Baldini talks up his chances in the heat, and the emergence of yet another Chinese challenger
Well, we did promise that Beijing would be one of our key focus points in 2008, so we thought we'd kick off with a short news-post based mostly around this interesting article we came across on Stefano Baldini, the Athens Olympic Marathon champion.
Baldini talks up his chances in the heat
To summarize, the article quotes Baldini speaking in an interview about his chances of defending his title in Beijing. In the interview, he states that:
"I think it can be a factor in my favour, I adapt well to conditions of this sort."Three interesting points from Baldini, and we certainly agree that adaptation, heat and humidity are going to be the keys in Beijing. In particular, his final point about the personal bests going out the window is very relevant. I suspect that as we approach the Beijing Marathon, all the talk will be about Gebrselassie, Tergat, Lel (if they run, that is), because of their racing pedigree.
"No one likes to run in hot, humid conditions. But I manage to race well in them."
"When the weather is hot and humid, personal bests go out of the window"
However, I really do feel that we're in for a surprise in Beijing. Remember, the winning time at the IAAF World Championships in Osaka was 2:15:59, and while we didn't see athletes of the calibre of Gebrselassie and the other world's elite, I don't believe that the sub 2:06 credentials of these athletes will count for too much come the 35 km mark of the Beijing race.
So to repeat, if I was a Kenyan athletics administrator, I would be picking my team from the number of Kenyan athletes who are already based in the Far East, where the humidity and heat are part of the package. If Wanjiru runs in Beijing, he's the one guy who's both fast and accustomed to the conditions, and would be my favourite. Failing this, a Korean or Japanese runner is the next in line. One of the biggest problems for the big-name favourites is that they tend to avoid these conditions, running instead in cool, favourable conditions. And while this is perfectly acceptable, it does mean that Beijing will present unfamiliar racing conditions. Even a period of training leading up to the race won't replicate what a Korean or Japan-based Kenyan experiences, hence my favour for those athletes.
Look for the small men to feature
The other thing to look for is the smallest athlete in the race. The physiology of heat is fascinating and will be covered many times on this blog in the year ahead, but to repeat an often-raised point - all things being equal (which they very rarely are!), the smaller athlete will win in hot conditions.
Therefore, there has been a pretty good correlation between finishing position and body size in the Olympic Marathons, with the smaller, lighter athletes generally occupying higher positions. So this is another factor to consider.
The X-factor - the Beijing Smog
And then finally, the unknown factor for everyone is the pollution. We have written about this a couple of times on The Science of Sport already:
One year countdown - will Beijing's air be ready?The pollution is an unknown quantity. Unfortunately, amidst all this talk of Beijing cleaning up its air, there is little evidence that it is happening. Initial promises to shut down factories and relocate them to outlying areas (which Baldini mentions) are no longer being kept. It seems that financial gain has won out in the debate, with many Chinese companies no longer adhering to initial promises to reduce emissions leading up to August. The UN has warned that the situation is getting worse, not better, and there have been days with smog so bad that flights have been delayed and children and elderly people forced indoors.
Olympic athletes will need face masks to run in Beijing
Now, when you're an elite athlete, this presents a unique problem, one which you can neither prepare for nor adapt to - no acclimatization here, I'm afraid. One elite South African runner could barely jog in Beijing in a training camp in 2007 and so the pollution may be a greater problem than anyone anticipates. Time will tell...
The Chinese marathon team is completed - more cause for concern...
On the women's marathon side, the Chinese have just made the third and final addition to their squad, and it's another cause for concern for all the other athletes who fancy their chances in Beijing.
Zhang Yingying, running her third marathon at the age of 18, has qualified for the Chinese Olympic squad by winning a marathon in Xiamen, in a world junior record time of 2:22:38.
I don't know what the environmental conditions were like on the day, but you can be sure that Yingying is another one who will be familiar and ready for the Beijing conditions. But more than this, she is clearly an athlete on the rise - her time was a world junior record, and a Personal Best by almost five minutes (her previous best was 2:27:20 last October).
Now, I'll steer clear of references to turtle-blood and other herbal supplements (for now, you can be sure it will come up in the future - the Chinese "machine" is most definitely not running on rice alone!), but let's just say that a 5 minute improvement in 4 months suggests there is more to come. She joins Zhou Chunxiu on the Chinese team (who I think is the favourite for the women's race), and they will certainly pose problems for Radcliffe, Noguchi and Ndereba.