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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Haile Gebrselassie

Haile Gebrselassie: 2:03:59 WORLD RECORD in Berlin
Analysis, splits and race report

Haile Gebrselassie has broken the Marathon World Record AND the 2:04 barrier - 2:03:59. In an incredible performance, he first dealt with the surprise challenge of James Kwambai, who had the race of his life to keep Geb company all the way to the 35 km mark, and then went on to fly to the finish line and take 27 seconds off his one year old record. It was a spectacular final 12 km that did the trick, because he was more or less exactly on the pace up to the 30km mark.

Below is my "real time" analysis of the race, including split times and paces of the magnificent performances.

Race report

The Berlin Marathon, and Haile Gebrselassie's shot at his own world record, is underway. Welcome to our "real time" analysis of the race. As far as Marathon analysis goes, this race will be relatively easy - no pesky race tactics or surges, just one man, 4 pacemakers, and the clock! The analysis is below...

Pacing and splits

The graph below shows the split times for each 5km interval, and the pace and projected times at each point. Below that is my "real time" commentary of the race, as it unfolded.

Note: These times are off the TV coverage - the official splits may differ by one second - they change the projected time by a whole 1 second, at most. So I hope you'll bear with the margin for error (1 sec) in return for getting these up within 15 mins after the race...

5km - too fast early?

The 5km mark was reached in 14:35, a pace of 2:55/km. I feel that is too quick, which is actually what was predicted in the preview - perhaps the pacemakers and Geb got a bit carried away with the occasion. Unless it slows down pretty soon, the chances of the world record may be gone by the 15km mark...

Speaking of pacing, since our preview post on Thursday, I learned that Geb had spoken about a first half in the same time as last year - 62:29.

That might have been fine for the world record (2:04:26), but if Gebrselassie is serious about cracking 2:03-something (which he did say he was chasing), then his projected pace is too slow. To run a first half of 62:29 would require a second half of 61:31, which would represent a massive negative split of one minute. That's not only undesirable, it's probably impossible. Turns out it's a moot point anyway - they are going to hit halfway in 61-something at the current pace.

10 km - still too quick

The second 5km were covered in 14:37, the same pace as the first 5km. So the signal to slow down has clearly not come yet...whether that's a conscious decision, that the pacemakers are being spurred on by Gebrselassie, I don't know. Regardless, if he continues at this tempo, he'll hit the half marathon in 61:11. That's not going to happen (they'll slow down), but in my opinion, they have about 5km to sort this out - if they don't, the chances of the record will disappear under the quick pace...

Perhaps Geb believes that this pace is managable - in Dubai, he hit 10km in 28:35, or thereabouts, and maybe that gave him confidence that a brutal early pace is in fact possible. They're coming up to 15 km now...

15 km - pace slows down, back to "reality"

The 5km interval from 10km to 15km was covered in 14:51, which is a substantial slowing in pace. At the 10km mark, the pacemakers were visibly discussing something with one another - perhaps they made the decision to back off slightly? The pace certainly has dropped, although the projected time is still sub-2:04. That interval is probably just what was required, to settle the race down a little. The chances of the record are still very much alive.

20 km - another 'steady' interval

2:57.4 per kilometer for the last 5km interval, which was covered in 14:46. If you look at the graph above, you'll see that the last TWO intervals have been run SLOWER than what was required at the outset to break the world record. As a result, Geb's projected time is drifting slowly back towards to the world record - it now projects 2:04:07. If that trend continues, Gebrselassie will need to find a brilliant final 10km to break the record.

The commentators are currently waxing lyrical about how he's going too fast. If you take the halfway split in isolation, then they're right, of course. But the signs are ominous, because having started so fast, the pace has now settled down into what might be too slow. If they keep up the pace from the last 10km, then he'll finish in 2:04:36. So rather than being too fast, the last 10km have been too slow - it's only the incredibly fast early pace that has created the illusion of going too fast. The race really begins at 30km, however, and so that's when the action will begin.

25 km - settled pace continues

A third successive 5km interval has been run SLOWER than the intial pace required. That might turn out to be a blessing, because Gebrselassie may just be gearing up for a big final 10km, when he is almost certain to be alone. But his projected time, having been 2:03:12 at the 10km mark, is now 2:04:20, and so the last 5km are certain to be captivating. Gebrselassie will be gathering himself for that final assault. He still looks very comfortable, no signs of trouble yet.

30 km - the second half begins...

We're in a bit of a 'holding pattern' - the same consistent pace has been maintained at the front - 14:45 for the last 5km (projected 2:04:21). But the pacemakers have been thinned out, and only Abel Kirui has survived beyond 30km. Gebrselassie has other company in the form of Kenyans James Kwambai and Charles Kamathi, and it is interesting that they've stuck around for quite so long. However, the real race begins now.

35 km - down to two

The pacemaker and Charles Kamathi both dropped off at about 32km, and it was down to two. Gebrselassie and James Kwambai, who was racing out of his socks to stay on this pace. The last five kilometers were run in 14:40 - they've dipped back under the world record pace.

The presence of Kwambai may prove to be a major boost for Gebrselassie - he has some credentials, having finished second in Boston before. Gebrselassie is pressing hard at the front, and Kwambai is hanging on half a stride behind him, looking reasonably comfortable, it has to be said. He may well be in this the whole way. Will he be the spur Gebrselassie needs...? Then again, Gebrselassie has never excelled in marathon RACES, only time-trials. Perhaps he prefers being alone, and Kwambai will be a hinderance. Tactical games may slow the athletes down, as a result of watching one another, as happened in London this year. It's certainly a pleasant, unexpected angle to the race.

40 km - Gebrselassie breaks away, the clock is all that remains

It's now a solo race against the clock, which is what was expected all along. The last 5km were run in 14:29, the fastest of the race, and brings Gebrselassie within sight of the sub 2:04 clocking! Fabulous running, he's visibly increased the pace, and it's a majestic run for the line now.

Finish line - 2:03:59

Enough said! The record is gone, by 27 seconds, in the greatest marathon (time-wise), ever run! An incredible final 7km in particular, and the sub 2:04 performance was delivered. Haile Gebrselassie didn't need more confirmation of his status as the greatest distance runner ever - that position was secure. He gave us a reminder anyway, with world record number 26.

Considering the young generation coming up behind him, perhaps he did need this race, but it leaves the marathon in good shape for the future!

Join us tomorrow for more insight, once the dust has settled. We'll also look at Irina Mikitenko's fantastic sub 2:20 performance (fourth fastest ever).

But for Geb's race, we'll analyse that pacing strategy in more detail, give some thoughts on the race and also compare this performance to other great runs, including last year's Berlin World record!

Join us then!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

2008 Berlin Marathon

The Berlin Marathon: A world record for Gebrselassie?

Breaking news: The Record is gone: 2:03:59. Click here for our race report, including the splits and pacing strategy by Gebrselassie as he became the first man under 2:04!

This Sunday sees the first of the Autumn marathons, and it's a big one, with Haile Gebrselassie making a big effort on his own, 1-year old record in the Berlin time-trial...er, Marathon.

Whenever an athlete of Geb's caliber lines up, the talk of world records is inevitable, but this particular race is even more in focus than usual, because this is the event that cost us the opportunity of seeing Gebrselassie in the Olympic Marathon in August.

You'll recall that it was earlier this year that Geb announced that he would not run the Olympic Marathon because he did not want to "damage" his long term-health in the polluted Chinese capital - many were sceptical then, suggesting that the big pay-day of a Berlin World record was the real reason he didn't run. And now, 6 months later, that potential pay-day has arrived.

Geb will line up in a race that really does lack competition, at least in terms of what he's probably going to be asking of his pace-makers. The World Record, you'll recall, stands at 2:04:26, and averages 2:57/km. Given that the next fastest man in the race has a 2:07 PB, and that the half-marathon mark is likely to be reached in 62 minutes, it's hard to see how anyone will be within a kilometer of Gebrselassie by the time he approaches the Brandenburg Gate and the finish line.

Looking back to look forward: Last year and this year's predictions

The talk is all about the record - the race is secondary (or non-existent, unless we have a miracle performance by someone, or a disaster run by Geb). Can he go sub-2:04? One year ago, as tends to happen when world records are broken, people waxed lyrical about the first sub-2 hour clocking. Never mind that it was "only" 4 and a half minutes away. The more "conservative" types were talking of a 2:02 within the next few years, and Gebrselassie himself said 2:03 was on.

And that's become the magic number for this year's race - 2:03-something. In order to become the first man to break 2:04, Gebrselassie will have to run just over 0.5 seconds per kilometer faster than he did last year. Sounds pretty straightforward - after all, 0.5 seconds represents about 3 m for every 1000m. When you look at it that way (a 0.3% increase), the sub 2:04 seems a reasonable guess. But as you'll know, it's far easier said than done.

Have a look at the splits from last year's race, which we analysed and reported in this post.

The race was a textbook example of how to pace a marathon race - the early pace was a little bit quick, but settled up to halfway, which was reached in 62:29. The pace then picked up in the second half, which was run in an incredible 61:57.

Between that race and Sunday's, Gebrselassie ran one other marathon, in Dubai. There, his pacing was not quite so assured - the first half was run in a suicidally quick 61:27. He died somewhat in the second half, coming home in 63:26 for a 2:04:53.

That Dubai race is an illustration of just how fragile the pacing strategy for the marathon can be...then again, the Berlin race last year demonstrates the same thing. Note how Gebrselassie never ran any 5km segment slower than 2:59, but that his fastest split, in the final 2.2km, was run at 2:53/km. The consistency in pace is remarkable, and it illustrates just how close to the limit Gebrselassie was.

For that reason, talk of a sub-2:04 may be a little optimistic, unless his training has been much better for 2008 than it was last time around. Given the "distraction" of the Olympic 10,000m, I find that unlikely.

To run a sub 2:04 would require a half-way split of around 62:00. At the slowest, I'd say 62:15, because to run a second half in sub-62 minutes off that pace would be a very difficult task, if not impossible. But an over-ambitious start, say 61:50 for the first half, may also see record chances disappear. The margin for error is thus so small that the pacemakers have an enormous responsibility - 15 seconds either way, over 21km, is their margin for error.

The other pivotal factor is how long they'll stay with Gebrselassie. Needless to say, running a 62 minute half marathon is no mean feat, and ideally, the pacemakers would want to continue onto the 30km mark (at least). Last year, Geb was alone from 30km onwards. He'll need at least the same performance this time around, at a faster pace. He'll also need the weather to be perfect - so far, it looks pretty good, with very little wind predicted, and temperatures between 13 and 16 degrees Celsuis (55 and 65F). The weather may yet become a factor...or an excuse...

Gebrselassie's last shot? And our prediction...2:04:40

The other story is that Gebrselassie may not have too many more shots at the record - he is running great times over 10,000m this year, an encouraging sign, but at the age of 35, it's hard to see that he has more than 4 more great races in him. Then there's the emergence of some real challengers - Sammy Wanjiru ran 2:06:32 in Beijing's heat and humidity, in a tactical race with a brutal early pace. Incredible performance, and maybe Geb is lucky he didn't try to run that race - he would likely not have won anyway. And there's Martin Lel, beaten in Beijing, but invincible before. He'll be back and I still favour him to run the world record close.

Regardless of who it is, I feel that this time of 2:04:26 will be beaten within the next 18 months, and so Gebrselassie will want to "pad" it with some reserve.

My prediction:

Geb will get the pacing slightly wrong and go out a little bit too fast (around 61:45). He'll pay for that in the second half, and fall just short of the world record - 2:04:40.

Then again, I might be completely wrong! Feel free to fire away with your own predictions - we'd offer a prize, but for now, you'll have the satisfaction of winning the "Nostradamus" award for closest to the actual time...

Either way, we'll do a "real-time" analysis of the race on Sunday morning, so the splits and race report will be up almost as soon as it's over!

Join us then!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Paralympics: What to make of it?

Paralympic heroes: Evaluating success (or failure) and avoiding minefields

Last week saw the curtain call of the Olympic cycle for four years, and the Paralympic Games came to an end amidst a spectacular closing ceremony. It brought to an end the biggest Paralympic Games to date - in terms of atheltes, support staff, media coverage, and financial incentives (both direct and indirect for athletes), and it was a fitting end to a spectacle of sport in Beijing over the last 6 weeks.

The Paralympics are themselves a fitting way to end the Olympic cycle - I dare say that the original Olympic ideals are embodied MORE in the Paralympic Games than they are in the Olympic Games, with the triumph of the human spirit evident in every one of the participants of the Games. That will possibly incur the 'wrath' of those who are intimately involved in the Olympics, and I certainly don't wish to discredit either Games - just look at our comprehensive Olympic coverage and you'll see that the Olympic Games are THE pinnacle of the world of sport. But the Paralympics brings something else, an angle that can't be matched by the Olympics, though for different reasons.

Different, but equal - why we should avoid comparisons

And therein lies the key - "different", and that's really what this post is about. Much has been made in the media back here in South Africa about the fact that the South African team did so poorly in the Olympic Games (only 1 silver), yet managed an incredible sixth place in the Paralympics (30 medals, 21 gold). In response to this disparity, the South African media have asked the question: "Why are the Paralympic team so successful, whereas the Olympic team is such a "failure?" (apologies for the SA-centric post today, but hopefully interesting discussion points will emerge no matter where you are...read on!)

That's a very difficult question to answer, and sometimes, the problem is that if you ask a difficult question, you won't like the answer you get. You should not, in fact, be asking the question...And this is the case here, particularly when the media choose to sensationalize this by taking it completely out of context. This happened to me last week, unfortunately, when a daily tabloid (Die Burger) took some quotes completely out of context and I was vilified for "criticizing" the Paralympic Team. Much of the last week has been damage limitation thanks to that article.

However, the one good thing that came of it is that it got me thinking about what we can learn from the difference in performance between our SA Olympic team and the SA Paralympic team, and just how one might compare the two Games, if at all.

Success in both Games: A given, except for SA

First of all, one has to objectively analyse performance, otherwise it's emotive, subjective guesswork. South Africa finished 71st on the medal table in the Olympcis, and 6th in the Paralympic medal table. But what of the other nations? It's helpful to figure out whether this change is common or completely unusual. So the graph below shows the finishing position of nations on the Paralympic medal table plotted against the finishing position in the Olympic Games.

I've had to change the scale of the axes to fit it all in, but you can see that the correlation is fairly tight - in other words, nations who do well in the Olympics tend to do well in the Paralympic Games. China won both, the USA were second and third respectively. Great Britain were top 5, Australia top 6 in both. The outliers to this correlation are the "poorer" nations, where disabled athletes are not prioritized - that was China until very recently, I might add. In 1996, they finished only ninth. Twelve years later, they won double the number of medals of the second best country, thanks to a focused effort on the Paralympic Games! However, there are still nations, like Ethiopia and Jamaica who are missing from this comparison - that's a functon of ACCESS, which I'll get to shortly.

The green line represents where the nation would lie if it finished in EXACTLY the same position in both Games. If the country is in the yellow shaded area, then their Paralympic performances are superior, whereas if they are in the orange, their Paralympic performances are inferior to the Olympic performances. So the Ukraine are strong at the Paralympics - they finished 11th on the Olympic table, and 5th in the Paralympics. In contrast, Italy had a good Olympic showing - 9th, but only finished 28th in the Paralympics.

However, the "winner" for big improvers is South Africa - 71st to 6th, which is an enormous difference. So therefore, the SA Paralympic Team is deserving of all the praise it can get. We should be celebrating, it is an astonishing performance when viewed this way.

Why the difference? What can we learn from the success of the Paralympians? Or is that the failure of the Olympians?

Now here's where it gets tricky. People in SA have asked this question with the intention of trying to label the Olympic Team as failures, and because they want to prove that the "Sporting System" for Paralympic sports is so much better. Both are grossly unfair, because, and I'll be as direct as possible here...you cannot compare performances BETWEEN the two Games - the comparison between Olympic Games and Paralympic Games is completely erroneous.

Why? Because they are such completely different "phases" of their lifecycles as events. Sport undergoes a certain evolutionary process, which sees the number of competitors, the depth of competition, and therefore the intensity of competition change over its life.

Off the top of my head (I'm sure this has been done "properly", forgive my over-simpification), the phases are:

Formation is the starting point, where the event or sport begins. In the case of the Olympic Games, I guess we could argue the semantics, but I think it's safe to say that it began in 1896, although in 2008, we could also say we saw the formation of 10km swimming, BMX cycling, and women's steeplechase events, for example.

The Paralympics began in 1960 (officially), although they can be traced back to 1948 for soldiers injured in the war. It was in the 1960s that other categories were added, and the Paralympics really began their growth. However, a key point is that the Games we see today really only began in 1988, when the Paralympics were placed immediately after the Olympic Games. That juxtaposition has driven the growth of the Paralympics, and so my feeling is that "Formation" of the Paralympics is much more recent than the 1960's. Regardless, it's clear that the formation of the Paralympics happened long after the Olympic Games were well established - at least 60 years later. This has important implications...

The next phases might be described as Foundation, Explosion, Plateau and Stagnation. Foundation is really where the "pioneers" come along and chart the previously unchartered waters. We see this is sport all the time - there is a period of improvement which can be rapid or gradual depending on the sport, but the point is that this is almost always followed by an "Explosion" in performance. Suddenly (for a number of reasons) the sport becomes popular, and more and more athletes turn to it. It gets more professional, training improves, financial incentives increase, and performances explode. Eventually, it reaches a plateau, where improvements are much smaller and infrequent.

Finally, there is stagnation, where the sport loses impetus or requires modification to keep interest levels up. This is a general illustration, of course, and you'll be able to pick 'outliers' to this trend - swimming, for example, has recently undergone another explosion, thank to technology of swimsuits, pools and training methods. But I'm sure you can think of other examples that fit - women's pole vault is a good one. It's in an "explosion" phase right now, thanks to Yelena Isinbayeva who followed on from the foundation phase's "pioneers". Eventually, others will bridge the gap, and the event will hit a plateau. The marathon goes a similar way.

However, the key point is that the Paralympics are in a completely different phase - I believe they are still in the explosion phase, where performances are improving rapidly. The Olympics, on the other hand, are in the plateau phase, where the sport has reached a level of performance that makes it difficult to find further rapid improvements. A lot of this has to do with access and maturity of the sport.

Access and maturation - the drivers for growth

This life-cycle model partly explains why the margins of victory in the Paralympcs are so much larger than in the Olympic Games. In 200m swimming events, for example, the winning margin in the Olympic Games was just under 2 seconds. In the Paralympic Games, it was over 6 seconds. There were two 200m races that stand out - one was won by 11 seconds, another by 12 seconds. Natalie du Toit, the athlete of the Games, won a 400m race by 25 seconds!

That is clearly not "normal" when compared against the Olympic Games, but in the Paralympics, it happens because we're still in that Explosion phase, where it is perfectly normal. What will happen over the next 20 years is that more and more athletes will bridge that gap, and by 2028, we'll see a very similar standard of competition between Games.

The other excellent example of this is the emergence of the Kenyan men. Beijing was really the first time that a GROUP of Kenyan men dominated middle and long distance events (by dominated, we're talking five gold medals. We're accustomed to seeing this at the Olympics, but for the Paralympics, it is a major step forward, because it shows that ACCESS to the Games is increasing. The fact that those Kenyan men broke world records by in excess of 20 seconds (in a 5000m event) is yet another indication that that Paralympic Games are in the "Explosion/Evolution" phase - such margins do not (or should not) happen in mature competition.

The next step is that these "pioneer" Kenyan men will be succeeded by even better Kenyan athletes, and the records will fall even faster. Then the Ethiopians and Ugandans will emerge, and pretty soon, perhaps two generations from now, the Paralympic distance events will be in their "Plateau" phase as well - natural progression raises standards.

So what will happen in future, as the Paralympic Games matures, is that ACCESS will increase. More nations will send more athletes, and as a result, the "gene pool" of the Paralympics will begin to resemble that of the Olympics. This will drive even more of an evolution in performances, and it will also increase the depth of competition enormously. We can therefore expect, as a normal course of events, to see that by 2012, there are already closer races and improved performances. By 2028, I suspect that the level of competition will be very similar, and you will also have a very similar demographic of competiting nations - remember, there was not a single athlete from the Caribbean in the men's 100m finals in the Paralympics. They dominated the Olympic Games.

Now, does this mean that competition is weak? Of course not, you'd be an idiot to suggest this, because Paralympic competition can only be evaluated against previous Paralympic competition. Also, the level of preparation and commitment of the top Paralympic athletes is often equal to, or greater than that of many Olympic athletes, so to dismiss it as "weak" is condescending and blinkered. In South Africa, if you did this, you'd miss out on some valuable lessons as well. But you still can't compare them...

Therefore, with specific reference to the South African situation, you cannot compare the 30 medals won by the Paralympic team with the single medal won by the Olympic team, because those medals are won in a completely different context, against different backdrops of competition and with different criteria for evaluation. Both medals are equally worthy, but when you start making the comparison between the two, then you paint yourself into a corner, because the reality is that Paralympic competition lacks the depth of the Olympics right now. That's not a bad thing, it's just a natural consequence of maturity, access and development issues.

Other considerations - classification and size

There are, of course, numerous other issues at play here - the classification system of the Paralympics is fraught with difficulty. It's an almost impossible task to classify the different levels of disability without compromising the "integrity" of competition somehow. Sport, at its very core, has "equality of competition" as its most valuable characteristic. We know this is never true, of course, but it's implicit on the starting line. The Paralympics has to manage the fact that this is never the case, and it does pose challenges.

Then there is the size of the competition - 4000 athletes represents a large percentage relative to the Olympic Games. 10,000 athletes (out of 6 billion) make the Olympic Games, and only 300 win Gold medals. In contrast, 4000 competed at the Paralympics (out of perhaps 100 million - a much higher percentage), and 473 Gold medals are awarded. Purely by numbers, there is a difference.

That difference is a function of spreading the participation base out across a much greater pool for the Paralympics. If the Paralympics were limited to the same relative size as the Olympic Games,there'd be fewer than 1000 competitors. The fact that it is not is a positive, which we should be pleased about, not something to defend and criticize. Hopefully, it's clear that the future holds much growth in store for Paralympic competition, and the way we evaluate our success NOW should not be reflected in an "it could be better" attitude."

The future - professionalization around the corner. Are we ready?

Then finally, it would be careless not to point out that success today does not guarantee success tomorrow. That is particularly true in this case, because of the growth of the Paralympics - more nations are competing and more are focusing on Paralympic sport and that means that progress is going to be rapid. China's 2008 investment will spur on other countries, and the demand for these Paralympic golds will rise. This is driven by the increasing media attention on the Paralympics, which means more money to the Games, and more money means a more professional approach, as the standard of competition rises.

This is important because South Africa's success is NOT the result of its sporting system - it is the efforts and talents of excellent coaches, administrators and athletes working together. But it tends to happen in isolation and so we need to figure out how to harness the obvious expertise and use it to produce more of the same. Unfortunately, learning from success is very difficult, and proves impossible for most. But we need to do this now, precisely because the Paralympics is ready for the professional era. We might not be...

Conclusion: Don't compare, rather celebrate, and let's fix the other problem separately

So the point is: Let's not compare the Games. There are lessons to be learned about why the SA Paralympic Team did so well, but I won't go into those here, because most of you reading this are not in South Africa. Those lessons should be learned (they won't be, given SA's history, but anyway...), but dealing with the SA Olympic problems is a completely separate problem. It's not about the systems and the attitude of athletes and the "will to win" - it's about celebrating Paralympic success on its merits, and we need to focus on celebrating the performances of our Paralympic athletes, who are worthy of that recognition. And then let's deal with the Olympic problems separately.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Coyle continued

"I made a mistake." Now get a job"...Fact and philosophy

Well, the discussion around the study published by Coyle on Lance Armstrong, and the subsequent revelation that he had made a calculation error has opened up some strong debate, which is always excellent. We've had numerous responses, and of course had the study been done on John Jones, as opposed to Lance Armstrong, no one would have cared...

And therein lies the first problem - this paper got to where it did off the back of the fame of its subject, and scientific stringency was lobbed out the window. So to the one Anonymous poster who commented that we were leading the "witch-hunt" for Lance Armstrong...I'm afraid you've missed the point there. It's not about Lance Armstrong, it's about scientific process. But more on that a little later, in "Philosophy." First, some "Fact."


Many of you wrote in saying that there was an error in the statement regarding the impact of the change depending on a high or low VO2. And you'd have been correct. I've emailed some authors about this, and what I'd like to do (this is part of our "growth strategy" here at the Science of Sport), is to allow external contributions to topics such as this one. So I will try my best to actually have the people involved respond to these kinds of specifics.

However, you are correct - the impact of the change is similar in absolute magnitude, but as a percentage of the slope, it's larger at lower VO2 values. At the very least, we now have confirmation that our readership is up to the challenge! That's a privilege, and says something about the high quality of our readership...!

I'm going to credit the fact that I have a "real job" for this particular error - these posts are done on the fly, during lunch or after work, thanks to the real job (again, more on this in "Philosophy").

But it suddenly struck me as ironic that this had happened in this post, of all of them (of course, we do make mistakes, but they've never been picked up before!). Because the funny thing is how this scenario played out...consider the following:

Yesterday afternoon, you were sitting in a coffee shop, an internet cafe, your home, or your office, and you logged on or got our daily email. You read it, and it struck you that something was wrong, so you gave it some thought, and you realised that you disagreed with our statement. You then took it upon yourself to write in a comment, and express your view about our position. One of you even wrote in and requested that we provide data to back up that position. It was beautiful.

Why was it was beautiful? Because this is what happened when you logged onto a part-time run website on Sports Science. Now, imagine that instead of this website, you picked up a credible Journal, say the Journal of Applied Physiology. You opened it, and read a paper that was so full of holes, so full of errors and lacking any integrity in the interpretation of the data, that it defied belief. What would you do? I suspect you'd take it upon yourself, as a scientist that is, to write to the Editor, to respond to the Author of the study, and to seek answers.

Welcome to the Coyle-Armstrong debate. Now, imagine that in response to your email and opinions, I was to tell you to "Get a real job." Again, welcome to the Coyle-Armstrong debate, because that is what was said in response to a scientific discussion.

And that is what this series about. One of the bigger ironies is that we (and the Australian scientists) were yesterday accused of being "myopic" to our approach to criticizing the Coyle paper. That is a response that can only come from within the "Fraternity" (and I use this word deliberately, instead of "Community" because science is often a Fraternity) of scientists who are perhaps defending a former colleague.

They are the ones suffering from myopia, because they've chosen to ignore the quality of the science and attack the messenger instead. The reality is that a peer-reviewed scientific paper should meet certain standards. Making "miscalculations" (which I still believe to be significant) is not acceptable, but then nor is the litany of other problems with that study, which we described in our first post. Then the response of the author is so offensive, so disrespectful and so arrogant that it warrants a post series all by itself.

To be sure, errors do occur in data collection and analysis. This is not a crime and nothing to be ashamed of, however when other scientists challenge your findings because they think there might be an error somewhere, transparency should prevail, data should be provided, and the problem rectified. This is how we move our knowledge forward.

The fact is that subsequent to a complaint of scientific misconduct, Coyle has still not provided all the data. Why not? Just make it available and let's have this debate out in the open. Or is there a reason not to? Moving even further along, not only does this science appear in a scientific journal, it then becomes a cog in a legal defence when it was incorrect all along (and to answer one poster, I don't know why the data was not made available before - perhaps the legal team made the mistake of trusting the scientific process too much?)

So that is the problem. The final point I wish to make before moving onto "Philosophy" is that in a normal state of affairs, when a research study is sent off for review, it is usually sent by the editor of the journal to a few reviewers - experts in the field, who cast their eye over it to make sure it is well-controlled and worthy of publication. The Coyle study of Armstrong was submitted on February 22nd. It was accepted three weeks later. Of course, short turnover times are not unique, but this is remarkable. Remember, this is a study so criticized that it inspired two SEPARATE letters in response, and trust us, letters like these are not all that common in the publication process. It became a case study here at UCT in how not to write a case report, and as mentioned in our first post, was criticized widely at conferences.

Yet it got through the Review process in three weeks. That is where the problem began, and it continued, all the way through to the admitted error. Perhaps a lot of people with "real jobs" were involved along the way.


Speaking of real jobs, one comment we received yesterday got me thinking about our existence here at The Science of Sport, and specifically, what our purpose is. We are now just over 17 months old, and it's wonderful to be able to count among our readership the likes of the people who wrote yesterday. In particular, this poster (sorry, I would refer to you by name, but I don't know it), mentioned that he gave our posts to his students on occasion, but was critical of the "lack of objectivity and professionalism" in the posts. What a privilege to have such readers, and we are very blessed to have such wide (though we'd love to grow it - send this to your friends!) and influential readership. Clearly we have many scientists and other academics among our audience, and we do feel privileged that these people have chosen to read and comment here.

When we started out, our intention was to use it as a vehicle to coach. Jonathan's passion is cycling, mine running, and we felt that we could get into the coaching world this way. It lasted about two days, before I realised that in fact, the "market" was crying out for a more thought-provoking approach to sports news reporting. And so the concept of "Performance analysis and discussion" was born. Our mission then evolved into trying to marry our passion for sport with our training in science.

We said that our objective would be to provide the "Why and How" to what internet news sites, magazines and newspapers were reporting as the "What and Who". That remains the idea today. So our flagship posts have been the Oscar Pistorius debate, which I genuinely believe we have covered better than any media outlet around, and the Major Marathon races, where we look at the pacing strategies, splits and race news in real time, from a physiological point of view. The Olympic Games were obviously a huge focal point as well. But we're not here to analyse the science - that's what journals do. We're also not here to tell you what happened in the world of sports - the newspapers do that. We're here to try to strip down the stories and provide some insight which hopefully brings science into the sports news, and sports stories into the world of sports science.

But the point I have to make is that it is all opinion. This is not a scientific journal, though we recognize that we offer (or should try to offer) a little more than the usual media/blog fare. So what we try to do, where possible, is provide references and links to the "objective" research. So to respond again to the Anonymous poster, if you want the "objective" discussion, then simply refer to the letters by Gore et al. in the scientific journal.

Our intention is to translate, and to inform, and then to entertain through the use of the site, and hopefully give people new perspectives based insight that we have (or hope to have). I mentioned earlier that I had a "real job" - I work as head of research for a sports management and marketing company, and so my involvement with science is these days in a consulting role. Jonathan is more immersed in a University position. But my training, both PhD and Commercial, allow me to stand with one foot in a commercial block, and another in the sports science world, and sing. Or dance, or play, whichever you prefer. Speaking personally, these posts are what I see when I look at the world, nothing more.

One of my favourite books is "The Undercover Economist", by Tim Hartford. That book was described as "spending an ordinary day wearing X-ray goggles". I'd like to think this is a site that lets you watch sport through X-ray goggles. That requires opinion, and it's guaranteed to offend some (Pistorius' father among them), but I won't apologize for opinion.

So we are sorry if you feel that our discussion sometimes lacks objectivity, and fact. But then again, consider the discussion on Usain Bolt. I believe he is clean. Is that fact? Of course not, but then if we restricted ourselves to "fact," this would be a very empty website. And no one wants that...

So apologies for the philosophical, and somewhat self-indulgent post (I indulge twice a year). It won't happen again until perhaps March next year!


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Coyle-Armstrong research installment 2

The "error" is discovered, thanks to scientific detective work

Apologies for the gap between posts - I wanted to spend more time on this particular piece to make sure that I captured what is a techical matter accurately.

In our last post, we looked at the 2005 research study published by Coyle on Lance Armstrong, in which he concluded that Armstrong's efficiency had improved by 8% over a 7 year period during which he was tested.

That finding became a crucial cog in the legal defence of Armstrong after his fifth Tour de France title, because Coyle argued that this physiological adaptation was responsible for Armstrong's dominance of the Tour. We said in our last post that there were numerous scientific flaws in the study, not least of all the fact that Coyle never once tested Armstrong during the Tour de France season. What transpired in the aftermath of the 2005 publication was only really the beginning, and those study design considerations and problems of interpretation were soon going to be overtaken by the realisation that in fact, the data was incorrect thanks to a calculation error made in working out the efficiency. That is the subject of this post.

The "minor miscalculation"

The story behind this latest revelation is that three scientists and one mathematician from Australia requested access to Coyle's data, presumably to examine it more thoroughly. At this stage, we must point out that the Coyle finding was surprising and challenged for a number of reasons:

  1. The numerous flaws in design, questions around calibration and issues of interpretation that we have already explained
  2. The fact that cycling efficiency had never been shown to change so consistently over a period of time as a result of training/maturation. Take the following quote, from Michael Ashenden, one of the paper's authors: “They were really concerned, on a scientific level, that Coyle had been able to perpetuate this myth that cycling efficiency changes."
  3. There is a theory that cancer treatment and chemotherapy, should cause a decrease in efficiency. Why? Because what happens with the removal of a testicle and subsequent chemotheraphy is that the body shifts to a greater use of fat as a source of fuel. Fat, however, is not as efficient as carbohydrate - the energy produced per liter of oxygen is lower for fat than carbohydrates, and so this theory suggests that Armstrong should, if anything, have been less efficient. This is not by itself reason for doubt - theory is, after all, any hypothesis exists in order to be proven incorrect, but it was another reason to view the Coyle data with skepticism.
However, the key point was that this "science" was being propogated as fact, when there were very clearly errors and problems with it. The scientists approach was then to ask for the data, so that they could analyse it themselves, interrogate it and discover whether in fact the conclusions were valid.

Getting the data - apparently a problem

Science is, in theory, transparent. It should be, and every scientist should be confident enough in their method and results to make data available at any time for evaluation. If they are not, then the data should not be published. That's why a scientific paper is so particular about its method - every study should be repeatable by others, to confirm or refute what it has found. If the process is legitimate, then the data should be above "reproach". It turns out that getting hold of Lance Armstrong's data was not quite so simple. Apparently, Ashenden and his colleagues were stonewalled when they raised their concerns, and eventually had to lodge a case of scientific misconduct against Coyle, with his University in Texas.

That finally got them SOME data - I must stress, that it seems they only got some of the information. If you look at the letter that Gore et al sent to JAP, they state in the opening paragraph that "Coyle made available raw data from the January 1993 test..." If you then jump to the end of the letter, you read the following: "The magnitude of this error warrants recalculation of the entire data set, but raw data from the remaining test sessions are not available from the author".

Therefore, despite having gone through an official complaint of scientific misconduct, the scientists are still not able to evaluate ALL the evidence, because its author will not make it available. Now, why is this the case? Could Coyle have "lost" the data? Highly doubtful - I suspect that given the subject and his importance, this data will be backed up numerous times. So then the only conclusion is that some reason exists not to make it available.

The Error and why the complete data set must be evaluated

The Australian group, in their letter, make the point that a calculation error had been made, which is really the catalyst for the latest round of discussion. What was that error? We gave a hint in our previous post when we introduced the following graph:
This graph shows how the delta efficiency is calculated - basically, it's the inverse of the slope of this line. So your use of oxygen rises as you do more and more work, and if you take the slope, invert it, you have a measure of how much work is doing per unit of energy consumed (you calculate energy using oxygen).

Now, what Coyle did, you'll recall, is calculate Armstrong's efficiency over 7 years from 1993 to 1999, interrupted by the cancer diagnosis and treatment.

However, what the Australian researchers realised when they looked at the data from 1993, is that Coyle had used the wrong equation. Without going into massive detail, if you look at the graph above, you will see that even when you are doing ZERO work, you are still using oxygen (otherwise, you'd be dead). This resting oxygen use, at zero load is important, because it reflects a base metabolic rate. Now, what Coyle did was to neglect this zero work point, and he FORCED the line to go through zero. This means that the slope of the relationship between oxygen use and work rate was changed because he used the wrong equation, and his calculation of delta efficiency is incorrect.

What the Australians realised is that if you used the CORRECT equation, then the values calculated change substantially. Their letter provides the numbers - they applied the correct equation and worked out that Armstrong's Delta Efficiency in 1993 was actually 23.55%, and NOT 21.75% as Coyle reported. The graph below shows the effect of this correction.

The question marks are there, of course, because we're all speculating as to how the correct equation would change the values - that data has yet to be released, so speculation is all we have...

The impact of the change

The change is huge - 8%, and therefore, the rest of the data must be evaluated. In response to this revelation, Coyle has admitted that he made an error. However, he has downplayed the importance of this error, saying that it is minor and makes "no practical difference". I might point out that his error is in fact LARGER than the change in efficiency he found in Lance Armstrong! The 8% change was significant when it was Lance's efficiency, apparently it is not when it is the error he made...

The other defence put forward by Coyle is that the error is reduced in signficance because he calculated efficiency at a high VO2, and so the effect of a resting metabolic rate is expected to be minimal. This is in fact completely incorrect. The higher the VO2, the greater the impact of the calculation on the slope. In otherwords, the slope actually changes by MORE (and hence, the efficiency changes) when you have a high VO2, than a low VO2. So Coyle's defence doesn't hold there either.

Summing up: The big picture

The relevance of this error, and the whole process of evaluating this paper, extends into the scientific community, perhaps more than it does the cyclist. So these two posts have been much more technical than we usually write, but hopefully you can appreciate the importance of discussing this kind of scientific misinterpretation and error.

In response to it all, Coyle is quoted in the New York Times as saying: “This is a minor waste on my time. However, I don’t understand how they can afford to spend so much time on this. Don’t they have real jobs?”

I suppose one would put this down to opinion, but as I wrote the other, I would say that as a scientist, your "real job" is to pursue scientific truth. So in fact, they did exactly what they were supposed to. It doesn't seem that the same applied in 2005 when the study was done.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Coyle and Armstrong: Research "errors" evaluation

The Coyle study on Armstrong: A "minor error" or a scientific "hoax?" Analysis and insight

As promised, we turn our attention to this story, which broke last week, co-inciding with the news that Lance Armstrong is coming out of retirement and will try to race the 2009 Tour de France. It's quite an intricate story, and technical, so forgive the longish post, but we try to go back to the beginning and then work through the sequence of events in order.

The story, which was reported in the New York Times, reports that Ed Coyle, physiologist at the University of Texas, admitted to making what he calls a "minor error" when calculating Lance Armstrong's efficiency during his research. That "minor error" happens to have a major impact on the study's findings, since his main finding was that Armstrong became more efficient between 1993 and 1999.

The paper was, it must be said, widely criticized from the beginning. It drew two separate letters, criticizing the methods, debating the scientific stringency of testing, and questioning the conclusions. It became something of a "shining light" to research without quality control, a running joke of sorts within sections of the scientific community.

I recall attending a conference in the USA soon after its publication - it was the hot topic, of course, because not only was Coyle doing research on an elite subject, it was THE elite subject - the "greatest physiological specimen in the world". Just like roadies wait years to see rock stars or musicians, any exercise physiologist would leap at the chance to publish data on a record-breaking Tour de France cyclist!

So predictably, the paper was something of a conversation starter at scientific conferences and in the media. At the conferences, conversation was not positive, however, with many dismissing it as trivia, rather than science. They were being kind...Few would have expected the next two years to keep the paper quite as much in the public and legal eye, since it became a legal defence vehicle for Armstrong, as we shall see...

With regards to the media, the paper was huge - it was reported widely as "fact" that Armstrong's success was the result of his never-seen-before increase in efficiency. This is typical of how media spin sometimes contaminates science. In this particular case, that science was not even particularly "clean", with many holes, but nevertheless, the media lapped it up. This is of course frustrating for most scientists, since the "sensationalization" of science is rarely constructive. When it is also poor science, all the more reason to pursue the truth...

First things first: The Coyle study from 2005. What was found?

To begin with, we have to look back and report on the findings of Coyle in the research study that is now the focal point of the "error".

The paper was called "Improved muscular efficiency displayed as Tour de France champion matures", which kind of reveals the paper's hand from the very first line. Here's a breakdown of what Coyle did (note that we're focusing only on the efficiency part, and not some of the other measurements made. If interested, you can download the entire paper here. See also the end of this post for the links to the entire series of exchanges in the Journal of Applied Physiology.)

The figure below demonstrates just what Coyle did, and what he found.

The research began in November 1992, when Coyle did his first battery of tests on Armstrong. He then did a second test a few months later, followed by a third in 1993. Then a long break interrupted the testing, and it was in that period that Armstrong was diagnosed with and treated for testicular cancer.

Testing resumed in August of 1997, and the final test took place in November 1999. This was the only testing session that co-incided with Armstrong's Tour de France dominance (1999 to 2005), although it must be pointed out that it was done in November, four months AFTER Armstrong won the 1999 Tour. This has relevance for Coyle's conclusions, as we shall see.

The test: Explaining efficiency measures

Testing consisted of a VO2max test, during which time, Coyle measured gases (oxygen in, CO2 out) and did a blood lactate measurement at the end of the test. He calculated two important variables:

  • Gross Efficiency - the ratio of work done to energy expended to do the work. The work done is taken from the power output, while the energy expended to do the work is calculated using the respiratory gases and calculations we won't get into here. But for example, if a cyclist is riding along at 200 W, and their respiratory gases are used to calculate that their energy consumption is 1000 W (or Joules per second), then that cyclist is 20% efficient, according to this method.
  • Delta Efficiency - this is a more comprehensive method, because it is calculated as the ratio of the change in work done per minute to the change in energy expended per minute. It is considered a better measure of efficiency because it takes into account the use of oxygen (and energy) at rest and when no work is being performed.
This gets technical, but the simple way to think of this is that as you do more work, your oxygen use rises. We can use that oxygen use to calculate how much energy you are using, and then say that energy use is proportional to work rate (that's fairly obvious, hopefully).

Now, if we take the inverse of the slope of that line (in otherwords, work done vs. energy use), then we can work out delta efficiency. However, it's critical that this slope take into account what the energy use was when you were not doing any work - the resting energy use, and also the energy use when cycling at zero load. The graph below is schematic, but I use it illustrate the point - the energy use rises with increasing work rate, but must take into account energy use when work rate is zero.

Studies as far back as 1975 (Gaesser & Brooks) have shown that gross efficiency tends to skew the results, because of the failure to account for energy use at zero load. Therefore, delta efficiency is considered the better method, but only if used properly, as we'll see!

Coyle's study found that Armstrong's efficiency increased progressively over the 7 years in which he was tested, as shown in the figure above. His delta efficiency improved from 21.37% in 1992 to 23.12% in 1999. This increase (1.8 percentage points) is relatively small, and it must be noted, is actually less than the typical error of the equipment used to measure it with! In other words, taking nothing but equipment variation into account, this kind of change is possible...

Based on this finding, Coyle named his study, and the theory was published that Lance Armstrong had seen a progressive increase in his efficiency over the years. This was to become a key part of this "armour" in 2005, when this study would provide some support for his claims that his ascendancy in the world of cycling was "natural". Coyle speculated on a number of physiological factors explaining this finding (changes in enzyme activity, muscle fibre switches etc.). However, the first responses to Coyle's paper were swift...

The first response: Criticism of methods and overinterpretation of data

The first response and criticism was swift, and came from two sources. First, David Martin and colleagues from Australia wrote a letter titled "Has Armstrong's cycle efficiency improved?". This was accompanied by a letter from Yorck Olaf Schumacher and his colleagues titled "Scientific considerations for physiological evaluations of elite athletes".

Essentially, these letters criticized the study design, the method and the scientific process follwed, including the conclusions. The raised the following points:
  • Timing of testing sessions - Coyle very clearly concluded that his measurements of muscular efficiency were of paramount significance to Armstrong's Tour victories. He denies this, but the title and his conclusions make very clear that his view is that Armstrong's success is a function of this improved efficiency. Coyle would go on to testify in court that Armstrong's rise could have been achieved without doping, so it's quite clear that his finding was intended for support of Armstrong's Tour performance. Yet remarkably, NOT A SINGLE testing session co-incided with the Tour. All the testing happened out of season, and only the 1999 test even overlapped with the Armstrong Tour victories.
  • Issues around equipment - calibration, reliability, validity etc., which we won't get into here, other than to say that over a period of seven years, the control of equipment is obviously crucial. Coyle responded to these queries, and they do not seem to have huge influence over the current debate
  • The conclusion - Coyle's was really one of the first papers to even suggest that muscular efficiency improves over time and with training. While this would seem intriguing, it also disagrees with many other findings, which are that extensive endurance training does not improve cycling efficiency. Also, efficiency is not a factor that seems to be associated with performance in elite cyclists, and so the conclusions are 'liberal', to say the least.
The next steps: Re-analyzing the data and digging up errors

These issues are primarily behind my earlier observation that the paper was widely criticized, even early on. However, what transpired next is even more significant, because Christopher Gore, Michael Ashenden, Ken Sharpe and David Martin continued their quest for the "truth", and eventually managed to get hold of (some) data from Coyle's testing.

Between the publication of the paper in 2005 and the latest round of debate, there was also the matter of a court case in which Coyle was a paid expert witness on behalf of Armstrong. His testimony was aimed at building a credible case for how Armstrong could have dominated the sport for 7 years thanks to the remarkable physiology put forward in this paper. And so this study, with its holes, flaws and inaccuracies, actually went on to form part of a legal argument despite those problems. It also reveals a big part of Coyle's incentives, something we'll look at in our next post.

These holes and flaws in the Coyle study however pale into insignificance when compared to the latest revelations, where analysis, and some "between the lines" reading of Coyle's data revealed outright errors in the research. That is, it's no longer a case of questionable methods and over-interpretations, it's now a matter of miscalculation and wrong results. All the way from the lab, into the media, and on into the court-room!

But in the name of time (and length!) I'm going to call it for today's post, and leave you with that teaser, which we'll pick up on tomorrow, when we look the "minor error" and what impact it has on the results.

Join us then!


Links to the original article and follow-up letters:

Friday, September 12, 2008

Usain Bolt 9.55s? Yeah, right

Could Usain Bolt have run 9.55s without his celebration in Beijing? Not a chance...

Thank you for visiting The Science of Sport. If you've arrived here searching to find out what Usain Bolt is capable of after his amazing 9.58s, you've come to the right place!

Click here for our detailed analysis of Bolt's 9.58s time, including Bolt's splits, speeds and a comparison with his previous world record in Beijing.

And check in at our
homepage for more in the coming days!

Late edit to this post (NB):

If you've arrived here in the aftermath of Usain's amazing 9.58s WR in Berlin, I must emphasize a very important point: This post was written back in September 2008 to answer the question "Could Bolt have run 9.55s without celebrating in BEIJING?". It was NOT written to say that Bolt would NEVER run 9.55s. So if you are here to point out that he just ran 9.58s, yes, you are quite right. And yes, 9.55s is on the cards. But this post, I must stress again, looked at the very specific issue of Bolt's 100m in Beijing, and whether he might have been able to run 9.55s in BEIJING. The post was written in September 2008 - we are now a year on, so to use this to prove your point...well, you're in the wrong place.

If you would like to read the latest thoughts on the Bolt 9.58s WR, and if you're wondering what Bolt is really capable of, as well as the rest of our coverage of athletics, please click here.

Yesterday, the news wires were buzzing with the news that scientists in Oslo predicted that Usain Bolt, Jamaica's triple Olympic champ, would have run 9.55 seconds had he not celebrated prematurely in his 100m final in Beijing.

It was on the radios, internet, TV news, all over. A while back, just after that race, we speculated that a 9.61s time was about the limit, given the split times that were available.

So this 9.55 s is quite different from that. And far be it from me to criticize the physicist's assumptions, and calculations, but what we have here is a classic case of losing sight of the wood for the trees. Their method involved looking at the final 2 seconds of the race, where Bolt began his celebrations, and compared his acceleration to that of Richard Thompson, who finished second. They looked at two possible outcomes: One is that he maintained the same acceleration as Thompson (that is, slowed down, because all athletes slow down at the end of a 100m race), and the second is if he maintained an acceleration 0.5m/s2 greater than Thompson.

It was in the second of these scenarios that they worked out that he'd run 9.55 s. But the problem with this emerges when you consider the official 10m splits from the race, courtesy the IAAF analysis and a website in which they discuss the race.

So let's look at the analysis, and let me start by asking a simple question: Where in this race are you going to find 0.14 seconds to help Bolt run 9.55 seconds? The answer, as you'll see, is that you won't find it at the end of the race, in the celebrations. It's just not physiologically possible...

The splits:

These are the split times from Bolt's race, according to the IAAF analysis. The graph below it shows the times making some basic assumptions (apologies for the lack of integration and physics equations, but I wish to make a point using simplicity as the vehicle). Again, ask the question: Where are you going to help Bolt knock 0.14 seconds off his time?

The RED line represents the ACTUAL PERFORMANCE. It adds up to a time of 9.685 seconds, considering also that Bolt's reaction time was 0.165 seconds. You'll note that Bolt's fastest 10m interval was from 60 to 70m, taking 0.82 seconds. I must point out that no one has ever measured a human being running a 10m interval faster than this. In our analysis of the race, we got a lot of interesting discussion and data from people, and of all the recorded 10m split times, this is the fastest ever measured. To speed up for the remaining 30 m would represent not only the fastest splits ever run, but also the longest period for which they are ever run.

That's not to say, of course, that Bolt would not be able to run a 0.80s segment. But the key is the pacing strategy - nobody speeds up progressively all the way to the finish line. Nobody. There are mechanical and metabolic reasons for this, but the point is that even holding that speed would be unusual, and speeding up would be highly, highly unlikely. Note, for example, that Bolt has already started slowing down BEFORE he starts celebrating. According to the splits, Bolt slows from 70m to 80m. The celebrations started at 80m. So speeding up? I don't think so.

The BLUE line, to simplify, represents Bolt's projected splits if he continues to accelerate. This is effectively the assumption made by the physicists when the calculate his 9.55 second time. I must emphasize that if you want to find 0.14 seconds at the end of the race (and answer my simple question), then you HAVE TO project that Bolt continues to speed up.

According to this assumption, Bolt would run faster and faster - he has to, in order to do what was projected by the analysis. Again, I must stress that this has never been done - I believe it to be impossible to speed up this much after 70m, and even Bolt would have slowed, or at the very best, held his speed. The whole basis for the argument by the physicists is flawed because there is no reason to believe that Bolt would continue to run faster than Thompson, or accelerate.

The GREEN line represents what I would in fact consider a more likely scenario. In this case, Bolt maintains that top speed that he hits between 60 and 70m. He thus runs the final 30m at 0.82 seconds/10m speed. If he does this, then he run 9.605 seconds.

In reality, I suspect that Bolt would slow down at the end anyway, even without his celebrations. His most likely performance is thus somewhere between 9.61 seconds and 9.69 seconds.

Now, I know there's no fancy physics here, no integration. Just split times, and a very simple question: Where in this race are you going to find 0.14 seconds to help Bolt run 9.55 seconds?

Answer, you can't find that time at the end of the race. Unless you assume that Bolt is going to run a 0.79 second 10m interval somewhere in the race. But that, I'm afraid, is not possible, and therefore, you cannot conclude that he would have run 9.55 seconds without celebrating.

What is possible? There is still time to be made up, but it wasn't the celebration

Having said this, I make the suggestion that Bolt's CELEBRATIONS cost him only about 0.05 seconds. However, that's not to say he cannot still run under 9.60 seconds.

One area for improvement is the start - a reaction time of 0.165 seconds can easily be cut down. Asafa Powell, for example, had a reaction time of 0.134 seconds in Beijing. Therefore, we can estimate that Bolt might get a 0.140 second reaction time.

If that happens, then suddenly he's down to 9.66 seconds. Add to this the fact that there was no tail-wind in Beijing, and it has been estimated that a tailwind of 1m/s improves 100m times by 0.05 seconds. Therefore, on an ideal day, with a tailwind of 1m/s (it could be as much as 2m/s, recall), a super fast reaction time, Bolt could run 9.61 seconds, and still celebrate. Take away those celebrations (another 0.05 seconds, in my estimation), and we have a 9.56 seconds.

But there is no way the 9.55 second time would have come without those celebrations - the trees just got in the way.

Preview of forthcoming attractions. The Coyle-Armstrong debate:

A big debate has flared up in the last few days, ignited by Lance Armstrong's comeback. It turns out that Ed Coyle, he who published a paper that "proved" why Lance Armstrong was superior without doping, has admitted that he may have made "some mistakes" in that paper. He only did so under pressure from the University of Texas after fellow scientists lodged a formal complaint of scientific misconduct against him.

The paper, which you can find here, showed that Armstrong improved his muscular efficiency over the years, but it was fraught with problems. In fact, it became a running joke within sections of the scientific community. That didn't stop Coyle from using his data to testify at a legal hearing that Armstrong had a physiological reason to have dominated without using drugs. It was a shameful display of science meets money meets tacky indulgence, and loses all credibility.

In response to the latest "attacks", Coyle had this to say: “This is a minor waste on my time. However, I don’t understand how they can afford to spend so much time on this. Don’t they have real jobs?”

Well, yes, Ed Coyle, they do have jobs. They are credible scientists, who search for the truth. But then aren't we all?

So the announcement, and the challeges to the Coyle paper are more than welcome. We'll look at the issue early next week. So join us then!


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Comeback and reincarnations

Bouncing back: The return of Powell, Fed, and... Lance...!

It's been a week or two of comebacks, and re-incarnations in the world of sport. We look at three of them:

Asafa Powell: Bouncing back from Beijing and entrenching his reputation

First, Asafa Powell bounced back from his disapointing Olympic 5th place to run a scorching series of races. He first ran 9.85 in the pouring rain in England, then won in Lausanne in a PB of 9.72s, and then narrowly lost to Usain Bolt in Brussels (9.83s), before capping it off with a 9.77s and a 9.82s in Rieti, Italy.

Every single one of those times would have won Powell a silver medal in Beijng, where it was probably an even faster track in even better conditions (many of the above times were into head-winds). Yet Powell choked on the biggest stage, and will once again receive the "Choker of the year award" at the end of 2008. How he didn't at least medal in Beijing is incredible, and the problem for Powell is that every single time he steps out onto the track and blasts a sub 9.80s time, he only serves to consolidate this label. His own words were something to the extent that he may not be a Championship runner, which is the first step to defeat - admitting it. There's no reason why he would not be able to produce these performances in the Championships, though he cites fatigue as a reason.

But then, last last week, he ran Brussels on Friday, two races in Rieti on Sunday, and ran them all in 9.83 or faster. At the end of a long season - there's no fatigue there. So Powell has a block and will be the fastest man to NEVER win a major title, unless he figures it out. As it is, he may have missed his chance, because it's not as though a certain Usain Bolt is going to get any slower in the future.

Bounce back number 2: Roger Federer

On the hard-courts of New York, the "Fed-Express" returned to winning ways to "save" a season that would otherwise have seen him miss out on a Grand Slam title for the first time in many years. He won the US Open beating Andy Murray in the final.

As for Rafa Nadal, the number 1 man in the world, he was taken out by Murray in the semi-finals. And when I say "taken out", I mean it in the truest sense. From the first point of the match, through the rain break, and after, Murray demolished Nadal. The reality is that anyone other than Nadal would likely have won about 5 games in the match. It was one of the most lopsided contests I've seen, and how Nadal took it to four sets beats me. Murray was either ridiculously brilliant, or Nadal was very ordinary as an attacking force.

His defence was brilliant, and he was digging a trench about 5 m behind the baseline, chasing from left to right while Murray stood there enjoying target practice. But on attack, Nadal seemed almost impotent. I have to say, even at the Olympic Games, he looked the same - I couldn't believe he beat Djokovic in the semi-finals, because his attacking game was non-existent. It was not the same Nadal as at Wimbledon, who cut off angles, took balls early and dominated play. Nadal seems to be a lot more "conservative" on the hard courts, and I suspect that he needs to learn to flatten out his groundstrokes a little if he wants to challenge on this surface in the future. Because Murray, Djokovic and especially Federer all have more firepower in their arsenal and Nadal's defence, brilliant as it is, won't stand up to that throughout a two-week tournament.

Then again, perhaps it's just fatigue - who could blame him, he's won just about every tournament bar two since April, and so the end of a long season might account for his apparent lack of "potency".

As for Federer, he'll be relieved to have regained some form of ascendancy. Federer has responded brilliantly to the challenges thrown down this year. He's been beaten by "ordinary" opponents (Blake, Stepanek, Karlovic etc.), and annihilated by the top players (Nadal, who crushed him in three sets in Paris, including a 6-0 smashing). Yet he's managed to end on a high note, and should now go on to win another couple on the indoor circuit.

Perhaps. There are still chinks in his armour, and I think the top players recognize this. He'll have his work cut out and unless he learns from this success (which is a very difficult thing to do), he'll find that the gap continues to narrow (and maybe even grows the other way - Nadal is already ahead, Djokovic and Murray are closing). It should make for an interesting 2009, because now there are FOUR great players at the top, assuming Murray can sustain his current level.

The comeback: Lance Armstrong in 2009?

Finally, perhaps the most radical announcment, which, if it had happened five months ago, would have been dismissed as an April Fool's Joke (and not even a good one)! Lance Armstrong is coming out of retirement and will race in the 2009 Tour de France.

I was going to write about this when the story first broke on Tuesday, but resisted the urge out of a nervousness that we'd be falling for what was an elaborate publicity stunt! However, it seems not to be that, although facts have been a little slow to emerge until much more recently.

You can read the news article here and here and and more tongue-in-cheek (quite funny) report here, so we won't give you the details of the plan, but rather give a couple of comments on it.

Firstly, the big question is can he return in good enough condition to WIN the race? Age is of course the big thing against him - the oldest ever winner of the Tour de France was Firmin Lambot, aged 36 - Armstrong will beat that by a year IF he can win the Tour. However, that kind of talk is far too premature, considering a three-year break from the sport entirely. More than likely, he'll return in the spring of 2009 and test his legs and then see if he's in the kind of shape to challenge. One thing I think is sure is that he'll either ride it as a procession (to raise awareness of cancer) or he'll compete at the front - no half measure. And the first two months of 2009 will determine which it is, regardless of the speculation going on now.

The nice thing for Armstrong is that he's in a no-lose situation - if he "fails", then it's fine because no one really expects him to win after that long a break, at that age. He can also say it was never intended to be a winning return, but a crusade to raise cancer awareness. If he wins, well, then his legend is even more established. So it's all about managing expectations, which I suspect he'll do better than most.

The three-year break from cycling, plus the fact that Armstrong missed out two seasons for cancer treatment back in the late 1990's are possible factors that suggest that 37 is not really 37 - his career has been five years "shorter" than it would be for a similarly aged rider without those breaks. That may count in his favour slightly. Then again, if he does return in competitive shape, it will mean that he has managed to stretch a competitive Tour career out over 10 years, which is incredible longevity, regardless of the break. The biggest factor is still that with age, one does lose muscle mass, and the ability to recover after training (which is perhaps the key to success in the Tour - single day races don't have quite the same problem).

Then of course, there is the doping issue, which can't be ommitted from a discussion on Armstrong. Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France Race Director has already emphasized that Armstrong will be subject to exactly the same tests and requirements as any other rider - no surprise there, I'm surprised that the media even reported on it, it would seem that obvious. What will be interesting is to see how it plays out, because there's no doubt that the testing processes and control from authorities is now much tighter than it has ever been, certainly since Armstrong rode off into the sunset after his last triumph in 2005. What impact with that have?

Who knows, it's rank speculation at this stage...it doesn't seem to have affected Astana and Johan Bruyneel, who is the man with the Midas touch when it comes to producing world class cyclists and champions, and the team Armstrong has been linked with. That in itself is cause for suspicion - I dare say it would be possible to build an entire team out of riders who tested positive only AFTER leaving a team managed by Johan Bruyneel. Many were Armstrong's former team-mates, whose performances suffered despite the use of doping products...

All these kinds of debates will start anew as a result of Armstrong's return. He's already pushed the Vuelta Espana off the news pages, and come July 2009, he'll be the big story of the Tour, if he takes to the line. Good for cycling? From a marketing, media, and exposure point of view, yes, absolutely, though one can see how the issue will polarize people who follow the sport, and possibly the peloton.

More comments to follow, I'm sure...