August 30, 2005

Boxing, On The Ropes

The Associated Press reported last week that the IOC has withheld $9M in payments to the AIBA.

Normally, the IOC distributes millions of dollars (gathered largely from sponsorship revenue) to the Olympic sport IFs. For most sports, this is a major source of revenue — 62.7% for the AIBA. In this case, the IOC has decided to freeze payments "due to general judging issues that remain unresolved since the Athens Olympics," according to IOC spokesperson Giselle Davies. Although the results from Athens are not in question, "there was a general observation in Athens that things needed to be improved." IOC president Jacques Rogge signed a letter saying the funds will remain frozen until AIBA provides a clear timeline and planned actions.

The IOC Programme Commission report (PDF) had this to say about the judging situation:

Senior AIBA officials have had discussions with the IOC regarding possible changes to the judging system, open scoring and selection of referees and judges. To date (March 2005), the AIBA has not provided any concrete information on the possible changes or when they would be implemented.

Actually, the Programme Commission Report makes it pretty clear (in as neutral a tone as possible) that the AIBA is run by a bunch of idiots, so perhaps this isn't very surprising. Among other highlights:

The AIBA states that it has a four-year strategic planning process in place but there is no indication as to how the plan is prepared, how often and who is consulted.
Summary of the three main development programmes run by the AIBA between 2001 and 2004: No response given.

And here is the AIBA's own press release (PDF) covering one of the IOC-AIBA "discussions" on the judging issue, held in May of 2005:

AIBA strongly hopes that the selection [of referees and judges] for the next Olympics will be definitely better than in the past years.

I'm guessing that the IOC wants them to move beyond a "strong hope" and come up with an actual plan.

August 26, 2005

One Sport, One Vote

The vault has been opened! The envelope has been unsealed, and the IOC has released the sport vote totals from the programme review at their 117th session. Well, for one sport, anyway.

As I hoped, softball agreed to have their vote total released to all IOC members, so the IOC Executive agreed to let them have it. The result is astonishing. The sport was knocked out of the 2012 Olympics by a single vote. Actually, you might say by just half a vote; the result was 52-52, with one abstention.

The USOC and the International Softball Federation plan to work to have the decision revisited. Peter Ueberroth, Chairman of the USOC, claims that at least four IOC members were confused at the time of the vote, believing that they were voting against baseball. Now that's a well-informed voter!

I have been wanting to compare my detailed predictions with the actual vote totals. One result isn't much to go on, but maybe more will follow now that the cat is out of the bag. In the meantime, I have to admit that 52 votes is a lot more than I dreamed softball would get, although I did acknowledge that the method would underestimate team sport totals.

Things to Do in London

It looks like Denis Oswald is going to be spending a lot of time in London.

Oswald, an IOC member from Switzerland and president of the ASOIF, has been appointed chairman of the coordination commission for the 2012 summer Olympics and will oversee preparations for the IOC. He held the same position for the 2004 games in Athens.

Oswald was quoted as saying, "I am confident that London has all the ingredients for success — from a technically sound plan to widespread popular support." I am sure that the British will be gratified to hear that. Of course, the last time Oswald was in the news, he was quoted as saying this:

When it comes to rugby I'm not a specialist but people within the sport tell me that rugby sevens is something of a joke.

Fortunately, he won't have to worry about that conflict, since Rugby didn't get added to the Olympic programme after all.

August 23, 2005

Got Any Spare Change?

This story is, well, just priceless.

Canada, as many of you know, has a $1 coin and a $2 coin, the paper versions of these denominations having been phased out years ago. Both changes met with widespread resistance and denial, but eventually Canadians came to embrace the coins with some affection ("see, we really are different from Americans.") The folks at the Royal Canadian Mint have been hoping to convert Canada's $5 bills to coins for at least ten years now, but haven't found a way to lower public resistance. Apparently some marketing geniuses at the Mint had a brainstorm last winter — let's tell people that we'll give the money we save — maybe a few tens of millions each year — to Canada's Olympic athletes! That's got to be a winner, right?

The Finance Department of the federal government, always up for some found cash, decided to test the political waters frist. They hired Environics Research to conduct some focus groups last May. The results were unsurprising and yet profound:

Participants overwhelmingly rejected the very idea of a $5 coin and dismissed the Olympic-funding idea as ridiculous. "The proposal to direct these savings to the athletes was greeted with notable hostility," Environics said in a June 2005 report, obtained by The Canadian Press.

The CP article lifts the following quotes directly from the Environics report:

  • "Absolutely ridiculous idea."
  • "Give me a break! There are so many other burning issues where the money could be spent."
  • "I'm embarrassed to be Canadian sometimes."
  • "Do you freaking believe this?"

Notable hostility indeed! Even as an avid supporter of Canadian amateur sport, I had to laugh at just how badly the kids at the Mint misjudged public opinion on this one. They sure don't know much about Canadian culture:

And although people said government should support athletes, most thought any savings from a paper-to-coin conversion should go to health care, helping the homeless and social programs.

I don't think that you can get much more Canadian than that, and I mean that in both a good and a bad way. I can't argue with the needs expressed above, and it makes me feel strangely proud that the focus groups weren't calling for a $1-per-person tax cut. I could argue that throwing a few tens or even a few hundred million at health care or "social programs" is not going to make a noticeable difference to anybody's quality of life, and that it would be significant for Canada's Olympic athletes. But I guess that's not really the point. When push comes to shove, Canadians just don't believe that elite sport is all that important. And maybe that's a good thing, in the big picture; I can't even convince myself that doing better at the Olympics is more important than helping the homeless. But is it any wonder, with this attitude, that Canada struggles for every Olympic success?

August 21, 2005

King Of Athletes

I was on my way to writing a few not-very-enlightening comments about the decathlon at the World Athletics Championships, along the lines of "isn't it funny how slow they look running the 400 m, compared to the real runners? What's up with that?"

This reminded me of a famous quote (at least, it was once famous in my house), attributed to Steve Ovett, that the decathlon is nothing more than "nine Mickey Mouse events followed by a slow 1500." I was doing a Google search trying to find a definitive source, when I came upon a left-brain special extraordinaire. It's not out of my left brain, but I wish it was.

The piece is Challenge Decathlon: Barriers on the Way to Becoming the "King of Athletes," by Gunther Tidow. Tidow begins by quantifying the gaps between the world's best decathletes and the world's best single-eventers ("specialists"). There are a couple of nice graphs and some interesting conclusions. Here's an excerpt:

It is a general fact that the superiority of the specialists varies considerably from discipline to discipline. For decades, as far as velocity is concerned, decathletes have come closest to the specialist level in the long jump and in the (hurdles) sprint (93%), while in the throws and in the 1500m decathletes are farthest away from the specialists (ca. 75%) … The comparison between 1980 and 1996 shows … [that] the difference has become smaller in the throws, whereas it has become clearly bigger in the high jump as well as in the 1500m race.

Tidow goes on to attribute this change to improvements in doping control and changes in the decathlon scoring tables. Later on he also tries to explain, physiologically, why the 1500 is the most difficult event for the decathletes to excel in; he rephrases Ovett's quote above to note that "the decathlon consists of nine anaerobic speed-strength disciplines and a primarily aerobic endurance contest."

Progress Or Perish

Just a couple more items from the world athletics championships, and then I'll move on.

In case you missed it, the UK had a disappointing championships, winning three medals and reaching only six individual finals. (Also sucking: Canada, Germany, China, and Kenya.) UK Athletics performance director Dave Collins is looking for a solution, and this story in the Sun suggests one possibility:

What we want to achieve and what the public want are medals and final places at major games. And if athletes are flatlining in terms of progress, then maintaining them in that comfortable situation is unacceptable. Unless they recognise they need to work to reach targets and look to improve, why would I continue to fund them?

This raises an interesting and somewhat thorny issue. Mr. Collins is suggesting that an athlete's funding should be somehow linked to performance progression as opposed to performance per se.

Canadian Athlete Assistance Program (AAP) funding already has similar stipulations. It is possible, in theory, for the best Canadian in any given sport to be removed from the national team because his or her performance is not improving. In practice, however, these selection criteria are very difficult to apply. In effect, it comes down to a choice between athlete A, who is a proven performer, but probably on a downhill slide; and athlete B, who is not yet as good as athlete A, but still improving. It might make perfect economic sense to select athlete B in this circumstance, but it is a very difficult philosophical decision to make.

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?

August 16, 2005


An athletics quiz: when is a world record not a personal best?

The answer is: in the pole vault, very often.

At the recently-completed world athletic championships in Helsinki, Russian superstar Yelena Isinbayeva broke the world record in the women's pole vault, jumping 5.01 metres.

Breaking the world record is nothing new to Isinbayeva, of course. Here's a list (source) of her world-record outdoor vaults:

Table 1 — Yelena Isinbayeva's World Record Vaults (Outdoors)
DateRecord VaultPrevious Record
2003 JUL 074.82 m4.81 m
2004 JUN 274.87 m4.83 m
2004 JUL 254.89 m4.88 m
2004 JUL 304.90 m4.89 m
2004 AUG 244.91 m4.90 m
2004 SEP 034.92 m4.91 m
2005 JUL 054.93 m4.92 m
2005 JUL 164.95 m4.93 m
2005 JUL 225.00 m4.95 m
2005 AUG 125.01 m5.00 m

As you would expect from such a dominant performer, Isinbayeva also holds the indoor world record in the pole vault at 4.89 metres. She's been making the same kind of progress there (source):

Table 2 — Yelena Isinbayeva's World Record Vaults (Indoors)
DateRecord VaultPrevious Record
2004 FEB 154.83 m4.81 m
2004 MAR 064.86 m4.85 m
2005 FEB 124.87 m4.86 m
2005 FEB 184.88 m4.87 m
2005 FEB 264.89 m4.88 m
2005 MAR 064.90 m4.89 m

You don't have to be an expert to see that Isinbayeva is only toying with the world record. This past winter she broke the world indoor record four times in as many weekends, each time by exactly one centimetre. She's held the outdoor record for about a year, and has raised the record by 12 cm in eight very small steps. The only way you can break the world record with this kind of regularity is if you are still well below your maximum capacity.

So why would an athlete do that? Since she had already secured the world championship, why didn't Isinbayeva ask for the bar to be set at 5.15 in her final attempt in Helsinki, so that she could have a true test of her ability? The answer is very simple: breaking the world record is worth a lot of money for Yelena Isinbayeva.

In addition to $60,000 for winning the competition, Isinbayeva earned $100,000 from the IAAF and its sponsors for breaking the world record. This BBC story claims that Isinbayeva earns $100K every time she breaks the world record, presumably from Russia. I think that this claim is probably incorrect, but there is no doubt that the incentives are considerable. Many of the top European meets offer cash prizes in the tens of thousands of dollars for world records, to encourage the athletes to give their best efforts and to add to the excitement of the competition.

Olympic champion Tim Mack suggests that "she’s probably jumping 5.20 in practice." If that's a reasonable estimate, then she might have 19 more world outdoor records, and perhaps a similar number of indoor records, even if she doesn't improve at all. That adds up to a lot of money. It's no wonder she chooses to set each new record by the smallest possible margin.

The pole vault and the high jump are both susceptible to this kind of world record manipulation for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, the score is determined not by the height of the jump but by the height of the bar. This gives competitors extremely precise control of their results. Second, the competition proceeds by multiple attempts and a process of elimination. This means that a dominant performer can wait until all of his or her competitors are defeated before attempting the world record; there is then no danger that any other competitor will break the record, and therefore no reason to push it out of reach.

I don't mean to denigrate Isinbayeva in any way. She is clearly the best female pole vaulter the world has ever seen, and her accomplishments are unlikely to be matched any time soon. But I would like to see a world record that truly reflects her abilities, and we aren't seeing that right now.

One way to make the records more "honest" is to have tougher competition. The only reason Isinbayeva (and Sergei Bubka before her) can get away with this strategy is that she is head and shoulders above the rest of the field. If she had a real rival, then both of them would be forced to compete at their limits.

That's not really a solution that the IAAF can implement, though. Another idea would be to change the world record incentives for these events. For example, the incentive could scale according to the margin of the record-breaking attempt (e.g., pay ten times more for a ten-centimetre break than for a one-centimetre break). Another idea would be to offer the bonus only for certain milestones reached (5.10 m, 5.20 m, and so on).

August 04, 2005

CBC Radio Does Amateur Sport

Wednesday on CBC radio's Maritime Noon, the phone-in topic was "What's the best way to support amateur athletes?" You can access a RealAudio recording of the program here (August 3 - 53 minutes). There was a lot of discussion of grass-roots development and various provincial programs, which I don't talk a lot about here, and I found it interesting.

The guest list was quite impressive: Ken Bagnell, president of the Canadian Sport Centre Atlantic and member of the Canadian Sport Review Panel; Nicole Smith, the Executive Director of Sport New Brunswick; and 1998 Olympic bobsleigh gold medallist David 'Eli' MacEachern.

The panel worked well together; MacEachern provided the elite athlete's perspective, Smith concentrated on grass-roots and provincial programs, and Bagnell held court on the national sport system in Canada. Bagnell in particular, and not for the first time, showed himself to be very well-informed and articulate. He had all the facts at his fingertips and explained all of the issues clearly.

I was also struck by the high quality of input from callers; this was definitely not your usual weekday audience. Peter Stoffer, sitting MP and NDP critic for amateur sport, called in, as did Ed McHugh, president of Basketball Nova Scotia. Even a couple of old friends of mine called in.

I have to hand it to host Costas Halavrezos for a well-assembled show. I wonder, though, why he did not disclose that his daughter is on the Nova Scotia Canada Games team? If that created any bias on his part, it wasn't obvious to me, but I still found it curious that he didn't mention his own family's involvement in amateur sport.

August 01, 2005

Early Withdrawals … Fearing Penalties?

There's something funny going on at the 2005 world athletics championships. A lot of big stars are pulling out due to illness and injury.

The list of no-shows so far includes:

I don't know if this is an unusually large number of withdrawals, but it seems like it is. I am quite certain that some of the athletes on the list above are genuinely injured or sick. But I still wonder if some of this activity is a reaction to the very agressive anti-doping programme that will be conducted by the IAAF:

The 2005 edition of these World Championships … will see more than 850 tests conducted, … easily the largest testing programme ever conducted at an IAAF World Championships. … Approximately 350 competitors will be blood screened as they enter the athlete’s village, while during the championships themselves, close to 500 tests will be collected … Also in competition, about 100 blood tests will be carried out for the detection of Blood Transfusion, Hemoglobine Based Oxygen Carriers (Hbocs) and other substances.

The competition begins on Saturday.