Friday, 31 October 2008

Climbing K2: The Hardest Task in all Sports

"There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games." Ernest Hemingway

It is easy to forget standing on top of a mountain that the job is only half done. Legendary climber Ed Viesturs famously said, "getting to the top is optional, getting back to the bottom is mandatory". Mountaineers prepare for months and wait years just to take a crack at their target. All for what? A few minutes of taking in the scenery, waving a flag, snapping a photo and hopefully living to tell the tale. On August 1 of this year a record eighteen people managed to reach the summit of K2. Within 24 hours though, 11 of the climbers were dead- not around to tell the tale! (CBS Video).

The physical aspect of these climbs is daunting enough, but that is not the half of it. At these severe altitudes there is only a third the amount of oxygen available compared to sea-level and consequently the brain functions a lot slower. It debilitates your thinking and slows your reactions to the point of making you clumsy. Reaching the summit has its own exhaustion, so descents are even more dangerous and often more deadly. No surprise then that it was on a miscalculated descent, that most of the lives were lost!

If you ask a child to draw a tall mountain, they are most likely to come up with the form of K2. A jagged rock in Northern Pakistan rising steeply from its surroundings, at 8,611 meters (28,251 ft), it is the second highest peak on this planet. Yes, Everest is 800ft higher and better known, but in climbing terms it is simply no match for what has come to be known as "the savage mountain". K2's sharp ridges and icy slopes are steeper and the physical location of the peak makes it prone to severe storms and sudden avalanches. K2 was first climbed in 1954 by an Italian team (original story) and then remained unconquered for the next 23 years. It remains one of three among the ten highest peaks that no one has managed to ascend in the winter. By now 305 climbers have made it to the summit and 77 people have died in the attempt. That's a fatality rate of 1 in 4. By contrast the more popular Everest has been climbed 3,679 times with 210 lives lost- a 5% fatality rate.

There is reason to believe however, that much like the 1996 Everest disaster, made famous in the excellent Jon Krakauer book "Into Thin Air", the recent disaster on K2 involved human error. The various routes up the K2 all converge in an aptly named alley called "the bottleneck". This is where on the night of August 1 at least five different teams merged on their way to the peak. Bad weather had held them from making a push towards the peak for several weeks and the first break saw different teams summit bound at the same time. This resulted in a high altitude traffic jam.

Other factors contributed. Shaheen Baig, the most experienced K2 Sherpa was sent back down the mountain after suffering from altitude sickness. The other Sherpas sent ahead to attach fixed lines on the treacherous part of the climb at the end of the "bottle neck", laid them down too early and ran out of rope on the technically difficult top part. Then, making his way up the ropes, Serbian climber Dren Mandic lost his grip and plunged to his death. A Pakistani porter by the name of Jehan Baig lost his life trying to recover the Serb's body. The resulting delay pushed the summit push into late afternoon, assuring a treacherous descent in the dark. The expeditions should have turned back at this point. Lacking the benefit of hindsight, as well as 66 percent of oxygen feeding their brains, the climbers chose to go on. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.

To compound matters, a serac tore loose on their way back sweeping four more climbers to their deaths and tearing the fixed lines to be used by others in their descent. This trapped 17 climbers above 26,000 ft in the "death zone", known as such because it gets exponentially difficult to survive up there beyond 24 hours. During the nocturnal descent Frenchman Hugues d'Auberede and his Pakistani porter Meherban Kerim lost their footing and both were never found again. A team of three Korean climbers got tangled up in ropes and climber after climber passed them by unable to help. The Irish climber Gerard McDonnell went back to help them and all four died in a slide of ice and snow.

The post-mortem started immediately. Survivor Wilco Van Rooijen speaking from his bed in Combined Military Hospital Rawalpindi told of many different expeditions trying to summit at the same time and having difficulty coordinating with each other. He blamed the commercial aspect of climbing where adventure tourists without adequate climbing skills were showing up to take trophies back home. As a team you are as slow as your worst climber, so it took them twelve hours through the seracs whereas normally it should have taken them four or five.

Unlike the doomed Everest expedition, where the real story only emerged a year and a half later, this one was bizarrely followed in real time by thousands on the blog of American climber Nicholas Rice, who had wisely decided to retreat from the bottle-neck. Modern technology might have changed aspects of how we communicate and spectate, but as far as mountaineering is concerned, it always comes down to man versus mountain- and we know only one of them ever blinks...

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

One Four Seven

It is an achievement to score the maximum possible in any sport. I have previously posted a video of the perfect "nine darter" in darts. Here is Ronnie O' Sullivan scoring the maximum of 147 in snooker.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Tottenham Coldspurs... Levy-tating in Relegation Zone

Juande Ramos is dead, long live the king. The coach Tottenham poached from two time UEFA champions Sevilla is gone. Sporting director Damien Comolli is dead, long live the king. First team coaches Gus Poyet and Marcos Alvarez are dead, long live the king. The king here is club chairman Daniel Levy and everyone but him is dead, fired, buried.

It's easy to forget that this is the same Levy who let Dimitar Berbatov leave. The same Levy on whose watch Robby Keane and Paul Robinson and Steed Malbranque and Pascal Chimbonda and Radek Cerny left- all members of the Martin Jol "underachieving" squad. Of course Martin Jol was fired as the Tottenham coach when the team finished fifth in the premier league- their best position ever- twice in a row.

Out with the old, in with the new- Ramos and Jol

Then Levy (through Comolli) proceeded to spend liberally on players he thought would elevate the club. In came David Bentley (£15mm), Verdan Corluka (£8.5mm), Luca Modric (£16.5mm), Roman Pavlyuchenko (£14mm), Heurelho Gomes (undisc, approx £10mm) and Giovani dos Santos (£4.7mm). The result saw the Spurs off to their second worst start in history with two draws and six losses after the first eight games.

So out went everyone including the coach, the sporting director, the assistant coach and the trainer. Everyone but the one person singularly responsible for the clubs' operating model (Tottenham have a continental management structure), hiring all the people who were fired and for spending the millions of pounds on new players.

Harry "the Houdini" Redknapp has become the new coach and was celebrated onto the pitch for the first game against Bolton. Its true that there is only one way for the club to go and Harry is also very good at getting the best out of his teams- but so was Ramos before coming to Spurs. The celebrations were even wilder after Spurs won the League cup last year, but the music soon stopped. Harry can pull some magic out of the hat but I am certain he can't get them to finish fifth- where they were with Jol. It defies belief that Levy is being hailed for finding a solution (Harry) to the very problems he created.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Why Tendulkar is better than Lara

Tendulkar or Lara, Lara or Tendulkar? The two highest scorers in test cricket. No doubt they are both great, but who is better?

Let me lay the cards on the table first. As an Arsenal fan I cannot bring myself to cheer Tottenham, and it follows that as a fan of the Pakistan cricket team, I find it difficult to cheer for Indian cricketers. So last week when Lara and Tendulkar were tied at the top of the table for the most career runs, and I knew I had to write this post comparing the two, I was secretly cheering for Lara. The Lara who scored a world record 375, and then when he was overtaken, came back with an unbeaten 400 a decade later. The Lara who made you sit at the edge of your seat because you never knew what was coming the next ball, a slashed four through covers or a snicked catch to gully. But, when I did the analysis, Tendulkar doesn't just beat Lara, he rules him.

There are numbers to compare them with but first there are other factors that must be mentioned. Tendulkar went out to bat each time in the suffocating glare of a billion people. The intrusions, the pressure, the expectation on him for the last 20 years has been immense. And through it all he has been unflappable. Lest we forget, Tendulkar came to public prominence as a 16yr old by putting up a world record unbroken partnership of 664 runs for his school with another 17yr old prodigy by the name of Vinod Ganpat Kambli. Anyone remember him? Kambli averaged 54.2 in 17 tests with 2 double centuries and 2 single ones and then fizzled out and retired by the age of 24. Tendulkar has gone on for another 13 years and still averages over 54.

By contrast when Lara broke the Test and first class record by scoring 375 and 501 within two months in 1994, the resulting fame turned him into a confused and contradictory figure. He fell in and out of love with cricket, fought with team mates and administrators and it didn't help that he played for a losing team. Yes, his 400 not out and 501 are the highest individual scores for Test and First Class matches, but he can statistically rival Tendulkar in little else:

Matches Runs Highest Bat Avg. 100s
Tend 151 11939 241 54.02 39
Lara 131 11953 400 52.88 34

Tendulkar has scored more runs at a higher average with the help of more centuries. That should be the end of the argument. But some Lara supporters argue that Lara played better against the best team of their day, Australia. Also that Tendulkar scored easy runs on flat sub-continental wickets. Well, wrong and wrong.

Against Australia
Matches Runs Highest Bat Avg. 100s
Tend 26 2414 241 54.86 9
Lara 31 2856 277 51 9

Away Averages
Tend 53.70
Lara 47.80

Tendulkar scored at a better average against Australia than Lara did and with the help of the same number of centuries, even though he played 5 less matches. Also, when away from home Tendulkar's average was not only better than Lara's, it fell by fewer runs than Lara's did.

A few last mistakes to set straight then. Lara helped his team win more than Tendulkar did. Well, I looked at their averages for the matches their teams won. Lara 61.02, Tendulkar 62.67. Tendulkar's performance lifted more when winning.

One last nail in the coffin. When are the conditions most hostile for a batsman? When they lose the toss and are sent in to bat. The toss winner clearly making the judgement that the conditions will suit their bowlers and prove difficult for the batsmen. The average for both batsmen when their team lost the toss and were sent in to bat: Lara 34.71, Tendulkar 53.12. Case Closed!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Pressure- British Press Wags the Dog

Pressure makes diamonds. Pressure also makes sports stars. It separates the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the champions from the also-rans. How many of us have made that jump shot, that putt, or bowled the yorker on middle stump when we are alone in the play ground? When we are pretending to be watched by the entire world as we shoot the buzzer beater in game 7 or win the masters or a test match against Australia, whereas its just us? Real pressure is different- "when he boasted that he could shoot the stem of a wine glass from a hundred yards, I asked him, can you shoot the stem of wine glass when the wine glass has a rifle pointed at your heart?" That's pressure.

But pressure is not always positive, even for professional athletes. Anyone who saw the Japanese Grand Prix last weekend got a glimpse of how pressure can melt prospective world champions into bumbling bafoons. Contending for their first title, Felippe Massa and Lewis Hamilton drove like teenagers on adrenalin, overshooting corners, hitting each other and other drivers, before finishing 7th and 12th respectively. So if you are cheering for Hamilton, would you construct an environment of pressure around him that would make it more difficult for him to win the championship? For that is exactly what the British press is doing.

The Sunday Times has 24 pages devoted to sports. A recent issue had 20 of those pages devoted to football. There is also a 12 page football supplement on Mondays. The Times has five dedicated sportswriters for football alone. There is also The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, Daily Express, Daily Mail, Metro, Evening Standard, Daily Mirror, The Sun, and News of the World that have their own extensive sports sections. How to feed this beast? Where to come up with stories through the news cycles to fill all these pages, to sustain all these journalists?

So when Liverpool plays Chelsea, out come stories about Steven Gerrard switching clubs and going to London. There is then a round of denials, followed by some Chelsea player saying they would love to have Gerrard. The Liverpool chairman is quoted as saying Gerrard is "not for sale at any price". Inter-Milan jumps in with their interest. Reports emerge of a threat to harm his family if he moves from Liverpool. Why he doesn't replicate club form for country starts becoming a topic again. Can he play with Lampard? Should he be center of mid-field, left of mid-field, or in a forward role behind the striker? You are starting to get the picture.

Before long he feels the pressure. Every time he steps on the pitch he feels the pressure. Every time he has a bad day at the office, the pressure multiplies. One of the greatest mid-field players in the world is questioned again and again until perhaps he himself starts believing the press and becomes a shadow of the player he can be whenever he dons the national colours. Tim Henman probably felt the same pressure every time he stepped onto the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon. It's probably not a coincidence Colin Montgomery won eight European Orders of Merit and still kept striking out every time he was in contention for a major.

In Italy there is a newspaper dedicated to sports called "gazetta dello sport", but the broad sheets like La Repubblica or Corriere della Sera devote no more than 4 to 6 pages to sports. Le Monde in France usually gives 2 pages to sports. Will British athletes start performing better if there is less attention from the press? Interesting question, but I don't think we'll ever find out.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

England Plays Football Inspired by Borat

The score line will show England 5, Kazakhstan 1, but this was no victory to be proud of. Hold the champagne, Kazakhstan is ranked 131st in the world by FIFA and any championship team, let alone a premiership team, should have dispatched them off with ease. Instead, the all-star England team pottered around for almost an hour before opening their scoring account and even then gave off the impression of a lack of confidence.

England Fans expect their team not to just qualify for the World Cup but to win it. This was not a performance to base much hope on though. The attack was toothless for the first hour but even the defense was shaky and to allow Kazakhstan not only to score but to take as many shots on goal as they did was not promising. Brazil or Portugal or Holland would have carved up the England defense with ease today.

But Capello is a competent manager and will surely look to remedy the situation. This was an important game in terms of qualification but sometimes it is hard to gee yourselves up before weak opponents. We'll give them the benefit of doubt but there continue to be persistent problems that need to be addressed: playing Gerrard and Lampard together, finding a stable strike partner for Rooney, and (as mentioned before) keeping the well paid stars focused on their jobs.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Glass Chin- the Uncurable Problem

A "glass chin" simply refers to a boxer's inability to tolerate physical trauma to the face without getting knocked out. While there are various theories about why a boxer has a glass chin (weak neck, questionable mind-frame, slight legs), there has been virtual unanimity about the lack of its cure. "You can't train a chin", says Angelo Dundee, famed trainer of Muhammad Ali. You can pump iron, run marathons, spar with many partners, but you can't improve your chin- you are born with it.

Some great boxers like Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko were reputed to have glass chins and the reputation stayed with them. Others like heavy weight Oliver McCall became famous for taking punishment but never falling. So the biggest mystery in boxing has been, can you ever improve a glass chin?

Well, we are about to find out the answer. British hope Amir Khan, carefully stringing together an 18-0 record for an assault on the light weight title, recently confirmed fears about his "glass chin" when he was knocked out in 54 seconds by Colombian Breidis Prescott (video). At risk are the millions he and his promoters were set to earn from his success. So his new trainer, in a controversial move, is taking him to Los Angeles to put him through "martial arts techniques" that will "deaden the nerves on the jaw". Good luck! There are martial arts techniques using blows to shins and feet and to the body to toughen them up. Are they going to beat his chin with a stick?

It might be more useful to work on Khan's defense techniques, make him more conservative in his style so he's not exposing and leaving himself vulnerable to sucker punches. It is the sudden acceleration and rotation of the head that causes a disconnect in the brain, according to research I've done on the internet in the last 30 minutes. The ability to absorb that is neurological and seems something you are born with, or without. Maybe Khan's trainers need to spend time researching on the world wide web, instead of in a gym in Los Angeles.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Celebrating 1000

I am celebrating one thousand unique visitors to Sportz Insight today, within one month of starting this blog. I truly thought it would just be a place to share some private thoughts with some close friends. Now I do wish the comments section was used more so this blog became more interactive. It does encourage the writer to keep going.

The surprise for me has been that often the story written looks nothing like the one started. Interestingly, that especially seems to be the case for the five most popular stories so far (measured by hits, ratings and links). Here are links to the most popular stories for those who just discovered this blog:

1. Nawakille: A Squash Town You've Never Heard Of
I wanted to write about Jahangir Khan, and in the process discovered that Jansher Khan was from the same village...

2. The Haka
The consummate Kiwi Patrick Mullins urged me to write on Rugby, and I know absolutely nothing about Rugby, so after three discarded drafts, this was the best I could do...

3. Money Can't Buy You Love- But Gold Medals is Another Matter
I wanted to write about foreign players in the premiership, and then got diverted in my research...

4. Fiercest Rivalries in Sport
Spurs vs. Arsenal was the topic when I started. Two days later, the rivalry didn't even make the cut...

5. The 5 Most Memorable Ads on TV
The Nike cricket Ad never made the cut...

5. Why Athletes Find it Difficult to Stay Retired
I wanted to bemoan Lance Armstrong's return, and then figured he's not that different to other greats...

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

Sampras and Agassi, Palmer and Nicklaus, its always easy to compare rivals when there are two of them. Cricket in the 1980s was blessed with four swash buckling all rounders who could all lay claim to being the greatest of all time- Garry Sobers excluded, because he really has a better record than all. Ian Botham (102 tests), Kapil Dev (131 tests), Richard Hadlee (86 tests) and Imran Khan (88 tests) formed the quartet of outstanding all rounders. So impressive were their contributions that they have generated a vociferous fan base and any discussion comparing their achievements is almost always shadowed by emotion.

So in typical fashion, I thought of settling the argument by statistics so I borrowed some figures from cricinfo and from the statistical blog It Figures. Here are the results:

The first cut is to look simply at the difference between the batting averages and the bowling averages. Imran's relatively high batting average helps him out here.
No. Player Ctry BatAvg BowlAvg Diff
3 Imran Khan Pak 37.69 22.81 14.88
8 Botham I.T Eng 33.55 28.40 5.15
9 Hadlee R.J Nzl 27.17 22.30 4.87
12 Kapil Dev Ind 31.05 29.65 1.41
The second cut was a longevity based measure, which equates each wicket to 20 runs scored and sums up total runs in their careers. Kapil and Botham are helped here with their longer careers.
No. Player Ctry Runs Wkts Allruns
2 Kapil Dev Ind 5248 434 13928
3 Botham I.T Eng 5200 383 12860
6 Hadlee R.J Nzl 3124 431 11744
8 Imran Khan Pak 3807 362 11047
Another valid measure should be outstanding individual match performances with bat and bowl. On the batting front it seems like Botham comes out ahead while on the bowling side Hadlee has the edge.
No. Player Ctry75+run/4wkt 100s Bowl SR
2 Botham I.T Eng 11 14 56.9
8 Imran Khan Pak 5 6 53.7
12 Kapil Dev Ind 4 8 63.9
18 Hadlee R.J Nzl 7 2 50.8
The conclusion?
Batting: Botham and Imran seem strongest in batting (former having bigger scores, latter with higher average).
Bowling: Hadlee seems to be the best bowler, with Imran a close second (average and strike rate)
Longevity: Kapil survived the longest and outscores them all in total runs and wickets.
The answer to this one, we'll leave everyone to form their own conclusions and share with us in the comments.

The Greatest!

"I know where I'm going and I know the truth and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want." Muhammad Ali

"What's my name?"

When something has been done once, its never the same to do it again. After you have seen an Andy Warhol, making art out of soup cans is not impressive. After you have run the four minute mile, no one can break that barrier again. Who knows the name of the second person on the moon, the second to summit Everest, the second to fly an airplane? There is a different, untrodden path that pioneers take and there in lies their greatness. That is what makes Ali the most inspirational sports star of all time. He did things that no one else had done, and he did it in a manner no one else had even thought of. He invented come backs before Michael Jordan. He invented rap before Run- DMC. He invented self-promotion before Donald Trump. And he questioned the war before there was an anti-war movement.

Along the way, he won the Heavy Weight Championship of the world an unprecedented three times while being banned from boxing for three and a half years at the peak of his career (before beating Frazier and Foreman and Spinks). He also changed the nature of the sport. Boxing before Ali was a slug fest, where energy was conserved and big hits won fights. Along came Ali, with dancing feet, glancing hands and a mouth that simply could not be shut. He won fights by getting in the minds of his opponents before the first punch was thrown. And then for good measure, he got in the ring and dazzled them with his movement, with his ability to absorb punishment, and if all else failed by opening a can of whupass on his opponents. He was a thinking fighter, before thinking in the ring was fashionable.

Those of us who have seen Ali fight might remember him by his fights with Larry Holmes or Trevor Berbick (his last two), but Ali as a fighter should not be judged by those. I have written about how nearly all great athletes find it difficult to retire, and Ali, financially bled by a posse of hanger-ons was no exception. But this was the same champion who initially won the heavy weight title of the World as a 7 to 1 underdog to Sonny Liston. He was then known as the "Louisville Lip" for his brash predictions that he will "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee", a phrase still known the world over 43 years later. The title picture above, Ali's most famous, is paradoxically from the rematch with Liston where Ali was booed. Liston had refused to acknowledge him as Ali and kept calling him by his old name of Cassius Clay. Ali is infamously asking Liston "what's my name?".

A few victories later Ali got prosecuted by the government for refusing to fight in Vietnam and lost his boxing license for three and a half years. He famously explained, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong... They never called me nigger." He was reinstated in 1974 and lost the "fight of the century" to Joe Frazier. He then spent another three years trying to get a shot back at the Heavy Weight crown. Along the way he beat Frazier and split two fights with Ken Norton. Then at the age of 32, he got his chance against the hard hitting George Foreman in the famous "rumble in the jungle" in Zaire. Foreman had knocked out both Frazier and Norton in two rounds each, while Ali had not been able to knock either boxer out in over 50 rounds. Ali went in as a big underdog but pulled the rope-a-dope on Foreman and won the Heavy Weight crown for the second time.

After a few title defenses, Ali then had his decisive third fight with Frazier, known as the "Thrilla in Manilla". This was perhaps his greatest fight yet (and his fiercest rivalry). Ali won but fittingly fainted on the canvas afterwards. Perhaps he should have retired by now but he defended his title another six times before losing it to Leon Spinks in 1978. Then he famously won it back to become the first Heavy Weight Champion ever to win the title three times. His fight with Larry Holmes in 1980 should not ever have happened on medical grounds. A complete medical at the Mayo clinic revealed he had difficulty with muscles involved in speech, early signs of Parkinsons. But commercial interests prevailed and the rest is history.

It is not possible to understand his legacy without knowing how unpopular Ali was in his early fighting days, for joining the black Muslims, for oppossing the war, for being anti-establishment. Before his very first shot at the title with Liston, fight promoter Bill McDonald threatened to cancel the bout if Ali did not denounce the black Muslims. After fighting his whole life to get a crack at the title, Ali did not even flinch. He had no intention of renouncing his new religion. It got worse. When he fought the deeply Catholic Floyd Patterson, it became a religious war and the brash Ali prevailed and was widely reviled. It got worse. Ali refused to join the army. The Chicago Tribune ran eleven anti-Ali draft stories in a single issue. There were all kinds of stories of the army trying to cut a deal with him in exchange for induction; to let him defend his title and put on exhibition fights. But Ali did not budge. He lost everything, including three and a half years of his fighting prime, just to stand up something he believed in. Not many people did that.

In his journey he became perhaps the most known face on earth. He had a following from Asian dictators to African village children to the biggest statesmen in the world. As an aged dethroned champion, when he couldn't light up the ring anymore, when Parkinson's didn't leave him even with control of his own faculties, it would have been all too easy to spend his time at home in Louisville. But he used his popularity and became a UN messenger for peace. He traveled all over the world, lending his name to hunger and poverty relief, supporting education and promoting adoption. Even the last few years, severely restrained by Parkinson's, Ali has still traveled for these worthy causes an average of 200 days a year.

Sure, there can be an argument between Ali and Joe Louis as the Greatest Heavy Weight Champion of all time, but there can be never be an argument, that as a sports star, who is "the Greatest".

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Do Humans have Limits?

Can human's improve for ever? Can we keep running faster, jumping higher, throwing farther? Or is there a limit to our improvement? I saw this interesting chart in the Economist a few weeks ago that showed that while the men's 100m sprint time has improved by 9% in the last 100 years, the swimming 100m time has improved by 28%. Given human limits, we would expect the record curves to start flattening out as time goes (asymptotic for you math geeks), but it appears the running times will stop improving long before the swimming times. Why is that?

Lets first try to get a grip on why running times have improved so far. Apart from more scientific training, commercial and sponsorship opportunities have afforded athletes to become dedicated professionals. They can hire mental and physical coaches, physiotherapists, form trainers and depend on video analysis. Also, athletes can relax about their economic well being and focus on their "job", while even previous greats like Jesse Owens had to resort to racing horses to make money.

So while improvement in running appears primarily due to physical conditioning, plummeting swimming records seem to owe much more to vastly better understanding of bio-mechanics and human hydrodynamics. Swimmers are now coached to take longer strokes and to stay under water longer after turns. Technological progress like the new LZR Speedo suit seems to have contributed its share too. The answer to why we can improve more in swimming than running might just be the product of our evolution. We simply have more to learn about how to swim than about how to run.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

"The Dirtiest Race in History"

The image is burned in the mind of everyone who saw it. It was the 100m final at the Seoul Olympics and a muscular Ben Johnson impetuously raised his right arm and powered ahead of the greatest 100m field ever assembled (video). We looked astonishingly at the stopped timer on the bottom right of the screen showing 9.79 seconds- a new world record. For the first time in history, four runners in the same race had run under 10 seconds.

Even more stunning news came two days later when Ben Johnson was unceremoniously stripped of his gold medal and the world record. He instantly became the black hole of all criticism, becoming the poster child of everything wrong with world athletics. Only now, we know that 5 of the 8 finalists failed a drug test and Carl "zero tolerance" Lewis himself should have been banned for two years for testing positive for stimulants at the US Olympic trials two months earlier. Linford Christie tested positive along with Dennis Mitchel and Desai Williams.

It appears however, that the US Olympic Committee did not apply the same standards it expected of the rest of the world. It appears the only reason US athletes did not get caught back then was because the USOC covered up for them. And the only reason we know this is that the former head of US anti-doping programme became a whistle blower and chose to release 30,000 pages of documents a few years ago.

It is in this light that Carl Lewis' latest rant casting aspersions on Usain Bolt are especially bothersome. After questioning Bolt's improvement, he went on to proclaim, “I’m proud of America right now because we have the best random and most comprehensive drug-testing programme. Countries like Jamaica do not have a random programme, so they can go months without being tested. No one is accusing Bolt, but don’t live by a different rule and expect the same kind of respect. How dare anybody feel that there shouldn’t be scrutiny, especially in our sport?”

Where was Carl Lewis when all the Americans were winning the sprints? Where was Carl Lewis when Americans (including himself) were testing positive and the USOC was shielding them? Where was Carl Lewis when the Balco scandal broke? When Justin Gatlin and then Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones returned their three Olympic golds for testing positive. Was that in Jamaica? Where has Carl Lewis been?