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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pistorius research implications

Mix and match until you find similarities: Oscar Pistorius research evaluated

It's taken me a couple days longer than I would have thought to get around to this post, analysing the recently published research that was responsible for the CAS' decision to clear Oscar Pistorius to compete against able-bodied athletes.

There are a couple of reasons for this - one is the ubiquitous work excuse. But it's also proven very difficult to sift through the paper and find anything to say that hasn't already been said dozens of times before. I almost decided to simply post up links to all the articles I've written on the subject in the last 18 months, because this latest "revelatory" paper does little to dispel any of those arguments, and does not, in my opinion, introduce many new points to the debate. What it does do is so fraught with method questions that I am not sure what I believe, and the difficult part was sifting through the paper to understand how comparisons between Pistorius and the able-bodied runners had been made.

I also struggled whether to do this as one post or to break it up into a few. Eventually, I decided on one, mostly because later this week, I have another post planned and didn't want to interrupt this one. The result, unfortunately, is a long post (sorry). But if it helps, it's divided into three sections, so you can select to read it in parts if you wish:

1. Broad thoughts on the methods - key implications, problems and questions
2. The results - what was found and what it means
3. A wrap-up - the "collective" evidence

1. The methods and comparison - who should he be compared to?

Upfront, one might as well explain how it worked - the research approach was to measure Pistorius and then compare him to able-bodied runners. If they could find that he was "similar" to able-bodied controls, then they would report functional similarity and they'd have grounds to clear him. The keys then, are the definition of "similar" and the comparison group.

What is similar?

For the purposes of the paper, it's a difference of less than two standard deviations between OP and their able-bodied runners. This is a statistical method used fairly often, though 2 SD is a pretty conservative boundary condition.

The bigger issue is who he is compared to - if their control-group data are not robust, then any comparison is going to be erroneous. If the control is either too small or not well-matched, then you are comparing apples to pears and the criteria for "similarity" are flawed. In this study, then, one would need large groups of 400m sprinters who run between 46 and 48 seconds for the 400m event. This group did not exist.

These able-bodied "control" runners comprised all of FOUR 400m sprinters. The rest were sub-elite distance runners and elite distance runners (we don't know what distance - it is not reported. We only know that one of them is Zersenay Tadese - if you're wondering what he's doing in a comparison with a 400m sprinter, join the club...). We also don't know how good a "sub-elite" runner is.

These things are absolutely crucial, because the comparisons made throughout the research paper are reliant on a valid group to which OP can be compared. That group does not exist. You cannot take only 4 sprinters and generate any meaningful data to which you can compare Pistorius. I suspect (based on some info I was once given) that the initial intention was to use only these sprinters as a comparison. But, as we shall see, OP was very diferent to them, so the re-inforcements in the form of distance runners were brought in. OP was not "similar" to the sprinters, so simply add more subjects until that 2 x SD condition is met...The result is that throughout the paper, it's not always clear who is being compared to who.

Another concern is timing. It seems (and again, I'm not 100% sure what was done, it's explained very "broadly) that the able-bodied controls were not all actually tested with Pistorius. Rather, their data were "historical", in that they existed long before the Pistorius testing sessions took place, and the researchers simply drew from the archives to find them. This is not necessarily a problem, it happens fairly often, provided the methods used are identical and the equipment is calibrated properly. The same thing actually came up in the debate around Ed Coyle's long term research on Lance Armstrong. The problem for this paper is that nowhere is it reported what the time-frames are, how the equipment was used and which athletes are being compared to OP at any given point. That may sound like nit-picking, but when you see how OP was declared "similar", then it has massive implications.

State of training - a crucial factor

And then finally (and I believe this is a crucial factor), the state of training on the subjects is never reported. This has enormous implications for the comparisons, because Pistorius was, according to media reports and his own words, "very unfit and untrained" throughout the period when this testing was done. The stress of the case and all the travel had detracted from his build-up, and this was eventually the reason given for failing to make the Beijing Olympic qualifying mark.

So, we have a comparison between an apparently unfit amputee and (possibly) fit 400m runners, distance runners and sub-elite distance runners. When we look at the results, the measures included VO2 peak, oxygen cost, top speeds, fatigue tests, top sprinting speeds - all factors that would be massively influenced by training. If it is true (and it is likely) that Pistorius was untrained, then he is being compared to trained subjects, and every measurement comparison is invalid. Scientifically, you cannot perform a comparitive study failing to control this aspect.

And, what is more, if he is found to be physiologically similar (as the paper will conclude) then one has to ask what effect training would have - any similarities in variables so strongly influenced by performance will become superior once training effects are factored in. The comparison simply does not work. It must be said - those controls might have been equally untrained, or perhaps Pistorius was trained (I doubt it, based on what Pistorius and our newspapers here were saying), but it is was never reported and remains a question mark in the paper.

2. The findings

A 17% difference in efficiency

Looking at the results, the graph below shows the measured oxygen cost of running.

Very importantly, it is measured using what is called a discontinuous protocol that consisted of running for 5 to 7 minutes at each of a range of speeds (these speeds are not reported, amazingly), with a 3 to 5 minute rest period in between (the exact duration is not reported). A word or two on the methods:

  1. This is not a test that a sprinter should be using - when does a sprinter ever run a sustained bout of 7 minutes, repeated over and over? This is a test suited to an endurance athlete, and as such, will under-estimate values for a sprinter. I recall testing an elite squash player, and we could produce completely different results if we used this kind of test compared to an all-out, shorter duration max test that lasted 10 minutes. Fitness is obviously key to this as well - an unfit athlete (read Oscar Pistorius) would struggle in this test...I do however appreciate that there are issues around aerobic vs anaerobic metabolism.
  2. Second, the speeds were not reported, and nor were the rest periods - was a 3 minute rest standard, or could the athlete take as long as they felt like to recover? Perhaps the recovery time was "selective" to allow OP to continue to higher levels? If it's not reported, it's possible.
The result however shows pretty much the same as what Bruggemann showed when the IAAF did their research - Pistorius is much more efficient than sprinters. Bruggemann showed it during a simulated 400m event, which had some method flaws (and was rightly criticized). The latest results confirm that despite those limitations, the finding remains. Pistorius is actually even more efficient than elite distance runners, which is extra-ordinary. There are a number of reasons for this - one is the reduced muscle mass as a result of not having calves, and this is the only one put forward in the paper, despite the fact that they haven't actually assessed the magnitude this might have on oxygen use.

Others are the passive energy return from the carbon-fibre blades, the improved storage and release of energy by carbon fibre, and reduced work of having to accelerate lighter limbs. These are all reasons for an advantage, and have been discussed many times before, but are not raised in the paper. What this result does confirm is that the theoretical arguments made are at least valid. It does not necessarily translate into a performance advantage, because of the range of reasons that might produce this difference. Actually sifting through these reasons requires data that was either not obtained or not presented.

VO2 peak and peak aerobic running speed

The next measurement of interest is the highest VO2 recorded during the trial. The authors refer to it as a VO2 max, which is incorrect - because of the protocol used, it's not a true maximum. Instead, it represents only a VO2 peak, and Pistorius is measured at 52.7 ml/kg/min while the controls are at 57.0 ml/kg/min, a difference of 8%. This suggests the previously measured 17% lower oxygen cost of running for OP is not simply due to lower muscle mass, and therefore should be taken a little more seriously than just dismissing it as such.

What is very interesting, and the authors hang a lot of their conclusion on this, is that the running speeds when this peak O2 were achieved are "essentially the same" (author's words). That is, OP hits his O2 peak at a speed of 5.0 m/s, whereas the control sprinters hit it at 4.9 m/s (with a SD of 0.02 m/s, which will become very important in a moment).

Now, a couple of issues here. Firstly, the difference of 0.1 m/s translates into about 2 seconds in a 400m race at the speeds reported. That is significant from a performance point of view, if not stats. But even more vitally, in the paper, the Standard Deviation for the control runner's speeds is 0.02 m/s. Therefore, the difference between Pistorius and the control athletes is equal to FIVE Standard Deviations. This is very, very different, and not "essentially the same". Using the paper's own methods, you'll recall that 2 Standard Deviations was classified as different - here we have a difference of 5 SD. Unless we are going to accept that stats should be used selectively to prove a point, the argument should end right here. Oscar Pistorius runs faster than the controls using aerobic metabolism - that represents a physiological and performance advantage.

State of training - why it's vital

Finally, I refer back to the issue of state of training and equal comparisons. The measurement of VO2 peak and running speed are highly influenced by training status/fitness. Are the able-bodied runners and Pistorius equally trained? If not, then an untrained Pistorius is producing physiological results that are comparable to trained athletes. A trained, competitive athlete will achieve higher speeds, a greater VO2 max, but not necessarily improved efficiency. The implication is that Pistorius' VO2 peak will rise, the running speed at which he hits VO2 peak will increase, and he'll look EVEN MORE DIFFERENT to them if the comparison was appropriate. The paper presents a comparison which cannot be trusted - perhaps it's valid, but the critical information is never reported (who are these subjects and how trained are they?). This should have been picked up on for the CAS hearing (and would have been, had this paper been subject to normal scientific process)

Fatigue test results

The next set of tests done was on fatigue, and these are interesting and do actually add to the debate. Here, it seems that OP did a series of all-out sprints to fatigue at a range of different speeds. The methods are actually very poorly explained, and it says only that the range of speeds was from 6.6 m/s (which he held for 89.5 seconds) to 10.8 m/s (less than 2 seconds). There is no explanation of what speeds were completed, how long the rest periods were, or how many intervals were run by each subject (including Pistorius) - "between 6 and 15 tests" is the only explanation given in the paper. The authors do refer to two other published studies in which the fatigue tests are explained. That is obviously good, but the problem remains that Pistorius is about to be compared with a very specific intention of finding either diference or similarity, and so the method used for him becomes absolutely crucial. Even with the method published elsewhere, a comparison of one athlete to that 'database' requires identical methods and process to be followed, and, at the very least, explained in detail.

The implications of this are important. "Between 6 and 15" is an enormous difference. It does not take a great level of insight to appreciate that if you are trying to assess fatigue tolerance using all-out runs to exhaustion, the athlete who has done 6 fatiguing tests will produce a different result to the athlete doing 15 fatiguing tests. So why is the range so large? This is not accounted for in the paper, and the reason for this, I suspect, is that not all subjects have done the same protocol. In fact, the results might well have been collected over a period of years as a 'database' of sorts was formed, with each athlete doing a slightly different protocol.

Point is, if the methods followed are not identical, then one must be careful about making direct comparisons, especially in a fatigue-trial, and especially when subject numbers are low (as they are here). And, any comparisons must be explained in the context of which methods were used for which subjects. In this paper, neither happens - some sprinters were tested, Oscar Pistorius was tested. When and how? These are details the authors seem to have decided are not worth reporting, perhaps because they don't lend themselves to the desired finding.

Yet they're being compared, with only trust to back it up. Given the controversial nature of the subject, and the financial incentives behind Pistorius (Nike, Ossur and co.), independent verification of what was done should have been a pre-requisite for this research to ever be accepted by the CAS. At the very least, the IAAF should have been allowed representation.

The comparison - OP compared to...distance runners

Returning to the fatigue tests, for "similarity", Pistorius is compared to one sprinter and two distance runners - you may decide for yourself if that comparison is valid...

The question I have to ask is why not just give us the comparison with four sprinters? If the data exist, then show it. Unless it does not support the desired conclusion, which, as long as data is "hidden", has to be a possibility in a matter as sensitive and controversial at this. This lack of transparency is a major problem. Ordinarily, science is based on some "trust" that researchers will do what is deemed appropriate. However, the circumstances of this case change the stakes a little.

Pistorius was found to fatigue similarly to these control subjects. That is, he holds the given speed for similar durations. Again, the state of training is a vital aspect here - would a trained Pistorius still fatigue similarly? How comparable are the controls? With training, would Pistorius be better able to maintain speeds, leading to a conclusion that he does not fatigue similarly?

This is another reason why the state of training is so vital, and all reports suggest that Pistorius was untrained at the time of the testing - either that, or he was lying in the media last year when he said the case had kept him from training. Based on his performances in trying to qualify for Beijing, I believe the former - he was untrained, yet still comparable to able-bodied DISTANCE runners for running times.

Another interesting point is that these kinds of constant speed to fatigue tests are very dubious as markers of performance or fatigue. There was a big debate in sports science a few years ago, and the general consensus among performance physiologists (who look at pacing strategy as their main interest) is that you can't infer fatigue or performance from a trial to volitional exhaustion, because they're not repeatable enough and allow too many other factors to influence the result (training is just one of them). You cannot therefore evaluate pacing strategy or fatigue using trials at a fixed speed - they are useful for investigating changes in physiology, but to infer performance is incorrect.

Of course, one obvious limitation is that Pistorius could control the result of this testing by stopping early, given that he knew the theory is that he fatigues less quickly than able-bodied runners. This is why the IAAF should have had representation at the testing - they did not...

Why the selective display of results?

But more to the point, why compare Pistorius to distance runners? Is it valid to ask whether a sprinter fatigues similarly to elite distance runners? And where are the other data? =

You have potentially four sprinters to compare him to! Perhaps they didn't, and only one sprint control existed - this should be reported. Yet they choose to use two distance athletes, and their finding is that he is "similar". In other words, the 400m sprinter shows similar fatigue characteristics to elite distance athletes...extra-ordinary. You'll be aware of course, that distance runners SHOULD show better fatigue resistance, because that's what their events rely on. We know that optimal distance races are evenly-paced, whereas sprinters slow down in the second half. Therefore, to compare a distance runner to a sprinter, and show similar fatigue patters, especially when the sprinter is supposedly untrained (again, this is not reported, so it is speculation), well, that's an incredible finding...

Pistorius' pacing strategy

The authors explain that their finding explains why Pistorius has such an incredibly fast finish in his 400m races. You'll recall that he is the only 400m runner in history who finishes with a faster second 200m than the first. Part of this is without doubt down to his slower start, which has been widely acknowledged. However, what the paper puts forward is that it accounts for all of his unique pacing, which is impossible. Remember, Pistorius has run 10.91 seconds for 100m. That means that he cannot be losing more than about 0.8 seconds at the start (unless you'd like to believe he is a 10second 100m runner).

If he loses 0.8 seconds at the start of the 400m race, it accounts for only part of the time he 'makes up' in the second half. Pistorius runs the second 200m of his races almost 2 seconds faster than the first 200m - only 0.8 s (at most) can be explained by a faster start. Besides, I already corrected for that slower start by relating everything to the 100m time, and it shows the same thing...his fatigue profile DURING COMPETITION is different from other elite athletes.

The Weyand-Herr study puts the rest down to a deliberate pacing strategy, in which case his coach should really be fired, because if that's what he does deliberately, then he deserves the sack, so inefficient is the idea that you should speed up at the end of a 400m race. And in case anyone is thinking that my argument is based on one race - it isn't. I've watched Pistorius many times here in SA, and every race is the same, it's what he does (with the exception of the Beijing Paralympics, but then he said he was unfit and had stomach problems).

On the fatigue front, the jury is out - the comparison with distance runners is flawed, the test is flawed (the manipulation of this particular fatigue test is very, very easy) and the proof of a fatigue advantage will always come from performance, and that speaks very loudly at this stage.

Sprinting mechanics

The final section of the paper looked at Pistorius' sprinting mechanics compared to able-bodied controls. To summarize this section, the graphs below present the key information measured at two running speeds - 10m/s and top speed. (click to enlarge):

To sum up, Pistorius has longer contact times (14%), shorter swing times (21%), shorter aerial times (34%) and a lower peak vertical force (14%) than able-bodied athletes. So what does this all mean?

Well, there are certain similarities with what Bruggemann found back in October 2007. His results, which included energy measurements on the blades, led him to conclude the following:

"Sprinting with artificial limbs is significantly different to able-bodied sprinting on a hard surface. It is a different kind of locomotion at a lower metabolic cost"

In the current paper, the authors conclude that "running on modern, lower-limb sprinting prostheses appears to be ... mechanically different than running with intact limbs".

The one contentious point is the vertical and horizontal forces experienced by Pistorius during running. The graph below is taken from the paper, showing the vertical and horizontal forces:

Compare that to this graph, which was produced by Bruggemann in his 2007 research on Pistorius.

They show basically the same thing - Pistorius experiences lower vertical and horizontal forces. Where it becomes debated is the impact that would have on performance. The latest study suggests that the lower vertical forces might present a limitation to speed, based on previous research looking ath top speed as a function of vertical force generated.

Bruggemann, on the other hand, looks at Pistorius' reduced horizonal force as a distinct advantage, because it means less braking force has to be overcome. Bruggemann's view on the vertical? Well, less work is done on the centre of mass, and his viewpoint, one which I agree with, is that vertical force generation is particularly important during acceleration, but once top speed is reached, it is actually better to have a lower vertical force - the disadvantage disappears. So either way, Pistorius enjoys a mechanical advantage.

What is perhaps most intriguing is that a longer contact time, a shorter aerial time and a shorter swing phase are indicative of someone who is almost "rolling" along the ground. In his 2007 study, Bruggemann found that Pistorius had a lower vertical oscillation (or up and down movevement than able-bodied runners).

The most inefficient part of running is the bit in the air - that's where gravity exerts a negative force on the athlete - followed by the landing, when energy is lost and braking forces have to be overcome. Pistorius spends almost no time experiencing this force, and mechanically, he is moving ever closer to taking part on wheels. Admittedly, that's an extreme analogy, but it's done to highlight just how different Pistorius is. What he does is NOT running. It's never been seen before, but it's not running. So when you next watch him race against able-bodied athletes, you'll be watching seven men running against someone who is not...

Final measure still unaccounted for - energy return

One final aspect that was never covered in the latest research is the aspect of energy return. This was done by Bruggemann in 2007, and you may recall that he found that the energy lost from the ankle joint of a human limb was 41.4%, compared to only 9.3% from the carbon-fibre prosthetic limb.

3. The Wrap-up

What the CAS should have known

The above is a "heavy-duty" discussion of the science presented in the Pistorius paper, and it represents a departure from the 'conversational' nature of this debate up to now. That debate and all the theory behind it is as true today as it was two years ago, and I would say it still holds the theoretical reasons for the Pistorius advantage. This post does not discuss that advantage as much as it dissects research method and study design, which is an essential part of research. However, it was never the purpose of this site to pick apart scientific methods and discussions around Standard Deviations, and so I won't go down this path here again.

Looking back, however, this is the process that should have been followed by the CAS. There is no way that this research should have been allowed to roll into Lausanne in May last year, having never been seen by the IAAF or any other scientist before being presented to the CAS. What is written above is a typical evaluation of scientific method and design, but Oscar Pistorius and his clan managed to bypass it - they ambushed the CAS with the science, and had a group of lawyers deliver a result without the stringent, essential scientific debate that science calls for.

Perhaps the issued raised above are easily addressed - I'm sure some will have "answers" to these questions, or perhaps even more questions. But they are serious questions, some that cannot, I believe, be addressed satisfactorily. For the CAS, however, they were hijacked, and I cannot believe the IAAF would stand by idly and allow that - so this is request to re-open the debate, and present the same arguments above, plus other, probably better ones, in the interests of getting a fair hearing for BOTH sides, not the hijacked hearing that it was...

All in all, the research that saw the CAS clear Pistorius is full of questions, not answers, and the CAS should have waited for this kind of opinion and discussion before throwing a verdict out. The study has too many flaws to ignore, and had any length of time been taken to actually evaluate it, instead of allowing one single day hearing, this might have been discovered.

In conclusion

Given that Pistorius is not actually even running as we know it, I'm not sure what debate still exists. However, to carry on that debate, the latest research published just last week is fraught with what I believe to be significant problems. Pistorius started out as a 400m runner who should have been compared to other 400m sprinters.

In the end, he was declared physiologically similar to elite and sub-elite distance runners, despite having a 17% efficiency advantage. Where he was similar, it is reported, is that his speed at VO2 peak is "essentially the same", even though he lies 5 SD outside the able-bodied average. And all this when Pistorius was, in his own words, untrained as a result of the stress of the travel and trying to prove his innocence. That is no comparison or grounds to declare similarity.

When data is selectively presented without explanation why (where are the other three sprinter's results in the fatigue tests, for example?), when timing is not accounted for, when methods are glossed over with crucial implications, and when comparisons are made between one sprint athlete and all of four sprinters and a host of distance runners, then the theoretical debate goes nowhere.

Where the IAAF research and this latest research DO agree is that Pistorius differs from able-bodied athletes mechanically. It's not running, but a never seen before form of locomotion that is heading towards rolling on wheels. That alone might have been enough to make the right decision. It wasn't, and so I continue to hope that within the next thirty years, another athlete comes along, who, with greater ability, work ethic, and talent, runs 400m in 41 seconds.

Thanks for reading the lengthy post - more general opinion is to follow, and then I hope to leave the issue behind, and prepare for the Tour de France!


P.S. If you'd like a copy of the paper, just let me know...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pistorius research published

Research on Oscar Pistorius, the human kangaroo is finally published

After many months of waiting, and about one year too late to be deemed scientifically credible, the research on the "Blade Runner" has finally been published. Amazingly, the title of the research is: The fastest runner on artificial legs: different limbs, similar function?.

This is amazing because the study finds, among other things, that Pistorius uses 17% less oxygen than elite 400m runners. Incredibly, he also uses LESS oxygen (3.8% less, to be exact) than elite distance runners! Given that this is at sub-maximal speeds, where the differences are likely smaller anyway, it is absolutely extra-ordinary that he used this in his defence.

Further, the study concludes that running on the prostheses is "mechanically different from running on intact limbs" and that Pistorius is "physiologically similar" even though the metabolic costs are 17% lower - that's not similar, Dear scientists. Again, extra-ordinary "science"...and what is even more amazing is that this is the scientific evidence that somehow got him cleared to compete by the CAS. That, unfortunately, is the consequence of allowing legal experts to make a judgement on a scientific matter.

The background and the prospect of some interesting discussion

Those who follow this site, and have followed the argument, will know the development of this story, and you'll know my opinion on it. I have no doubt at all that he receives an advantage from the use of the high-tech, carbon fibre blades that he uses to run on. In October 2007, the IAAF commissioned research in Germany that showed this, and he was banned.

His response was to find scientists in the USA who would support his claim, and Professor Hugh Herr of MIT obliged by doing a study that formed the basis for Pistorius' defence, which was taken to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, where he was cleared.

Unfortunately, the scientific process, where research is peer-reviewed and evaluated was never followed. And so whereas Pistorius got to view the IAAF research and spend two months preparing a case, the same was never true for Pistorius' claims. His research was presented on one single morning, and a judgement was delivered by a panel that was frankly incapable of evaluating the scientific argument.

At the time, everyone was left speculating as to the nature of this "research" (the quotation marks are used for a reason there). The CAS hearing revealed little, other than that Pistorius has punched holes in the IAAF findings (which was not difficult to do - welcome to science), and that legally, he was cleared.

I heard from various journalists who had insight into the testing and the findings, and frankly, it was appalling what was being reported - systematic selection of control subjects so that Pistorius would look more similar to them than was the case, for example. That was rumour, but now there are facts, thanks to the publication of the research in JAP.

The research shows some extra-ordinary differences - how did they win the argument?

And it's just as appalling, mystifying and extra-ordinary that he got away with it. To borrow the words of Amby Burfoot over at Peak Performance at RunnersWorld.com, "frankly, we don't see how they won the argument. Pistorious apparently uses 17 percent less energy than similar 400-meter specialists, and runs with a stride that is "mechanically different than running with intact limbs.""

I'm going to have a detailed look at that paper, and try to summarize the implications of the findings over the course of the next few days. Having started with this story back in 2006, the next step needs to be taken, and this paper in a scientific journal is that next step.

To end off, a quote from the paper, just to set the scene:

"We conclude that running on modern, lower-limb sprinting prostheses appears to be physiologically similar (My comment: This is not true - his metabolic cost is 17% lower), but mechanically different than running with intact limbs"

Join us in the week, when I'll unpack the findings in more detail. All findings will lead to the same point - Pistorius does not "run" as we know running, and there is no reason to doubt the theoretical basis for an advantage, and the CAS bunged the decision.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Swimsuit debate continued

FINA approves the controversial swimsuits: Flick the switch on world swimming

Regular readers will have been following our ongoing discussion around the new range of controversial swimsuits that have, in the estimation of just about all concerned, blown swimming records out of the water in the last 18 months.

The very latest development is that FINA, swimming's governing body, has approved the latest controversial swimsuits, at least until the end of 2009.

As you'll see below, the latest prediction is that the suits will be banned from 2010, which, according to a letter shown below, will represent an acknowledgment by FINA of "its mistake in allowing these suits to be used during 2008 and 2009". This makes it all the more mystifying why these suits have now been approved for the remainder of 2009...

The suits which have reportedly been approved include Jaked's all-polyurethane suit (shown to the right) that helped France's Frederick Bosquet to a world record over 50m earlier this year. On that occasion, the fastest record in swimming was broken by an astonishing 0.34 seconds!
It has since emerged that Alain Bernard's Arena has not been approved and therefore his world record in the 100m will not be ratified, though Bosquet's, drug-testing pending, seems likely to be ratified.

This from a good swimmer, an Olympic medalist in relays, but a man who had never reached an individual Olympic final and had never threatened a world record before. The suit helped propel a swimming "veteran" to a time that is almost a second faster than those who beat him by a second only a year before. At the time, I wrote how this was the equivalent of a 2:14 marathon runner showing up and carving out a 2:06 in their tenth year.

The issues - history and fairness

The problems for swimming are numerous - primary among them is a credibility problem that is caused by a sudden rewriting of the record books, the frequency of records, and the devaluing of records. Not to rehash a debate we've held many times on this site, but there is a fundamental problem when the history of the sport is basically rewritten. Legends of swimming have been relegated to footnotes within a year, men and women who featured in the top 10 of all time now lie outside the top 20 and there is an unnatural distribution of times by era.

But more than this, the problem is that swimming records are now broken so often that they lack all credibility. And while some will argue that the point is the race, not the time (which is partly true), there is a lot to be said for history of sport, and the perception among sports followers (not necessarily swimming followers) when record-holders emerge from nowhere and are replaced only months later by similarly 'unknown' swimmers - the suits have enabled this scenario.

Formula 1 in the water

Pretty soon, the sport begins to resemble Formula 1, which is a currently a sham as far as the ranking of human skill is concerned. Formula 1 is obviously in turmoil right now, but what 2009 has shown is that a driver who was making up the numbers in 2008 can suddenly find themselves almost unbeatable thanks to a few changes in the rules. And the drivers who, from 2005 to 2008, were dominant, are now fighting the traffic at the back of the grid. That is not sport, it is a technological battle - the notion of "best driver" is a farce. Formula 1 has merit as a technological showpiece only, but not as a contest of driver vs driver. You cannot tell me that Jenson Button has transformed himself into the best driver - the car has transformed him.

(I realise die-hard F1 fans are likely to cry foul, and I appreciate that F1 drivers are remarkable athletes. But I'm not questioning THEIR ability, only the fact that we so readily rank them when the 2009 season has clearly exposed that the difference in technology exceeds the difference in driving ability. That is, the best driver may be 2% better than the worst driver, but the best car is 10% better than the worst car. So changing cars is sufficient to re-order the driver's apparent ability. The result is a race between cars, not drivers)

Swimming faces the same issues - is Frederick Bosquet the best swimmer in the world? Right now, yes, but is it the suit, or is it the swimmer? And if Bosquet beats Sullivan later this year in the Rome World Championships, was it the Jaked beating the Speedo? And what about the Arena worn by Bernard?

The point is, the uncontrolled technological explosion devalues the performances of the individual, and because we cannot compare performances by era, we are left only with the doubt that is created as a result of unequal distribution of that technology.

Over time, the discrepancy will disappear. All the swimmers will soon get hold of the new technology, or the manufacturers will catch up, and we'll have 'equal' races. But right now, the sport is in turmoil, and the latest FINA decision has well and truly flicked a switch that says that swimming will henceforth be defined as BS and AS - Before Suits and After Suits.

The World Championships in Rome will provide the first competition and it will be interesting to document how many Olympic champions disappear as a result of out-dated suits, or whether the technology develops fast enough to ensure that they too carve a second of the times they swam in Beijing only 9 months earlier.


P.S: An appeal to ban world records in the new suits

Ironically enough, it was only a few days ago that I received an email from Forbes Carlile (via Jim Ferstle), calling FINA to ban all new suits from January 2010. The letter, which I paste in full below, strongly suggests that all federations will agree, which means that the suits will be banned. That makes the latest decision to approve the suits all the more mystifying, but anyway...

The other call is for all records set in the new suits to be scrapped, and for FINA to recognize only records set in suits made of woven textiles.

For those who are interested, that letter is below:

Bartolo Consolo, Honorary Secretary of FINA, is asking all swimming federations in a mail vote to agree that from 1 January 2010 competitive swimmers may only use suits made from woven textiles. The federations will almost certainly agree with the Consolo proposition, meaning that all the new generation performance-enhancing suits that appeared from 2008 will be banned from use in competition. FINA will therefore be acknowledging its mistake in allowing these suits to be used during 2008 and 2009.

While this is good news, if Mr Consolo's proposal is adopted that will leave the issue unresolved as to what to do with the unprecedented number of world and other records set in suits which were clearly constructed to be performance-enhancing.

Some of the record times set this year are yet to be ratified and were made in suits which were not approved under current FINA by-laws. However, these by-laws were adopted as a "quick fix" by FINA in March in a move which has since been widely discredited. These by-laws recognise records in the Speedo LZRs but reject those set in other suits used this year because FINA now opts to believe the newer suits may be faster than the LZRs. However the 2009 records set in these later suits rationally should be ratified together with 2008 times.

It has been argued that the East German doping period provides a precedent in that FINA allowed these tainted records to remain without any note as to the circumstances of they circumstandces of they occurring in During the German's doping period. However it should be remembered that whereas it was not known for certain that doping played a part in every record set by an East German, we do know that every record set in the fast suits was performance-enhanced. The argument of precedence therefore is not strictly tenable , and is not a good reason to justify inaction which would allow obvious unfairness, which can be equitably righted,thus preventing staining of the sport.

To honour outstanding swimmers past, present and future; including those who made records in all the performance-enhancing suits worn in 2008 and 2009, the following recommendations should be adopted:

1. All world records which are known to have been set in suits which will be illegal from next year be recognised as records and be marked with an asterisk to acknowledge assisted swims.

2. If the world record has been set in a suit which will be illegal after Jan 1st 2010, then the fastest time made in a woven textile suit (before or after 2008/9) should be noted next to the world record until the "textile" time stands alone as the record.

Forbes Carlile

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Cardiac events during sport on TV

The dangers of WATCHING elite sport - health checks needed!

If you're reading this (or are a regular reader), then you're probably also inclined to spend fairly large periods of time actually watching sport (and wondering where we've been lately, but that's another story).

Being sports fans, you probably make it a point to follow coverage of your teams whenever possible, and live and share in the emotions of the game. People follow sport differently, of course - some dress up in the playing kit, scream at television sets and referees, and feel more anxiety and stress than the players they are supporting. Others (and I'm in this group) tend to be more dispassionate and 'cool', watching with a more analytical eye.

Uncertainty and enjoyment

Regardless, the enjoyment comes largely from the uncertainty. In marketing terms, sport on television is classified as an "instantly perishable product", which is to say that the value of sport perishes instantly once the outcome is known. Few will watch a game with emotion and enjoyment if the result is known, though of course, there are other reasons to watch matches over and over (game analysis, for example).

But what if that uncertainty is also the cause of medical problems? I have no doubt that those of you who fall into the first group - the screamers who live and breathe every moment - have been told to calm down or you'll damage your health.

Well, it turns out that this may be true! A study published in 2008 in the New England Journal of Medicine (very prestigious) looked at the incidence of cardiac events in Germany during the 2006 Football World Cup, and found that spectators are almost four times more likely to suffer cardiac events when their team played, and particularly, when they played very close, high-stakes matches.

The reason this is topical, of course, is that my country, South Africa, is gearing up for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and is currently hosting the Confederations Cup (though I must say, when we play, the uncertainty in the outcome is perhaps not as great...!). We're also hosting the British and Irish Lions rugby team (a team picked every 4 years from the best of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales). Yesterday was the first test, and it probably gave a few people cause for some cardiac events....!

The study - a spike during matches

The study was done from Munich, during the World Cup in Germany, and it tracked the number of cardiac events reported during German matches, during the World Cup when Germany did not play, and during a control period that was made up of about 4 months in the years before and after the 2006 World Cup.

The graph below shows the spikes that occurred when Germany played, indicated by numbers on the red line. The blue and yellow lines represent the control periods of 2003 and 2005.

In particular, games 5 and 6 are the ones of interest - those were knock-out matches where Germany first defeated Argentina in a penalty shoot-out (Game 5 - huge tension for fans), and when Germany were defeated by Italy in the semi-final (Game 6). More than 60 cardiac events per day were reported, compared to the average of about 15 per day! (Match 2, by the way, was a group game between Germany and Poland - the stakes in that game are high because it's something of a local derby, with some animosity between the teams)

Once losing that semi-final, Germany played Portugal in the 3rd-4th play-off, and you'll see how there was no spike, which confirms that the 3rd-4th play-off lacks any tension or interest! The final (not involving Germany) produced more cardiac events than this game.

This was of course the final where Zidane infamously head-butted Italy's Marco Materazzi - this was an event that probably produced its fair share of cardiac events back in France...!

Breaking the numbers down a little further, the graph below shows the number of cardiac events reported during the three stages, separated into men and women's totals. The average number of cardiac events during German matches was 43 per day, compared to only 14.6 per day during the control period (and 18.2 during the World Cup when Germany did not play - the die-hard football fans, perhaps).
Differences between men and women

Perhaps not surprisingly, the increase in cardiac events is much greater in men than in women, with an almost four-fold increase in the number of events for men during German matches, compared to a two-fold increase for women.

This is further shown by the graph below, which shows the calculated incidence ratio of cardiac events for men (in blue) and women (in magenta) during German matches, during the World Cup when Germany does NOT play, and during the control period.

Just to explain, the incidence ratio is worked out on the basis that the chance of a cardiac event during the control period is equal to 1. For example, if there were 20 cardiac events a day during the control period, and 40 during matches, then the incidence ratio would be equal to 2 - effectively, you are twice as likely to have a cardiac event during a match. In this particular study, the calculation is complicated a little by the fact that the researchers adjusted the incidence for environmental factors such as barometric pressure (which is why you won't quite get the same values as these if you do the calculation yourself).

So the graph above shows that men are 3.26 times more likely to have a cardiac event during a German match than on another day, whereas women are only 1.82 times more likely. My first reaction is that this is pretty easy to explain - men tend to follow the game more and experience the stresses that would trigger heart attacks more than women (a generalization, certainly). However, there are a couple of other possibilities - one is that men have pathophysiological differences that make them more vulnerable to heart attack, or that they are more vulnerable to emotional triggers. I'd still suggest that TV viewership stats will reflect that men are perhaps 4 times more likely to be watching the game than women, which would explain the finding almost entirely.

The point is - preventative measures needed

So the point of all this is not simply to tell a story about an interesting scientific observation. It has some very serious implications. The spike caused by live sport (and there is no reason to think this is unique to soccer, though of course a World Cup is likely to produce the greatest spikes) is significant, and something needs to be done, quite literally, to save lives.

The authors suggested options such as taking or changing the dose of beta-blockers (drugs that block the stress response and potentially protect the heart), drugs including anti-inflammatories, anti-platelet drugs like aspirin, and behavioral therapy to counsel fans on how to cope with stress. One observation that is significant is that almost 50% of those who had cardiac events were diagnosed as having coronary artery disease BEFORE the heart attack, and so simply pre-screening will identify people most at risk, and they can then be counselled or treated to further reduce the risk.

So without wishing to throw a wet blanket on your baseball/rugby/soccer/cricket watching activities, try to reign in the stress - it might be life-saving. And it's just sport, after all!


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sports science and management strategy

Science IN sport: Search for meaning and higher performance

This post is long overdue. It might even turn into a series, there is so much to say. But for the last week, every time I have sat down to work on this topic, I have discovered a form of writer's block, where I'm unable to properly express the point I would like to. So this is my latest attempt, and it will probably develop into a series, personal (even autobiographical) in nature. But it is my take on where science fits and contributes to high performance sport.

A series with a purpose

Many of these thoughts are inspired by my recent experiences with the South African Sevens rugby team, now the world champions, with whom I've toured in the last few months in a sports science and strategy consulting role. Their success was the result of a strategic plan developed by coach Paul Treu almost four years ago. It borrowed from business, science, strategy, philosophy and half a dozen other sports and represents the most complete, professional and advanced strategy put together for national sport in South Africa. It should (though it won't) serve as a template for other sports in South Africa (my local interest), but hopefully lessons from it will also be of interest to you reading this, regardless of whether you follow the sport of Sevens rugby or not!

I don't wish to dwell exclusively on this experience though, and will also share some of the insights gained from my other experiences in South African sport. Sadly, the Sevens success is an isolated one, a rare occasion where the expertise of people, from the coach down to players, was valued and implemented. For the most part, South African sport remains the domain of the fragile egos who recognize not expertise but process, not vision but individual incentives, and who reward mediocrity rather than excellence. But more on that later.

And then finally, I hope (without being presumptuous) that this series of posts can inspire each reader to strive for "higher performance", regardless of their occupation. A scientist, a marketing manager, a triathlete, a cyclist, or a runner - wherever you fit, hopefully you'll find this series relevant as a guide to how you can find the next 1% towards your own high performance goals.

Not science, but expertise

The very first, and perhaps most important principle about seeking higher performance, is that the answer lies not in science per se, but in expertise. And expertise is brought by people. So Principle number 1 is get the best intellect involved, and don't limit your search to scientists. So this series is not a punt for sports scientists to take the reins of high performance sport, not for you individually or for sport. And if you're a cyclist or a runner seeking to improve your own performance, don't be led into believing that sports science holds the answer simply because it is sports science.

The far more important factor is the expertise and the insight that underscores the application of sports science. This crucial logic means that simply "doing sports science" is not good enough. It also means that people with no scientific qualification CAN make a bigger contribution than those who do, because the stringency of their thinking and their insight adds the value, not the content of their knowledge. I have had the pleasure of working with consultants from the world of business, who have developed skills and tools that make them far more valuable to elite sport than their scientific counterparts often are.

Therefore, for the duration of this post and series, I will refer to "intellect" rather than sports science, for the simple reason that sports scientists do not necessarily bring world class intellect to the system!

I will never forget that a certain high performance athlete here in South Africa once went for a laboratory test at a certain high performance institute, only two months before the Olympic Games. The test consisted of the usual VO2max test, and the report which was given to the athlete's coach said the following: "The athlete displays a VO2max that lies in the average range. It is recommended that the athlete work on endurance in order to improve the VO2max and running ability".

Turns out that athlete was Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, who would go on to win the silver medal in the Athens Olympic Games only 2 months later! And yet scientists sometimes wonder why their work is not respected by coaches...

The "no compromise principle": Your Ferrari is not the same as my Toyota

What has happened in South Africa in the last year or so, since our disaster in Beijing (one silver medal), is that people have "recognized" the need for expertise in sports. That's the good news. However, they fail to recognize that expertise does not simply equal sports science for the sake of sports science. And so, much political lobbying and grandstanding has created a situation where everyone is following "sports science principles" (whatever that means). "Yes, we're doing sports science now", is the call from the executive authority. "We have roped in our sports scientists". The atheltes are all seeing dieticians, psychologists, having regular tests and assessments, doctors and so on. Problem solved then? Well, no, unfortunately not.

I drive a car - it has four wheels, a steering wheel, an engine, a gearbox and brakes. So does your car. But you drive a Ferrari, I drive a Toyota. In the world of SA sport and the application of sports science, they're the same car. Your Ferrari is the same as my Toyota, because "sports science is sports science", after all. This kind of logic, exposed as ridiculous by the analogy, is where we stand in SA today.

The competition principle for intellectual support to athletes

In elite sport, an Olympic Games competition between athletes is the culmination of many months or years of preparation. Science is part of that preparation, and therefore the quality of the intellectual support (which includes coaching and science) is heavily responsible for the standard of the 'finished product'. When that intellect is sub-standard, then the athlete takes to the line with little chance of success, regardless of their talent. And the epicentre of the system, the "sun in the solar system", is the coach, who incorporates the science in such a way that it adds value.

You cannot allow a situation (as we have in SA, or rather, which we are currently allowing), where the athletes sit on the start line behind the wheel of a Toyota (0 to 100 in 12 seconds), while the elite from around the world drive Ferraris, thanks to the level of intellect. It may have wheels, engines and gearboxes, but intellect, like all athletes, is not created equal.

This is not the case across the board, mind you. Some of our sports have some remarkable people driving them - rowing, for example, has set out in the right direction with the right people, and needs only the support of the funders to give those people every opportunity to succeed. That is because it has the best people already - support the best and they will deliver. In the famous book Good to Great, author Jim Collins explains how getting the best people on the bus is crucial to success.

That is what rowing has. Sadly, they are there only through the initiative of a few people, not the system. Isolated success is possible when the best people are involved. Sustainable success comes from getting the best people involved as part of a longer-term strategy. Either way, the best people must be involved, and all it takes is a strategy that ensures their ongoing involvement.

Unfortunately, for reasons that range from stupidity and incompetence to hidden agendas, the chances of this happening are slim mostly because those in charge at the top don't recognize the value of people and so isolated success rarely becomes sustainable. It's happened for SA Sevens, thanks to Paul Treu. Hopefully it will happen for rowing. Triathlon and canoeing are trying to do it, but the higher up you go, the less common it becomes. The "soldiers" may be worthy, but the generals often are not.

So Principle Number 2 in seeking higher performance is that compromise destroys performance, and "elitism" is crucial to success. This is true for athletes and for management, but mostly for coaches and those providing the "intellectual capital" in the elite sports system. Wherever there is competition, if you compromise on quality, you lose. If you fail to dedicate every single resource towards excellence, you lose.

And the take-home message for you reading this (unless of course you're an SA Sports administrator, in which case the take-home message should be obvious), is that whether you're trying to shave 1 minute of your 10km time, or trying to qualify for the Hawaii Iron-man, then you cannot compromise on the quality of the expertise you seek and use.

The scientific process: It's not WHAT you know, but HOW you learn it

The point is, the CONTENT of the science is far less important than the MEANS by which it is developed. It's not WHAT you know, but HOW you know it. I could list for you the ten enzymes involved in the glycolytic pathway that converts glucose into ATP, and I could explain to you the energetics underlying the enzyme reactions and why the re-oxidation of NAD+ is required to allow the process to continue, even though lactate forms as a result. Blah blah...that's not relevant to the high performance athlete in that form. Their coach will be able to work out exactly what training is required to improve the glycolytic enzyme capacity of the 1500m runner so that more energy can be produced, without such a level of "expertise" ever being involved.

So my point is this: The value of science lies not in the content it brings to the coach and athlete, though this is of course still valuable if applied correctly. What is infinitely more important is that the person who is applying content appreciates HOW they know what they know, because this gives them the ability to develop hypotheses and critically evaluate their observations.

And that is what good science TENDS to deliver and create in people - the ability to ask questions, measure variables and then answer the question. This SHOULD be a quality that good science adds to the athlete. Sadly, as we show in South Africa, it doesn't happen often, and the sports science we have created rather tells elite athletes that they are average because their VO2 max is not as high as it should be.

The model for integration

Where is all this heading then? Well, the model below is my illustration of where sports science fits into the elite sporting system. The key point in this whole system is that of "intellectual immersion" - you cannot relegate intellect to the role of a "service provider", to whom you outsource a few of the peripheral support functions. The best coaches bring their own level of intellect, which drives the whole pyramid and performance, precisely because it is immersed. The same should be true of those in the support team, from management down to sports scientists.

But in creating a support team, you must surround yourself with people who are excellent at what they do, and then simply step aside and let them do those things. That is true of business as well - small teams, working with freedom to innovate and grow will change the world. Boring old services, and the idea that "sports science is sports science" never will. It brings only failure, as we'll discover in SA over the next few years.

The SA Sevens Team have, in my experience, most closely achieved this model, and that's something that testifies to the value of having a coach who understands how important good people are. Paul Treu surrounded himself with scientists, management experts, business strategists, psychologists, and other experts, and then set about developing a strategy that would ensure sustainable success.

One of Treu's key mottos or principles is that "Better people make people better", and that's perhaps the take-home message of this whole post. There is a great deal to be said about what actually underscores the on-field performances of the players, and the mind-set that the high performance environment requires, but that's a topic for future posts.

The margins are too small not to care about this: A game of inches

Perhaps to end off, a video from the movie Any Given Sunday. I've no doubt that most of you have seen or heard this speech, but probably never connected it with sports science and high performance. Of course, there is a lot more to it, but it helps explain just how vital that expertise is. Some of the language is coarse (for sensitive readers), but the speech makes the point that "inches" matter. It inspires the players to seek inches, because those inches, when added up, "make the difference between winning and losing".

Sports science is involved in the quest for those inches, not necessarily on the field during the match, but in the training, during the hours of preparation, and the times when the cameras are not rolling. Consider that Michael Phelps won the 100m butterfly title by 0.01 seconds. Consider that the margin between winning and losing in shotput is 1 degree in the push-off angle. Consider that 9.69 seconds of 100m sprinting is the culmination of thousands of hours of training. Or that winning a Sevens world series, which might take 7 minutes of play in the final, actually comes down to thousands of hours of work, discipline and effort. Then you realise that if you fail to seek those inches, and if you fail to pursue every last millisecond, then whether you're an elite athlete or a marketing assistant at a shoe company, you're failing to achieve higher performance. Cue SA sport...

Next time - a new approach to sports science: Away from the VO2max: Lessons from the SA Sevens Team

A final somber word for a great player and a great person, who experienced a tragic turn of events in the last few weeks. Vuyo Zangqa was one of our great stars of the 2008/2009 Sevens season. He emerged and grew progressively as the season developed, and electrified the world of Sevens during the last four tournaments.

He's also one of the team's characters, a leader and an inspiration, and one of the most genuine, committed and passionate people I've had the pleasure of working with.
Last week, while up in Johannesburg, Vuyo was involved in a car accident and received serious facial injuries. Two days ago, he underwent surgery to his left eye. At one point, the eye was going to be removed, but they are now holding out that it can still be saved. The implications of this are obvious for his playing career, but that is less important now than his general health and quality of life.

So here is to Vuyo Zangqa, a special player and person, please keep him in your thoughts and prayers, and we'll see you on the field bringing the magic in no time...


Saturday, June 06, 2009

Frence Open climax

One down, one to go for Fed

So Roger Federer made it (squeaked it) against del Potro yesterday, and now stands one match away from the title that it seemed might elude him in his glittering career.

Standing between him and that title is Robin Soderling, who rallied from an apparent slide to beat Fernando Gonzalez in his own five-set thriller. Soderling was all but buried, having led by two sets, he let slip the third and fourth and then found himself trailing 4-1 in the fifth before winning five games in a row to make his first final.

For Federer, I believe it was the best possible result. Can Soderling muster up any more great tennis, having already dismised Nadal, Davydenko and Gonzalez in such epic circumstances? I doubt it. For him, the achievement of reaching the final, by far his greatest achievement, changes the stakes. Also, I think Gonzalez had more weapons and might have beaten Federer, Soderling does not.

And so Federer has seen yet another (potentially) favourable outcome on the other side of the draw, as though the stars are lining up for him. I think, based on yesterday's match, that Federer will now feel that the worst is past, and he'll win the final comfortably...

Then again, perhaps the pressure will be too great, and he'll simply try too hard to finish what many expect, and what he wants so badly.

I gave my thoughts on the pressure in yesterday's post, so I won't do it again. I will however steer you towards another excellent piece that I read in the Times this morning... (this is the fallback plan when I find I haven't watched enough to post myself!)

One of the perks of spending the week in London is that I've been able to read some of the journalism here, which is just world-class compared to what we have in SA, sadly. OK, some of the writing is quite self-indulgent, and either overly hopeful or overly critical of English sport (depending on the occasion), but on the neutral topics, it's absolutely brilliant.

And this article, by Simon Barnes, is one such piece. It's a great read ahead of the Federer-Soderling match, and is the last word I'll leave you with before the men's match tomorrow.

The women's final

A cursory word on the women's final - I noted that earlier this week Serena Williams said that women's tennis is far more exciting than men's tennis, because of the personalities and characters involved.

Apparently, I've been watching the wrong version of the women's game, because I find women's tennis to be in something of a rut at the moment. Obviously, this is the marketing/management hat that I wear speaking, not the science, but I think women's tennis needs an injection of something to regain parity.

There was a time, perhaps 5 years ago, when it was the other way around. The men's game was completely dominated by Federer, Nadal's rise was only just beginning, and Murray, Djokovic and co were not nearly up to the challenge. We' d moved on from the Sampras-Agassi and Sampras-Courier rivalries, and the game had become a little boring.

In contrast, the women had the Williams sisters, Sharapova, two Belgians in Clijsters and Henin, Davenport and a mix of Russians who could win any tournament. Before that, diverse playing styles of Sanchez-Vicario, Hingis, Graf, Seles, and the Williams sisters created compelling viewing precisely because of the characters.

The situation is now different on both sides. While men's tennis is extra-ordinarily strong, with some of the greatest rivalries ever fuelling some of the greatest matches ever played (think Nadal-Verdasco in Aus, think Nadal-Federer in Aus and Wimbledon), there are no great rivalries in the women's game, and there seems to be a general lack of suspense.

There seems little consistency in the characters (who are the same as in previous years), because top players seem to be on a carousel of injury, recovery, retirement and loss of form. The overall hierarchy seems to have been flattened, the result being that new players can emerge, win big matches, and then disappear again. For example, name the Romanian who beat Jelena Jankovic this week in Paris? And will she feature again this year? I doubt it.

Speaking of, wasn't Jankovic a world number one once? Then again, so were Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Amelie Mauresmo, Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic and now Dinara Safina. As I was saying, it's something of a carousel.

Now, some may say this is a sign of strength, and in a sense, it can be viewed positively. It means that there is great parity among the top 10 players. The trouble is, it doesn't lend itself to popularity and creation of affinty among spectators for recognizable, consistent performers.

The French Open final this year will be played between Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova, world number 1 and world number 7. In the semi-finals, two relative unknowns were knocked out - Samantha Stosur and Dominika Cibulkova. The men's final, while featuring a player who was not expected to be there, also features one of the game's great players. Even the progress of the unknown Soderling has been marked with suspense, great matches, huge interest and drama. Women's matches rarely reach the heights of the men's game - finals are routinely won in straight sets in one-sided contests, the winner barely leaving third gear.

So Serena may feel the game is more popular, but I'm afraid she's either watching the wrong men's game, or has lost sight of what is possible for the women's.

So for the women's final, my interest levels are too low to even warrant a prediction. Hopefully Safina wins, as number 1, it would at least lend some credibility to the rankings.

Bring on the men


Friday, June 05, 2009

French Open history looms

Federer's big chance

At long last! A post!

Rugby 7s triumph - dissected soon

Apologies again for the lengthy absence - the IRB Sevens Series is now a thing of the past, and so I can't even use it as an excuse for not posting this week! However, I've spent much of the last week catching up on sleep, and had a few failed attempts at posting (call it writer's block) since the final tournament in Edinburgh last weekend!

The Series was duly wrapped up, for those not following the game, and South Africa won its first World Series title! I'm not going to allow the opportunity for a post or two on it to pass, don't worry - I'm just waiting until next week when I've had time to sift through the thoughts (and emotions) of the season's victory, so that I can post something objective and meaningful to those who perhaps don't follow the Sevens game closely! So that's on the way.

Roland Garros - history looms for Roger Federer

For today though, it's less a proper post than a short comment on the big sports happening of the weekend, the French Open.

I guiltily confess that I haven't been able to watch a single shot from Roland Garros, what with the rugby and the subsequent travels. So, my "expert" opinion is based on nothing more than what I have read or heard in news reports.

Pretty much everyone will know that Roger Federer has been given the greatest opportunity he'll ever have to claim the elusive clay court Grand Slam. Before the tournament began, those standing in his way included Novak Djokovic (this year's second best clay court player), Andy Murray, Fernando Verdasco, and of course, Rafael Nadal.

Twelve days in, and not a single one remains. It was Nadal's defeat, at the hands of Robin Soderling of Sweden, that sent shockwaves through the tennis world, since it was Nadal's first loss ever in the French Open. Not much time was spent dissecting that defeat, because attention immediately turned to the Swiss champion, who has, year after year, found a Spanish street-fighter from Mallorca standing between him and the career Grand Slam.

Semi-final, final, final, final, and four defeats must have created in Federer the perception that a brick wall stood between him and the title. That wall is now gone, courtesy Soderling, and Federer has two matches left to win the title many must have thought he never would.

Standing between Fed and the title are...

He plays del Potro in the semi-final, and then one of Fernando Gonzalez (hand of stone, for his big forehand) or Soderling in the final, and both are matches you'd expect him to win. Yet this is not quite the same Federer as in years past, and he stuttered past Haas and Mathieu earlier this week before finding form against Monfils in the quarter-finals. If he is anything close to his best, he should claim this one.

The problem, however is pressure. As I mentioned, nobody gave too much attention to dissecting Nadal's loss (which, by the way, I believe is the result of playing too much tennis, because Nadal's game at 95% is not effective. He starts leaving balls short, denying himself time and giving more time to the opponent. He needs to rethink his playing schedule, in my opinion)

In any event, the focus switched entirely to Federer's quest to win the tournament now that his nemesis was gone. Federer must surely recognize the magnitude of the moment, and while he is downplaying it, he will tackle these matches knowing that this opportunity may not come around again. That's not to say he won't win it, of course, but he'll be desperate to do it now.

And pressure does funny things to people. Here, I can relate a story from the SA Sevens triumph - we went into the England tournament well clear in the overall world series, and needed only 13 points to clinch the overall title. Yet the pressure was enormous, and deny it as much as we wished, it became a factor that very realistically affected performance.

The focus among elites in such situations is to stick to the routines, focus on small targets that have formed the foundation for success for so long, and don't allow the mind to drift onto the big picture, but this is very nearly impossible. Focus on each step, the small essentials that sum to produce performance, is the goal, but under pressure, it's very difficult to achieve.

That pressure, which for Federer must be even greater, is a key factor that will influence the outcome of the matches. Not only for him, but for those he plays against, because they will enter an arena loaded with meaning that is not normally present.

Some will rise to it, and raise their games, others will be weighed down by it. If Federer encounters a challenger who rises to the occasion, and plants doubt in his mind, it might unravel very easily. If he gets on top, and stays in the moment, then he could walk it comfortably, with the perception that "destiny in on his side". Either way, it could go quickly. My very brief exposure to a similar pressure is that rather than denying it exists, it should be embraced and channeled towards making sure that performance is not compromised. Time will tell how Federer handles it!

The good news (for me, anyway), is that I'll actually be able to watch the final, and so might even comment with a little more insight than the big picture come Sunday!

Enjoy the action, and join us soon! We should be back on track now!


P.S. For an excellent piece on the tennis, check out this article by Dan Nicholl of iafrica.com. One of the funniest sports writers around, he also knows a thing or two about sport