August 18, 2005

Strategic Failure

As long as I'm on the topic of the recent World Athletics Championships, I'll take the opportunity to rant on one of my pet fan peeves. Although there are always numerous examples to choose from, I'll focus on the men's 5,000 m, where Benjamin Limo of Kenya won the slowest final in World Championship history (results - PDF).

How slow was it, you ask? The winning time was 13:32.55. It goes without saying that this is ridiculously fast for a human being, but it's not quite as obvious that this is very slow for these athletes. Let's look at a few relevant benchmarks:

  • World record: 12:37.35
  • Limo's personal best: 12:54.99
  • Limo's 2005 seasonal best: 12:58.66
  • WC qualifying 'A' standard: 13:21.50
  • WC qualifying 'B' standard: 13:28.00
  • Last qualifier to WC final: 13:22.44
  • Winner: 13:32.55

I should note that the world record holder, Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, did not compete in Helsinki, choosing instead to concentrate on the 10,000 (which he won). Also, I'll point out that weather did not play a role; conditions were good for the final.

So how does this happen? How do you win a world championship final by running slower than you did in the semifinals, slower than the minimum world championship qualifying standard, and almost 5% slower than your own best time this year?

Well, the obvious answer is that you win by running slowly when everybody else runs slowly, too. In athletics this passes for "strategy." Of course, it doesn't matter that much to Benjamin Limo how he wins; obviously, this strategy worked for him.

So maybe a better question is, how does an elite athlete allow himself to lose a world championship final by running so slowly? After all, everybody in the final was capable of running at least 10 seconds faster than Limo did — they'd done it in the heats. The silver medalist, Sileshi Sihine of Ethiopia, had a personal best of 12:47.04 m/s, almost eight seconds faster than Limo's PB and more than forty-five seconds faster than the winning time. The fourth-place finisher, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, had a PB even faster than that! Wasn't it a monumental failure of strategy for these men to lose this race?

Ironically, it wasn't even Limo's decision to keep the pace slow, according to this quote from the new world champion:

It was not the kind of pace I needed. I like a race that is 2:40 (per kilometre) high speed. I was in front hoping to push the pace. I wanted someone to assist me. That’s why I had to go hard the last 400m. The World Championships can be anyone’s race. As we lined up for the start of the race I knew anybody can do it. Because you don’t know what kind of pace it is going to be and you don’t know how you are going to run.

Now I can see that "anybody can do it" is something that the fastest runners — like Limo, Sihine, and Kipchoge — would prefer to avoid. But if Limo wanted a faster pace, why didn't he just set it? It's not like 2:40 per kilometre (13:20 pace) would have killed him. He makes it sound like the pace is something that just happens. At any rate, as I said, it worked for him, so no complaints. Elsewhere Sihine was quoted as saying that the slow pace suited his strategy, which was "to wait until the final lap and up the speed." Why he chose that strategy is completely beyond me; given his proven prowess over 5,000 m, why would he want to turn it into a 400 m race?

I get even more puzzled when I see this happen in the heats or semifinals. After all, the last qualifiers are selected based on time, so doesn't it make sense to run the best time you can? And yet it doesn't seem to happen that way.

I'm sure that there are going to be people out there who think that I just don't get it, that I can't understand the strategic considerations that come into play at the highest levels of long-distance running. I think I do get it, actually. I understand that there's a disadvantage to front-running, and I also understand that for a few athletes keeping the pace slow really is their best chance of winning. But I'm always flabbergasted when the whole field decides to coast around for 90% of the race. I'm convinced that this is basically a failure of nerve by the race favourites. They are afraid that if they run as fast as they can they'll pull somebody else around with them and get mowed down in the last lap. But you know what? At least they would have done their best. Sihine and Kipchoge ran slowly and still got mowed down in the last lap. Is that really a less painful way to lose?

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darnell343rashawn said...
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