FUTURE THOUGHTS

In this month of October 2019, the marathon world seemed to have turned a corner, or broken a barrier – however you want to put it – with the first sub-2 hour marathon for men in Vienna, Austria and an 81-second world record for the women in Chicago, Illinois.

The first performance was somewhat expected having come on the heels of a very close, but eventually unsuccessful attempt two years ago in Monza, Italy.  The successful second assault in Vienna was conducted like clockwork in a tightly controlled setting with pacers behind lasers that didn’t vary by more than four seconds per 5Km split on the repeatable route.

The second headline in Chicago came as something of a shock, considering the record it topped was already thought of as an outlier. But unlike the men’s sub-2 in Austria, the new women’s record in Illinois was run in a competitive setting (though without actual competition) led by two male pacers who went out way too hard yet managed to salvage the record at the end. Which leads one to believe there is more time to scrub from Brigid Kosgei’s 2:14:04 with more consistent pacing, much less other tweaks, official or otherwise.  And Kosgei herself has already posited a women’s 2:10 in the future, though for herself she set the limit at 2:12 – 2:13.

What both these performances had in common were the nationality of the two athletes, Kenyan, and the brand and model of shoes that were worn, Nike Vaporfly Next%, or prototypes built specifically for each.

And so after this seismic month of miraculous running, what’s next?  Already the IAAF is looking into the legality of the shoes based on a protest lodged by several elite runners accusing the Nike Vaporflys of producing an unfair competitive advantage. Though there is an initial belief that the shoes will be found to be within proscribed limits.

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In 1989, American Greg LeMond won the Tour de France by eight seconds over Frenchman Laurent Fignon, the previous two-time Tour winner.

The eight-second margin made it the closest finish in TDF history, as LeMond was trailing Fignon by fifty seconds at the start of the final stage into Paris, and was not expected to be able to make up this deficit. But he completed the 24.5 km time trial at an average speed of 54.545 km/h (33.893 mph), at the time the fastest individual time trial ever ridden in the Tour. Fignon’s time was fifty-eight seconds slower, costing him the victory and giving LeMond his second Tour title by that scant eight second margin.

Greg LeMond in 1989 Tour de France

In that famous time trial, Lemond used aero bars clamped onto his traditional handlebars. The ‘89 TDF marked the first time such aero bars were used in competition. The aerodynamic advance proved to be the difference between first and second place. Now everyone uses aero bars, while overall bike technology has continued to evolve and improve ever since.

In sport, as in society, change remains the only constant. Trying to stem it is an exercise in futility. Continue reading

LONDON DIAMOND LEAGUE COVERAGE

Though it has always seemed to be something of a cottage industry in this sport, personally I am always loath to criticize how others may cover the sport of track and field. Having covered the sport myself for many years, I am fully aware that mistakes are part of the game. But I jump to give a nod of approval when it’s deserved.

Today’s NBC coverage of the London Diamond League meet was notable for several reasons.  First, the commentary by Paul Swangard, Ato Boldon , and Josh Cox was concise and drew attention to the athletes rather than themselves.  But more than that, there was finally a technical level of proficiency that merited attention (though, as pointed out in a response below, the video feed was provided to NBC by the Diamond League organizers, to which they added the commentary of Paul, Ato, and Josh).

I have long said you could make a 44-second 400 look unusually pedestrian by shooting it with the stationary camera positioned high in the stands looking down at the track. But today there was temendous gator-mounted tracking camera footage utilized to bring the power and speed of the sport into America’s living rooms (or wherever one may have watched). Continue reading

CROWD CHAOS AT TOUR DE FRANCE

Wild times on Mont Ventoux

Wild times on Mont Ventoux

“There’s no way to control a crowd like that if they don’t want to be controlled,” said former Boston Marathon race director Will Cloney after huge throngs on Heartbreak Hill forced runners into a single file as they climbed the iconic rise. The narrowed channel made for great excitement, great theater, but also dangerous racing conditions as it was all but impossible to pass anyone in the bedlam.

Accordingly, the Boston Athletic Association soon installed rope lines and finally snow fencing and barriers all along Heartbreak Hill and other crowded sections of the course to keep the crowds at bay in the name of race safety. 

BEHIND ANOTHER SET OF BARS

BEHIND BARS?

I received a reply to my latest post TIME FOR TRUTH & RECONCILIATION from a fellow traveler, John Dehart, who suggested that criminal penalties and prison time should be instituted for doping violations in light of the recent fall from grace of Lance Armstrong, the now former seven-time Tour de France cycling champion.

“The present system is a joke,” wrote DeHart, “and a real insult to the hard working clean athletes.”

You are correct, John.  It is an insult, but also a fraud, an intentional deception made for personal gain.  The topic is both interesting and redolent given the amount of money involved in many of the sports where drugs are an on-going issue.

In the case of Armstrong, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme wants the $3.85 million returned that the Tour paid to Armstrong for his seven wins.   What’s more, insurance company SCA Promotions said it, too, will seek to reclaim $7.5 million it paid to Armstrong after a 2006 arbitration proceeding went against them stemming from its initial refusal to pay Armstrong a U.S. Postal Service team bonus after his sixth Tour win. At the time, SCA was skeptical of Armstrong’s performance, but proof of his doping was not as clear, concise and overwhelming as the current USADA report revealed.

Since performance enhancing drugs became a serious issue in the 1960s, it is beyond obvious that sporting sanctions and public humiliation alone have not been successful in dissuading athletes or their representatives from cheating.  What we are talking about here is making cost-benefit analyses, and for decades the users have weighed the penalties against the rewards for not getting caught, and decided overwhelmingly, “Yep, it’s worth it”.  Even today, we see athletes hit with two-year sanctions which, taken early or late enough in a career,  or in the middle of an Olympic cycle, allows for a minor down time for additional training before their return to competition as if no-harm, no-foul. Continue reading

THE ENDS AND MEANS OF LANCE

Lance says, “Enough”

At what point do ends and means come into conflict with ones such as Lance Armstrong or his obsessive Ahab-like hunter, USADA?  That question surfaced again this past week with the news that Lance Armstrong had decided to give up his legal fight against the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in light of USADA’s pending arbitration hearing against the seven-time Tour de France champion for his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.  In each case, neither side has emerged as a champion.

The undeniable good that Mr. Armstrong has done for the cancer community with his Livestrong Foundation was built on the publicity generated by his seven consecutive Tour de France wins following his recovery from testicular cancer.  It is arguable whether the fame, and therefore fortune, behind the Livestrong movement would have been possible without those victories. Yet notwithstanding USADA’s continued obsession to harpoon what had become its white whale, Mr. Armstrong’s capitulation last week could only be seen as an admission of guilt, no matter how he framed it.

But at the same time, the Armstrong-USADA fight beggars the question, has the goodwill and cancer funding generated by his TDF titles been a worthy enough end to justify the performance-enhancing means that Armstrong all but certainly used to attain them?  Which, in this case, is the lesser of two evils, especially in a culture awash in denial and deception?

We know that the Tour de France organizers will not be announcing newly named winners of those tainted Tours, because it has long been accepted that the vast majority of competitors were no different in their doping than Mr. Armstrong.  What, then, is left as a final consequence? Continue reading