the case of the modern pentathlon): the first person to cross the line is the winner. ND said she could like such an arrangement since she was always running that 800 m alone at the front of the pack. But of course not everybody would be on the same footing. As the things stand today there is some suspense at the arrival which is not bad. [BG I would add that managing staggered starts with the precision of a 100th of a second is an impossible task].

The second was the idea of one-hour combined events. ND said that she had once participated at a one-hour heptathlon and that she found the experience very interesting. One has to choose a strategy. While in a normal heptathlon she was not taking risks with high jump, starting low and jumping all intermediate heights, at a one hour event this is impossible. One must anticipate and also know where to stop. One should pay attention to one's body, everything changes in so brief an event. Going to the long jump immediately after the 200 m is quite different from the normal situation where one has a whole night to rest. One hour events can be very spectacular and it is a pity they are not held more often.

To sum it up, this interview has been a real pleasure for me and I am greatly indebted to N. Debois for sparing the time to answer my questions.

18 June, 2017

Mixed relays go Tokyo

In my report on the World Relays I was making clear my enthusiasm for mixed relays. They offer a great spectacle and the team strategy plays a crucial role. In case you are not convinced I urge to go back to my previous post and watch the 4x400 m relay. (By the way, when I tried just now to do this I discovered that the video had disappeared. I went back to YouTube, found a video and linked it again but I cannot be 100 % sure that it will stay. While YouTube is great there are moments like this when I hate it. Is it so difficult for Google to make sure that things stay at their place? Unless it’s a question of rights in which case I prefer not to say more, lest this post become a diatribe on the abuse of power by rights-holders).

S. Miller-Uibo and S. Gardiner at the 2017 World Relays

So the good news for the Tokyo Olympics is that the mixed 4x400 m will be part of the official program. It will definitely be an exciting race. On the other hand, given that by 2020 the various teams will have sufficient experience, I’m afraid that all of them will adopt the same strategy, making the race slightly less spectacular. In my article on World Relays I wrote that the mixed relay made its fist appearance this year. While this is true as far as senior teams are concerned, it is worth mentioning that the mixed relay made its first official appearance in the Cali, 2015, World Youth Championships. (By the way, the US youth team that won in Cali with 3:19.54 would have made the podium in Nassau this year).

The IOC has some special plans for the Tokyo Olympics. First, they are pushing for a parity between man and women, something I find eminently laudable. They are encouraging this through the introduction of more mixed events. The 4x400 m relay in athletics is one of those but there will be also a 4x100 m medley mixed relay in swimming. Mixed table tennis and triathlon relay will also be part of the program. Where I start raising objections is when they introduce team archery and judo. What is the point of these team events? I have always found team fencing absurd (and it's making a comeback in Tokyo!) and now we are going to have more of the same. And all this when the IOC is trying to limit the number of participants: there will be 285 fewer athletes in Tokyo, athletics being the major victim where the participation will be amputated by 105 persons.

I have trouble understanding the logic of the IOC. First, in a decision where money has trumped tradition, they decided to expel wrestling form the olympic program. The problem is that in the end they had to decide between wresting and modern pentathlon and since the later was invented by the famous baron (de Coubertin) and supported by another noble, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., it was wrestling that got the boot. The fact that wrestling goes back all the way to the ancient Olympics did not count (or perhaps it did in a negative way, while the moniker “modern” for a 19th century sport did confer to pentathlon a special status). Poor Socrates, he will certainly be rolling over in his grave, he who said “I swear it upon Zeus an outstanding runner cannot be the equal of an average wrestler”. The same goes for K. Palamas, the poem of whose has become the official olympic anthem, sung at every opening ceremony since 1960 and in which it is question of “running, wrestling and throwing”.

Just to sweeten the pill wrestling was accepted for Tokyo among the new sports that will make their appearance there (but this will most probably be a one-off, the swan’s song for that noble discipline). In the meantime we will have 3x3 basketball (which is adding 64 athletes to the tally), BMX freestyle in cycling as well as Madison for track cycling. The new sports are surfing, skateboard, sport climbing and karate while baseball/softball is making its comeback. Clearly I lament the evolution of modern Olympics. 

08 June, 2017

The bubble has burst

Back in October 2016 something happened to my blog. All of a sudden the page view jumped from a meagre 20-something per day to hundreds of views. I wrote about this a blog post aptly entitled "Something happened". I was speculating there as to the possible origins of this phenomenon. The increased number of views was limited only to 2016 and, later, 2017 posts. Two things became quickly apparent. The views were regularly spaced in time coming in bursts of 30 or so views and, second, there was a week-end effect, whereupon the views were dwindling down to almost nothing for a short time over the week end:

And then, after the views had reached an all-time day maximum of over 300, the bubble burst. 

We are now down to slightly over 10 views per day. (I am not going to discuss the effect such a measly attendance may have on my blogging. This will have to wait for the blog's 4th anniversary). 

I am still at loss about what really happened. My favourite theory is that something that I wrote, a special turn of phrase I used, triggered some flag and this resulted to my blog being followed by robots who looked for telltale phrases. I have to go back and look carefully for words such as "explosive" or something similar, unless the robots are not very clever and while they found out that I am really a fanatic they failed to register that the thing I am fanatic about is athletics. Anyhow, the hundreds of daily views are now thing of the past and unfortunately the only thing they really managed to do was to spoil my statistics.

01 June, 2017

Λιθοβολία (stone throw), a forgotten discipline

The list of track and field disciplines that came and went over the years is long. Even limiting oneself to those disciplines that have been part of the olympic program one finds a long list of different events. Some of them, like 200 m hurdles (contested in 1900 and 1904) or both hands (aggregated) Shot Put (part of the 1912 program) are easy to understand. Others like ancient greek style Discus Throw (1906-1908) need some explanation. But none is as puzzling as the Stone Throw which figured in the 1906, intercalatory Olympics, program.

Stone throw is a discipline with ancient roots. While absent from the ancient olympics it has been practiced in Greece all along its history. Unfortunately no movie of competitive stone throwing (greek style) can be found (if one excepts a village contest during a festival where people are throwing in an unorthodox underhand style) and thus I must rely upon my memory.

I have had the occasion, when I started interesting myself in athletics, to attend some regional competition where stone throw was part of the program. So, I’ll describe the style from memory. The style is close to that of javelin throw but given the stone's weight major differences do exist. The athlete starts his run-up holding the stone with two hands in front of him. Preparing for the throw he brings the throwing hand over his head without braking his run-up and launches the stone in an overhand throw. The only constraint is that the stone must be launched before crossing the foul line. After that the athlete can cross the line without penalty.

Stone throwing has also been part of the scottish tradition and has been figuring in the Highland Games. The scottish stone being heavier than the greek one requires a different throwing technique.

I have been unable to find a photo of the throwing stone and in the ones where the stone is thrown in the greek style the stone is too blurred. Fortunately in the snapshot above we have a nice photo of the stone which corresponds exactly with the one I have seen in the past. Unfortunately recent revivals of stone throw like the one where the photo just below was taken use a stone of non-standard shape.

This is a pity because the throwing technique depends crucially on the proper handling of the stone during all the phases of the throw and giving the possibility to the athlete to wrap his fingers around it somehow spoils the discipline.

While researching for this article I came upon a wikipedia article in greek, which was probably off-handedly written, giving an incorrect weight and mentioning a wrong throwing style. (As you can imagine I immediately corrected it). In order understand the stone's weight, 6.4 kg, one must go back to the times of the Ottoman Empire. Greek being under the ottoman rule had adopted the ottoman units and despite becoming an independent country in 1821 kept the ottoman units till 1959! (By the way wikipedia's article on metrication is interesting. When one clicks on the link "old greek" units one is taken to a page where units from ancient Greece are presented. This is one more manifestation of the fact that, were it not for the current financial crisis, nobody would be really aware of the existence of modern Greece). So, when the weight of the stone was fixed in the late 19th century a round number in the then currently used unit, the oka, was chosen. The stone weights exactly 5 okas, and since an oka is equivalent to 1280 gr the weight of the stone in metric units is 6.400 kg.

Λιθοβολία, stone throw, has been part of the olympic program only once, at the intercalatory Games of 1906. The winner of the event was, expectedly, a greek, G. Georgantas. 

Having written this sentence I feel that some explanation as to the "expectedly" is mandatory. While greek athletes were familiar with the stone-throwing style, foreigners were not. This bestowed some advantage to the local competitors who obtained the gold and bronze medals with Georgantas and Dorizas. The silver medal went to M. Sheridan who left Athens with two gold and three silver medals. (On the other hand this "advantage" of the greek competitors should have also materialised in the ancient-style discus throw, where Järvinen managed to beat Georgantas. But this is a story that is worth telling in detail and some day I may just do this). The photo of Georgantas above is clearly a static pose. Moreover the angle is such that one may think that the stone is round shaped (which it isn't).

A much better representation is the drawing of R. Edgren, a hammer ex-world record holder and a famous journalist, who participated at the 1906 Games, unfortunately for him past his prime at 32 years of age. (In my ancient-style discus throw article, I will come back to Edgren's drawings).

Before concluding I would like to add a short analysis of the importance of the over-hand throw. Georgantas record in stone throw was roughly 20 m while in shot put he had a record of slightly above 13 m. Throwing a lighter, 6.4 kg instead of 7.25 kg, shot would boost his shot put record to just over 14 m. So the explanation for the 20 m record should be sought in two factors. One is the smaller arm inertia due to the style. Although not as small as in javelin throw it is definitely smaller than the typical value of 6-7 kg one uses in shot put, perhaps closer to a 3 kg value. Second, the fact that the athlete does not have to brake, definitely improves the performance. It is not clear what is the contribution of this last style detail but let us assume that in the case of Georgantas two-thirds of the performance gain in stone throw came from the throwing style (from 14 m to 18 m), the remaining one third (from 18 m to 20 m) being obtained by the non-braking. We can now apply this analysis to modern shot putters, who can throw over 22 m in either of the modern, glide or spin, styles. Were an overhand throw to be allowed with a javelin style run-up (even with a constraint of non-crossing the fowl line) throws close to 30 m could have been possible. Of course, that would necessitate a specific and quite delicate preparation incompatible with the current shot putters' one. But throwing the shot at 30 m would have been really revolutionary.

19 May, 2017

The tabula rasa of records

The European Records Credibility Project Team have made public their recommendation. When I first heard about the project I was afraid that it would degenerate into a witch hunt where old records would be scrutinised for credibility resulting in an unfair treatment based on influence and hearsay. Fortunately my fears did not pan out.

The report of the team starts by reminding that among the objects of the 1913 IAAF Constitution was “To pass upon and register World’s amateur records in field and track athletics”. By the way, while the credibility project is a european initiative it is clear that whatever measure will be adopted it will carry over to the world records.

Four options have been identified from the outset.

1) The Status Quo. Do nothing and keep the record list as it is.
2) The Witch Hunt. Examine the records one by one and remove the suspicious ones. I cannot think of anything worse than this. Had this proposal been adopted we might have seen East German records erased but Flo-Jo’s windy 10.49 would have survived. 
3) The “javelin” option (as dubbed by the Team). It refers to the changes in javelin specifications which made new records mandatory. That would have been great. I may one day write a post on what the ideal “javelin” option would be. However it remains that such an option is totally unrealistic.
4) The “1913” option (again in the Team’s terminology). It consists in amending the criteria for record recognition which unavoidably requires establishing new records.

Fortunately the Team favoured this last option, which means that the existing record list will be erased and will be replaced by a new one satisfying specific criteria. The Team’s recommendations concerning the later are rather lengthy and cast in a slightly bureaucratic parlance but the gist of them is the following.

1) Records would have to have been achieved at international events where the highest standards of officiating and technical equipment could be guaranteed.
2) The athlete must be subject to an agreed number of doping control tests in the months leading up to the record.
3) Doping control samples taken after world-record performances would need to be stored and available for retesting for 10 years. Given that IAAF has stored blood and urine samples only since 2005 no record prior to 2005 can be remain in the official list. 
4) All record holders have an obligation to maintain their sporting integrity after a record is recognised. If sanctioned for a serious breach of the rules (for example a subsequent doping offense) recognition of their records will be withdrawn even if there is no proof the breach affected the record setting performance.
5) Current records which do not meet the above criteria would remain on the "all-time list" but would not be officially recognised as records. Also, if a record recognition is withdrawn no immediate successor should be ratified but rather a limit should be set for a new record to be established at a future date.

Kratoshvílová's 1:53.28 will be replaced by Jelimo's 1:54.01. 
Two remarks: Middle-aged Kratoshvílová looks better than the young one.
Kratoshvílová will look better than Semenya when the later will be WR holder.

The long and short of this is that no records anterior to 2005 will figure in  the list and doping offenders cannot be record holders. Having said this what would be the world record list complying with the Team’s recommendations? Here it is:

Event Men Women
100 m U. Bolt 9.58 C. Jeter 10.64
200 m U. Bolt 19.19 D. Schippers 21.63
400 m W. van Niekerk 43.03 S. Richards-Ross 48.70
800 m D. Rudisha 1:40.91 P. Jelimo 1:54.01
1500 m A. Kiprop 3:27.69 G. Dibaba 3:50.07
5000 m K. Bekele 12:40.18 T. Dibaba 14:11.15
10000 m K. Bekele 26:17.53 A. Ayana 29:17.45
Half Marathon Z. Tadese 58:23 J. Jepkoskei 1:04:52
Marathon D. Kimetto 2:02:57 M. Keitany 2:17:01
3000 m st B. Kipruto 7:53.64 R. Jebet 8:52.78
110 m hd A. Merritt 12.80 K. Harrison 12.20
400 m hd K. Clement 47.24 M. Walker 52.42
4x100 m Jamaica 37.58 USA 40.82
4x400 m Bahamas 2:56.72 USA 3:16.87
High Jump M. Barshim 2.43 B. Vlasic 2.08
Pole Vault R. Lavillenie 6.05 Y. Isinbayeva 5.06
Long Jump D. Phillips 8.74 B. Reese 7.31
Triple Jump C. Taylor 18.21 F. Mbango 15.39
Shot Put J. Kovacs 22.56 V. Adams 21.24
Discus Throw G. Kanter 73.38 D. Caballero 70.65
Hammer Throw P. Fajdek 83.93 A. Wlodarczyk 83.98
Javelin Throw T. Röhler 93.90 B. Spotáková 72.28
Decathlon A. Eaton 9045 K. Clüft 7032

I do not know how recommendation No 4 of the Team will be implemented but I decided in a lapidary way to leave out of the list all athletes that have been sanctioned for a doping offence. Thus, for instance, S. Perkovic does not figure as world record holder in women’s discus. Also I have had great trouble with the relays in particular men’s ones. The current 4x100 m record is number 16 in the all-time list while the 4x400 m is number 11.

20 years later only 8 centimetres separate Edwards and Taylor

All in all, looking at the record list above I feel that we are not losing much by readjusting the list. On the other hand I am not sure that we are having a 100 % clean list.  It would, perhaps, be better to drop all existing records and start afresh from next year. But, even so, I am afraid that the doping Hydra will raise her heads again and again. 

06 May, 2017

The barrier is still intact

The verdict has fallen. The two-hours barrier for men’s Marathon is still unbroken. The Nike Breaking2 event took place early this morning in the automobile race track of Monza in Italy. The track of Monza was chosen because of its gentle corners (after all it’s just a 2.4 km track and so corners do count) and for its rather clement weather conditions (at this time of the year).

The famous race-track of Monza

It was a race where fresh pacemakers have been present throughout (as I had predicted in my recent post). Drinks were delivered by scooter so as not to slow-down the runners. And of course the special Nike VaporFly shoe did play an essential role. 

The pacemakers were also an active wind-screen

The three champions selected for the attempt met with various fortunes. L. Desisa could not keep up with the pace and ended with a 2:14:10 time almost 10 more than his personal time. Z. Tadese, who is in fact a semi-marathon specialist, did improve his personal best by a full three minutes with 2:06:51 still way off the 2 hours mark. The only one who gave the barrier a real scare was the current olympic champion E. Kipchoge. 

E. Kipchoge at the end of his 2 hours effort

His time of 2:00:25 is more than 2:30 better than his official personal record of 2:03:05.  If somebody could break that mythical barrier that person could only be Kipchoge. A specialist of 5000 m, he was world champion in 2003, silver medalist in 2007, olympic medalist in 2004 (bronze) and 2008 (silver). He possesses the basic speed that could allow him to break the marathon world record under “normal” conditions. At 33 years of age he has the requisite maturity for this. 

The official site of the IAAF gives an analysis of the race (but still the record cannot be homologated under the existing rules). The runners passed the 10 km point in 28:21 and the half-marathon in 59:57. A sub2 time was starting looking iffy at that point and that was confirmed by the splits at 30 km (1:35:20) and at 40 km where, given the time of 1:54:00, it was clear that only a superhuman effort could catch up with the delay. One can criticise the irregularities, in view of the standing rules, of the attempt (and I am one among those who did so) but still the effort of Kipchoge is historical. In some sense it is even better than a sub-2 time. Had he broken the barrier we could have waved that away saying he got excessive help from the staging of the event. Having come close and failed lends to his effort a human dimension.

PS  Ross Tucker (of Sports Scientists fame) suggests that if one reads a single article on the Breaking2 attempt that should be the one by Sarah Barker. I read it and I agree 100 % with him. So, if you read just two articles on the Nike attempt (well, if you have gone this far, you have certainly read mine, so that counts as one already) go and read her article in deadspin.
And, by the way the link in Sports Scientists points to the excellent analysis of Ross. Look, make it three and read that article too. It's great reading.

01 May, 2017

Mixed relays, hurrah!

I first heard about mixed relays in 1987. But let me give some background first.

While I adore athletics I have been a swimmer for most of my life. My discipline is finswimming and I keep training and even now participating at competitions (for my age group). 

Here's what fiwnswimming looks like

From 1985 till 2001 I was member of the Finswimming commission of the World Confederation for Subaquatic Sports (CMAS; the acronym being based on the french name of the federation). Finswimming is a discipline recognised by the IOC and participating at the World Games. In 1987 we faced a problem at the commission since the International World Games Association had decided to limit the participation per country to 2 male plus 2 female swimmers. This restriction would have had as a consequence to drop the relays from the program. And then the soviet member of the commission made a proposal that I found most original: mixed relays. We did not get to organise those relays since a few weeks later the IWGA upped the participation limit to 4+4 and we went back to a more classic scheme. Still I kept the idea in the back of my mind. Mixed relays made their appearance in finswimming much later where the open water 4x2 km relay became a mixed one. And once classical swimming introduced mixed relays in pool competitions finswimming followed course.

This year, at long last, the IAAF introduced mixed relays in the World Relays competition. The idea is great. The mixed relay was a 4x400 m. Since the order of runners is, obviously, free the possible strategies may vary from team to team. The standard approach is to have men run at the first and fourth relays with women at second and third. That was the strategy adopted by exactly half the finalists. The one adopted by the remaining half was to have men at first and third position and women and second and fourth. I do not know for sure which is best but in any case the fact that different strategies can be used makes for more spectacular and exciting races. If you haven't watched the mixed relay, you can catch it here.

The mixed 4x400 m relay

Just for the fun of it I did a small calculation. I added the times of the men's and women's relays, divided by two and compared it to the time of the mixed relay. Here are the results

half-sum mixed
Bahamas 3:19.89 3:14.62
USA 3:13.25 3:17.29
Jamaica 3:15.68 3:20.26
Poland 3:18.07 3:22.26
Kenya 3:23.74 3:23.79

For three out of five teams the mixed relay did worse than what one would have expected. This is probably due to the effect of cumulative efforts and the accompanying tiredness. Kenya is the only well-balanced team, performing in the mixed relay exactly as one would have predicted. The result of the Bahamas mixed relay is much better than the prediction but then the teams of Bahamas did not make it to the final of the men's and women's events. The women's team opted not to participate at the B final most probably reserving themselves for the mixed event. It seems that the Bahamas put all their eggs in the same basket, the mixed relay one, and that payed out.

Speaking of mixed relays it's the 4x100 m that I would like to see even more than the 4x400 m. The short relay depends crucially on delicately balancing the speeds of the two runners at the exchange of the baton. So, adding the extra difficulty of different top speeds for male and female runners would make this event even more challenging. I cross my fingers for such an event to become part of official competitions. 

Speaking of 4x100 m, enjoy De Grasse 
beating the shit out of Gatlin

The mixed relay came, alas, at a price: the disappearance of the distance medley relay. The latter made a single appearance in the program of the 2015 World relays (replacing most probably the 4x1500 m event). The distance medley was a relay of four different distances: 1200, 400, 800 and 1600 m. In fact medley relays have a long history.  I remember that when I first started interesting myself in Athletics and looked up the greek national records there was one for the swedish relay.  It's a sprint relay with legs of 100, 200, 300 and 400 m. It was part of the program of the, soon to be defunct, U18 World Championships (they will be replaced by continental events after 2017) and it is run from time to time in scandinavian meetings. The swedish relay is not the only sprint medley one. A shorter variation consists in 100, 100, 200 and 400 m legs while the longer one comprises the double distances of the former, namely 200, 200, 400 and 800 m. 

However there exists one variety of medley relay which is famous and frequently run, the Ekiden relay. It originated in Japan and is now part of road events all over the world. There exist many variants of the Ekiden but the classical one is the Ekiden Marathon consisting of legs of 5, 10, 5, 10, 5 and 7.195 km. From 1992 to 1998, ekiden-style, World Road Relay championships were organised by the IAAF. Unfortunately they have gone now the way of the dodo.

12 April, 2017

The secret weapon of Nike, revealed

In February I published a post on Nike's Breaking2 project that consists in breaking the 2-hour barrier in men's Marathon. I voiced my doubts by wondering whether the project was science or farce. Now it appears that it is essentially shoe technology.

First, let us be fair about Nike. At no point did they pretend that the Breaking2 attempt was going to be one that could lead to a world record to be homologated. So, people did offer speculation about the possible ways to attain the objective: downhill racing (not without disadvantages), wind assistance (how do you control this?), doping (would the athletes risk their career for this?). My take was fresh pacemakers (but if you cannot follow their pace, they are useless). Given that Nike is a shoe manufacturer the most obvious solution could be some very special shoe. It turned out that this was the secret weapon of Nike.

The new shoe of Nike is called Vaporfly Elite.

The official description of the shoe states that Vaporfly features a thick midsole embedded with a stiff carbon-fiber plate which allows the shoe to return about 13 % more energy. Nike claims that the plate saves 4 % of the energy needed to run at a given speed. You can see the curved plate in the scan below.

So now the obvious question is "does Nike cheat by using this shoe?". Ross Tucker at Sportscientists.com does think so. He has an excellent article on the matter. He bases it on two historical cases, the Pistorius blades and the Speedo LZR swimsuit. In the case of Pistorius no action was taken because Pistorius had never been an outstanding runner. Thus the technology that allowed him to run a 45.3 s 400 m was viewed as tolerable. (I have made explicit my thoughts on blade runners and augmented humans in two posts of mine). On the other hand the LZR swimsuit resulted in practically all olympic records being broken in the Beijing, 2008, Olympics. As a consequence it was banned (and dragged down with it even the non-polyurethane-reinforced suits, something that I deplore).

Ross makes some excellent points as to whether the carbon-fiber plate should be banned. First it is clear that Nike themselves are presenting (in their patent application) the insert as a spring plate. Moreover they state explicitly that the foam padding of current shoes returns a very small amount of energy. Ergo, what matters is the plate. What I did like a lot in Ross' presentation was his gradual build up argument. You start with a prototype that offers a very small advantage. People say it's OK, just carbon-fiber and foam, so there is nothing to worry about. Then you work on the prototype and improve it, without making your progress public. Finally you optimise everything and it really works. Suddenly you get a world record and nobody knows if this is an outstanding performance or just technology at work. Ross concludes that "any external device inserted for the purpose of energy return should be banned" adding that "performance evolution should be trusted to have occurred as a result of human physiology".

I do not think that human physiology has changed appreciably over the last century: the human-factor-based progress we have witnessed is due mainly to better nutrition and hygiene, as well as selection among an ever-growing pool of candidates. The evolution of training methods have greatly contributed to improvement of performances. However we should not neglect the fact that technology has been at the service of athletics since the beginning. Better running surfaces and better equipment are essential in the progress over the years.

Having presented these arguments I do not really know where we should draw the line. On the one hand I strongly believe that the material used should not bestow any unfair advantage. But then what about everybody using carbon-fiber-plate fitted shoes? (Unfortunately, Nike are talking about specially adapting the shoes to be used in the Breaking2 attempt for each runner. If so, what about the guy next door? We are back to the unfair advantage argument). On the other hand, if the shoes are allowed and widely used, aren't we going to enter an era of before and after, just as in the case of pole vault? Is this worth it? I seriously doubt it.

For the time being I think that I'll wait patiently for the Breaking2 attempt: it would certainly be exciting to watch a human break the 2 hours Marathon barrier. Still we should not forget that 2 hours are not magical but just a sign of the human obsession with round numbers. 

PS Just not be left by the wayside, Adidas announced that they also had a revolutionary marathon shoe, the adizero Sub2, that would be instrumental in their Sub2 project. It has a special foam, Boost Light, that is supposed to provide 1 % improvement in running energy economy. But at least the Adidas shoe does not have a carbon fiber blade.

01 April, 2017

European Indoors 2017: a championship I did enjoy

When the 2017 European Indoors were approaching I was looking forward to the performances of three athletes: Spanovic, Thiam and Mayer (and I was confident that Stefanidi would just show her superior class and win her discipline). I was not disappointed. There was also a very nice surprise in the person of L. Muir but more on this point later.

I. Spanovic, flying in an all 7+ m contest

Spanovic was really the queen of these championships. Her winning mark of 7.24 m is the third all-time best indoors (only Drechsler with 7.37 m and Chistyakova with 7.30 m have done better, in the 80s) and compared to the best outdoors performances the only better one in the last decade are B. Reese's 7.31 m and 7.25 m in 2016 and 2013 respectively. In fact all the attempts of Spanovic valid and foul equally were beyond 7 m, including her last one measured at 6.73 m. In fact where Spanovic has undoubtedly progressed these last months was the landing in the sandpit where she had a tendency to lie back and lose precious centimetres. This is what happened in her last attempt (bad habits have a tendency to come back and bite you) and since that was the last jump she decided to celebrate her victory by lying all the way on her back in the sandpit shaving at least 30 cm from her performance. Speaking of the women's long jump, I was a  little bit disappointed by J. Sawyers and her 5th place. But to be fair, she did jump 6.67 m and the level of the competition was very, very high.

Even the last jump of Spanovic was an over 7 m one

Thiam won the women's heptathlon hands down but after the 4th event it was clear that the world record was beyond her reach. Had she jumped at her personal indoor best of 6.51 m she would have to run the 800 m at her outdoor best of 2:16.54 in order to beat the WR with 5020 points. However her 6.37 m deprived her of that hope and thus she just jogged through the 800 m having secured the victory. Thiam would have placed 2nd in the high jump, had she participated in the individual event. I hope to see her one day jumping over 2 m. Of the three dutch brilliant heptathletes only N. Broersen participated at the heptathlon finishing 5th while N. Visser ran the 60 m hurdles placing 7th in the final while A. Vetter did not compete this winter. 

N. Thiam together with I. Dadic and G. Zsivoczky-Farkas

Speaking of combined events I must say that I am particularly happy with K. Mayer's victory and european record. When in my last year's olympic report I wrote that I consider Mayer the true successor to Eaton some people considered this an exaggeration. After having seen Mayer's performance in Belgrade they are now eating crow. I said it already: Mayer is a jumper-thrower and, while he may be not as fast a runner like, say, Eaton or Warner, he has the perfect profile for a decathlete. And at 25 he is still young for a decathlete. Barring injuries  we can safely expect a 9000+ performance from Mayer. The men's heptathlon was the occasion for J. Ureña to redeem himself. If you follow my blog you will certainly remember that Ureña fouled out in the decathlon discus at the 2016 Europeans losing is chances for a medal and, what is even worse, failing to qualify for the Rio Olympics. This time Ureña finished second after an exemplary competition. I will keep an eye open for him this summer at the London World's. A sad moment of men's heptathlon was the finish of the 1000 m when M. Dudas stepped out of the track and fell down while he was fighting for the bronze medal. Had he ran at his personal best he would have made this medal. All in all I find that qualifying 16 athletes for the heptathlon was inconsiderate on behalf of European Athletics. It led to a pole vault competition that took hours and then the athletes had to present themselves for the 1000 m within barely half an hour. A more conservative field of 12 would have been definitely better.

K. Mayer, the world's best decathlete today

K. Stefanidi showed her great class in the women's pole vault. Having missed once at the opening height of 4.55 m she was been led by L. Ryzih and thus from 4.65 m onwards she decided to bide her time till 4.80 m where Ryzih missed and Stefanidi passed at the first try. After that the competition became a formality with Stefanidi passing 4.85 m and Ryzih missing at that height. A. Bengtsson was third on count-back (together with M. Kylypko) but I find her 4.55 m performance somewhat disappointing. By now she should be a 4.80 plus jumper rather than having difficulties with a mere 4.60 m.

K. Stafanidi, adding one more gold medal to her collection

Men's pole vault saw the victory of P. Lisek. This was expected given that Lisek has recently the club of the over-6ers. However his victory was not as easy as one would have predicted since K. Filippidis jumped a national record of 5.85 m for silver and P. Wojciechowski a season's best 5.85 m for bronze. E. Karalis, the world youth record holder, did participate (at just 17 years of age) at his first competition at senior level managing a mere 5.50 m (his personal record from last month being 5.70 m). It goes without saying that this first participation was a precious experience for the young greek champion. I will keep an eye open for him.

E. Karalis, the new greek talent in pole vault

Poland has dominated these indoor championships with no fewer 12 medals 7 of which were gold. They dominated men's middle distances and won both relays. Moreover with K. Bukowiecki they continued the polish tradition in shot put. Bukowiecki a 19 year-old spinner threw a massive 21.97 to win the men's event.  Unfortunately his victory is somewhat tainted by doping allegations. (The matter is quite complicated since the substance detected, higenamine, is not on the WADA list but has a structure very similar to other forbidden substances).

In an article of mine, right after the Olympics, I was writing that while there is a tendency for men shot putters to become spinners no such thing is observed in women. I don't have any explanation for this. Still, the women's event was won by a spinner, A. Marton with a world leading throw of 19.28 m. While this may seem as a comfortable victory, and in fact it was, Marton struggled to reach the final being 8th after the two first throws. A. Skujyte, the decathlon world record holder, pursues her athletics career at 37 years of age and barely missed the shot put final placing 9th at the qualifiers with an excellent throw of 17.37 m.

I. Smalaj, new blodd in the stagnating men's long jump

I admit that I have not remarked the albanian long jumper I. Smajlaj till very recently when he won the 2017 indoor Balkan Games. He did surpass himself at the Europeans winning a first title for his country. Still his performance of 8.08 m, quite a progression for him, is another proof (as if we were needing one) that long jump has gone into depression. There are only 5 performances above 8.50 m since 2010 with the best of them a mere 8.58 m. There are times when one waxes nostalgic of King Carl.

L. Muir, out-distancing her kenyan/turk opponent

L. Muir proved her great talent by winning both 1500  and 3000 m in a masterly way. Her last year's 3:55.22 came as a surprise to me. After all she had never won any major title. But after seeing her dominating the two events the way she did I am convinced now that at long last Europe will be able to compete with Africa over women's middle distances. Y. Can the turkish-kenyan had a taste of this at Belgrade. Speaking of middle distances, I was happy of the performance of S. Ennaoui, an athlete I keep an eye on.

L. Muir, together with S. Ennaoui and K. Klosterhalfen

I was particularly happy with F. Guei's victory in the individual 400 m. She has been for years a superlative relay runner but this time she secured a well-merited individual time. The European indoors were an occasion for me to see for the first time the new sprint talent from Poland E. Swoboda. While clearly inexperienced (she could make the final with the last qualifying time having botched her finish in the semis) she won the bronze medal in a very convincing way. The 2017 Indoors were the occasion for R. Beitia to add a medal to her impressive collection. It was a silver one this time, since the first place went to A. Palsyte who jumped a 2.01 m personal best. In Belgrade we bid our farewell to S. Kallur who made it to the 60 m hurdles final (a final won by C. Roleder with A. Talay losing the first place over the last few metres). Kallur's performances over the last two years is another proof that a comeback in high-level athletics is nigh on impossible. Either you keep going if you have the chance to be injury-free or you quit and that's it.

Floria Guei, dominating the 400 m

I was going to forget the other greek medal at these championships. It was obtained by. V. Papachristou in the triple jump who was third behind K. Gierisch and the 2016 outdoors european champion P. Mamona confirming thus her place among the world's best triple jumpers.

I will wrap up this report with a few remarks. The championships suffered from not up to the task judges. There were moments when the missed starts were wreaking havoc upon the competition (and I do not care if that was a technical problem: we are talking about European Championships here). I am also unhappy about the television coverage. We did not get to see a single jump of the men's pole vault in heptathlon. The participation of african turks was kept at a minimum this time and moreover their performances were rather discreet. Still the problem is there and I very much doubt that the IAAF will address it in a useful way.

Finally I must say clearly that I was shocked seeing D. Klishina participate under the European Athletics flag. She was among the three russian athletes cleared to participate at international competitions. Once she is cleared why can't she participate as russian? I understand that there is a ban not only of doping offenders but also of those who cannot prove their innocence. But going to such extremes as to forbid even the mention of the proper nationality of athletes is something I find intolerable. O tempora! O mores!