Monday, April 21, 2014

Cultural explanations of, and reactions to, national tragedies

Something I never understood before I went to Europe, and something I understood even less after having gone to Europe, was the way people would debate personality traits of different European nations. The Dutch are so-and-so, someone would say, unlike the Poles, who are such-and-such. The interlocutor would respond by contrasting the Poles, who are such-and-such, to the Greeks, who are this-and-that. I never understood how having spent at most a few weeks in a country as many as several decades ago allowed somebody to make such declarations. I understood it less after having traveled through Europe, and I understand it even less when it comes to cultures that are inherently foreign to the West, Pakistani, Islamic or South Asian cultures, as well as Korean or East Asian cultures.

Let's take Koreans. Some English-language commentators on the Internet, depending on the day and the situation, declare Koreans to be overly blunt or treacherous backstabbers that will never tell you the truth. They can be mindless drones who follow rules, or they're yokels with no regard for the law. They might be vicious xenophobes who hate foreigners and all things foreign or trend-following suckers who are ruining everything that is good and holy about Itaewon. They love the government because they're rabid nationalists or they hate the government because they're secretly pan-Korean communists. They're either workaholics who have no lives, or time-wasting slackers who take hours to get anything done.

The truth, obviously, is in the middle of these pairs of absurd extremes, to the extent that you can even make declarations about a group of 50 million people. Try the same thing about Canadians, Americans or Pakistanis. Which part of a polarized country like America is representative of America, the part that gives us Fox News or the part that gives us the Fox network? Are Americans polite because they leave big tips or rude because they speak loudly? Are Canadians good at math? Do Pakistanis like computer games more or less than other cultures? Do Russians pay their bills on time? Would Koreans be fond of a national jai alai league? Is it docile Korean students who would do whatever they're told by authority figures or is it polite, line-forming Canadians? Or both?

Each culture has traits that are identifiable. I know that Americans tend to like football and discuss the state they're from while Canadians tend to like hockey and boasting about wind chills. Koreans will mention the year of birth, university attended and major of someone they're discussing even when it's not directly relevant to the conversation. Russians probably drink more alcohol than Saudis and Nepalis are less likely to show skin than Britons. Devout Muslims tend to wake up earlier than most people. I don't know how far you can take these traits, though, and this is probably the work of sociologists, not armchair theorists who know a few buzzwords.

This post is motivated, of course, by the horrific sinking of the ferry Sewol. Analysts and would-be analysts, based both inside and outside of the country, ask whether Korean culture played a contributing rule. These questions are limited to non-Western cultures. Seldom is it asked if American individualism played a role in some plane crash, or the Canadian preoccupation with short, intense bursts of work you see in hockey shifts contributes to some Canadian disaster, or whether French airplanes crash because the French give up easily in the face of adversity, as the American stereotype goes.

One way of looking at this is the national, collective response to this tragedy. I don't read everything written about the ferry, particularly in English, but I don't know if the way daily life has changed in Korea has gotten much international press coverage. The major South Korean networks cancelled all TV shows through Sunday, singers and entertainers cancelled appearances, festivals and events were cancelled, and baseball games proceeded without cheerleaders and even much cheering. So, you might want to ask, are Koreans over-reacting in cancelling events?

The tendency of those who explain the actions of Koreans as being explained by their Koreanness or, in other words, explain the actions of Koreans as being unique or different because they are Korean, would be to say that the Korean response, whether an over-reaction or not, is somehow unique. The collective mourning that followed for at least five days after, the presidential visit and oversight of the government response, the vast media coverage and the dominance of the event of public discourse, is fairly standard. The emergence of heroes and villains from the tragedy, of iconic imagery and of a backlash directed at the media and certain government officials, is also fairly typical.

To pick one example, running, a number of road races were cancelled in Korea. This could be termed a Korean over-reaction, but what about calls to cancel the 2001 New York Marathon, taking place two years after the 9/11 attacks? What about American restrictions on backpacks at subsequent sporting events and marathons? Is one an emotional overreaction while the other is a sensible response?

Cultural universals are traits shared by all human cultures, supposedly without exception. Donald Brown identified 67, though I would dispute the universality of some of them in that I can think of exceptions. The explanatory power of culture is not as great as we think, and I'm not even discussing cultural differences that are really just myths or far reaches. Korean honorifics and hierarchy don't cause plane crashes. The Afghan tradition of hospitality doesn't explain why the Taliban protected Osama bin Laden. The Spanish fondness for siestas didn't cause last year's train crash that killed 79 people. Rugged American individualism doesn't explain the 2007 bridge collapse that killed 13 people.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Handicapping the 2014 London Marathon

As I often do, I'd like to use the odds for Sunday's London Marathon as a starting point for predicting the winner. At roughly 2:1 is Wilson Kipsang, who is on a three-marathon hot streak. He ran 2:03:42 at Frankfurt in the fall of 2012, then won London last year in 2:04:44 before running a world record of 2:03:23 last fall in Berlin. He has remarkably better odds than Geoffrey Mutai (about 6:1), who seems to have slightly worse odds than Mo Farah, even though Farah (around 5:1) has never run a marathon and Mutai has run 2:05:10 or faster in five of his last six marathons, with the one exception being last year's New York Marathon, which he won in 2:08.

You would have to expect this race to be a duel between Kipsang and Mutai as the favourites, with Ethiopians Tsegaye Kebede and Tsegaye Mekonnen looming just behind, along with Emmanuel Mutai, who ran 2:03:52 last fall in finishing second at Chicago and holds the course record here. Emmanuel Mutai hasn't won a marathon in a couple of years, and Mekonnen ran 2:04 in his debut, but it was just two months ago.

I'm a huge fan of Kebede as quite possibly the most consistent marathoner in the history of the sport, having finished in the top three of 13 marathons in a row dating back to 2008. He won here last year after a brutally fast early pace that left him a minute back at around 35k. If the pace is torrid again, which it probably will be, as the men will likely go out in 61:45, Kebede's pedigree as the best racer if not necessarily the fastest runner will serve him well.

I can't imagine Mo Farah being much of a factor besides finishing in the top 5 in around 2:05-2:06. One reason to be optimistic of Farah's chances for the win are that he's going to go out behind the lead pack in 62:15, which would leave him poised to make a late run similar to Kebede's last year, though this strategy will likely only improve his placing since the winner will likely be whoever slows down least in the second half.

The women's race is interesting because it marks Tirunesh Dibaba's marathon debut. Dibaba has a better distance-running pedigree than Mo Farah, who may well turn out to be more of a middle-distance runner than a marathoner, but she faces tremendous competition in Priscah Jeptoo and Tiki Gelana, among others. Dibaba, however, won gold on the track last summer, looking as good as she ever did, and has a better chance of winning than Mo Farah.

If I had to bet money on someone, I would bet on Dibaba (about 4:1) and Emmanuel Mutai (around 7:1 to 10:1) since I think they're the most undervalued, but the best bet in any marathon is to bet on the field. If I had to pick a winner, I would pick Geoffrey Mutai for his slightly longer streak of consistently winning, although consistently winning for a marathoner implies that you've already peaked and will slowly start to fade. While I wish I knew enough about women's running to pick a winner, I don't. I'll just pick Dibaba to lose.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Korean drama 별에서 온 그대 (My Love from the Star) causes minor international incidents in China

This Buzzfeed article outlines the tremendous popularity of a Korean drama in China, to the point that it became the sort of cultural phenomenon not controlled by the state that drives the Chinese government nuts. The feeling was so strong that Chinese fans took out a full-page newspaper ad after a Korean professor's research indicating that Chinese fans of Korean and Taiwanese dramas were poorer and less educated than Chinese fans of Japanese and American dramas, published a year or two ago, came to light. The ad in the Chosun Ilbo demanded that the professor apologize to a character in the drama.

A one-party state consisting of 1.4 billion people really is only sustainable by either monopolizing or banning human interactions. Much of the persecution of the Falun Gong is explained by the fact that it is a large group of people that isn't entirely within the control of the Chinese government, the latter fact made evident by the time it surrounded Zhongnanhai, the sort-of-acknowledged headquarters of the Communist Party and, therefore, also the Chinese president. In that sense, it's odd but not inconceivable that the annual lianghui, or meeting of one rubber-stamping legislative body and one pointless advisory body, spent an entire morning discussing the success of this Korean drama and others like it, as well as the failure of China to produce anything that could compete with Korean dramas, American movies, Japanese comics, and so on.

The reason is obvious, of course. Dictatorships aren't too good at soft power, and China is no exception. The Chinese film industry is, as an American producer described in a New York Times article examining the problems faced by Hollywood in the Chinese market, the industry is controlled by a body that is "the equivalent of Universal, Sony, the M.P.A.A. and Regal all tied up in one". If you're like me and had never heard of Regal, it's a chain of movie theatres. The reality of Chinese cinema is that it still features propaganda films like 1911, which has an 8% score on Rotten Tomatoes, or the Beginning of the Great Revival, which was a commercial success thanks to mandatory viewings for students and government employees.

Japan and Korea face their own challenges in the promotion of cultural exports even as they are by far the most successful in all of East and Southeast Asia. Both countries have state-sponsored initiatives to create and improve cultural exports, as though this was the sort of thing you could create in a lab. Of course, if you look at some of the musical exports or even some of America's film exports, it's clear that a formulaic product manufactured with as much calculation as a cell phone or a car can achieve commercial success. The problem, as Korea discovered with Psy, is that while success can occur alongside such initiatives, there might be absolutely no connection between the two.

Another problem with cultural exports is that people won't like what you'd like them to like about you. The things that overseas consumers like about Korea are not the things that Koreans would like them to appreciate, Robert Fouser writes. "The logical problem with official efforts to promote Korean culture is that Koreans want to claim ownership not only of the cultural product, but also of its reception", preferring high-end culture to low-end culture, and prioritizing out of pride instead of appeal to outsiders, as seen in the case of Hangul. Fouser writes that "[t]he solution is simple: the government should focus on efforts that create opportunities for foreigners to come into contact with Koreans and Korean culture".

China's weakness in this area is tremendous. It's hard to market your culture to outsiders while it's quite easy to make TV shows that people in your country like. China's consistent failure in this regard points to the paranoia of the Chinese Communist Party, which probably isn't going anywhere any time soon, but whose fall from power could be precipitated by something as mundane as a Korean drama, given the way in which these things can have unpredictable consequences, e.g. a craze for chicken and beer. Given the way in which the Communist Party prides itself on staying two steps ahead of people, banning words like 'today' and 'tomorrow' around June 4 in recent years, allowing for the vacuum in Chinese pop culture to be replaced by suitably censored, apolitical American B movies might be preferable.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The vagaries of loan words and their forgotten equivalents, Korean-only movements in Korea

This post is actually a comment on this post, which I could have actually posted as a comment on the Marmot's Hole, but didn't because I'm too scared. That Marmot's Hole post comments on this BBC story about a Japanese man who sued NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, for "mental distress" caused by too many English words on the air.

He is a member of a Japanese group that advocates for the use of Japanese equivalents of English loan words. The comment thread, as is typical on the Marmot's Hole or any other open discussion on the Internet, mixes the uninformed with those who inform. Some people relished the notion, apocryphal as it may be, of young Koreans saying that they don't have any 계피 (the Korean word for cinnamon), but readily putting a dash of cinnamon when asked for 시나몬 (a transliteration of the English word). There's some bizarre joy taken by Internet commenters in stupid young, hip Koreans misusing English and moving away from the beauty of pansori and red bean (I have no idea how old the people commenting at the Marmot's Hole are, or where they live, but I hope for the sake of consistency that they're all Korea specialists in their 40s who have lived in Korea since at least before the IMF crisis).

I was sympathetic to the apocryphal story, though, because:

1) Something about living in Korea can make people more cut-throat about language in ways they might not be elsewhere. I feel it's related to the emphasis on native-speaker proficiency, usually related to English and usually coming from Koreans. The truth is that native speakers constantly don't know words in their own language. Would every 20-year-old working at a Starbucks know what cumin was? How about turmeric? Ask the nearest Chinese person to write down the Chinese character for 'sneeze'.

2) Sometimes it's easy to forget the equivalent word in your native language. Two examples I often discuss are from Urdu, where I can't think of a way to talk about chicken or being at work without sounding overly conservative or formal. I would add the caveat that my Urdu proficiency is only better than the Urdu proficiency of those who have none, but I'm pretty sure that you could easily stump university-educated speakers of Urdu or Korean by asking them for the native-language equivalents of common loan words which which they have no familiarity or which are seldom used. Start with blueberry if you're Korean, as this menu from the inter-Korean family reunions shows the native Korean (?) word for blueberries, 들쭉.

Korean has its own unique uses of chicken. The rough guide seems to be something like this: if you're eating Korean food, you use a Korean word for chicken, but if it's Western food, you use the English word. There are exceptions (파닭), of course, but it goes with things like 팝송 (pop song), which is just 'pop song' transliterated, but refers only to decades-old Western pop songs.

Finally, I'd like to touch on movements aimed at protecting the Korean language. Although Korea, like France, has a government body that manages Korean, there is comparatively little appetite for Korean-only movements in any sense of the word. One of the few noticeable concessions is that shops in the Insadong and Gwanghwamun areas have their names in Korean instead of English. Another is the ongoing movement for "pure Korean" (순우리말, literally "purely our language"), which reminds Koreans of Korean equivalents to words of Chinese origin, e.g. 씨밀레 for 친구 (friend). Of course, that the campaign is put on by broadcasters with names like EBS probably makes it more of a losing battle, as does the fact that so much of Korea's tradition is written in Chinese characters.

There is probably something to be said about a campaign, even one that doesn't catch on, for linguistic purity of this sort. It reminds me of angry letter-writers who wrote to Canadian newspapers chiding them for abandoning the Queen's English and spelling grey as gray, or their Quebecois counterparts who obsess over the status and positioning of the French language in Quebec, both figuratively and literally. What makes Korea somewhat odd is that protection of its language seems to be fairly compartmentalized.

There don't seem to be any laws or widespread movements against English-like gibberish or English-for-the-sake-of-it when it comes to marketing or products that are seen as being modern or even slightly Western. A typical example is this picture from a Starbucks, which uses the English word 'food' transliterated, despite the fact that it sounds nearly identical to the English word 'pooed', for no obvious reason. Another example is this ad from Hewlett Packard Korea, which is typical for advertising copy by being half in English (I once spent a bored hour at a cafe conducting a case study that indicated roughly 50-60% of the words on the cover of magazines or in advertising were in English or transliterated English).

Given that Korea is constantly importing English words into its own language and using them in ways, and with meanings, that are markedly different from the original, there isn't really much appetite for Korean-only movements of any sort. However, Koreans at the same time would widely support knowledge exporting their language and their alphabet to other countries, with the idea being that it is unique and individual. They would also, like someone who wants to buy books that look pretty on a shelf and don't need to be read, support a purer culture and language in certain official or ceremonial contexts (Hangul Day on October 9, or around Insadong), as long as it doesn't interfere with the salad bar at Mr. Pizza.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Belated review of Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military

In the past, I used to count and post about every book I read in this space. I did not read Imperial Grunts this year, so there is no number, but it is the book I wanted to write about. Imperial Grunts: The American Military On The Ground was written in 2005 by Robert Kaplan, a journalist I know best from The Atlantic. I found it surprisingly interesting as an explanation of what the American military does best and what it doesn't do so well, strangely comparable with Financial Times' Richard McGregor's The Party, as an explanation of one of the world's most powerful organizations about which I knew surprisingly little.

You may not know about all the places where the American military has a presence that are mentioned in the book, such as Mongolia and Kenya. Whether it's a small presence in those countries or a much larger one in Iraq or Afghanistan, Kaplan makes the case that the American military works best as a small, light and autonomous force that isn't weighed down by Washington bureaucracy. Kaplan makes a convincing case, pointing to countless cases where the sheer size and bureaucracy governing the army hamstrung its goals, but he can sometimes sound like a politician advocating small government as the solution to any economic problem, or a football fan who thinks the coach should "open the offense up" to allow the players to succeed.

Kaplan is probably right in arguing that two large government armies will never again face each other in a land battle. This is not to say that military strength is not needed, the sheer number of flags found on this page is evidence to the contrary, as is the number of flags that could have easily wound up on this page over recent tensions. Rather, the sort of military strength that is needed is profoundly different from what has been needed in the past, a cliche of which everyone is aware, but the American military was simply unable to put into practice until David Petraeus was put in charge of the multinational force in Iraq. The trend in all organizations towards increased formalization and bureaucracy, the US military being no exception, also works against the the need for a small, responsive, fighting force.

Kaplan is a very good writer, but we could have easily done without some of the cliches in the book as a Jewish intellectual from the US Northeast marvels at grunts, a very large percentage of whom are Christians from the South who never went to college, and reminds the reader over and over that they're different. This is something that the book could have done without, to be replaced instead with a more critical look at whether the presence of the United States military in more countries than just about anyone realizes is good for all those countries, the United States included.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Race in Suwon denies prize money to Kenyans

After a lengthy hiatus, AWYHIGTC is back for its second decade. Thank you for your patronizing patronage.

A few months ago, as part of my mandate to pay the race registration fees for anyone who has met an Olympic track and field standard, I decided to sign up a Kenyan runner for a half marathon in Suwon that had a nice prize purse. I even recommended the race to someone else I know who would have been competitive for the money. Eventually, I regretted venturing into the world of amateur sport amateur agency, mostly because it seemed to involve me making a two-hour trip to Suwon, and then this whole thing fell apart.

A number of Kenyans, some of them possibly including runners living and working in Korea, tried to enter this race without elite bibs, trying to win the money available to amateurs. This apparently provoked an outcry that went all the way to the "top", according to the person I spoke to on the phone, the result being that the race put out a statement affirming its status as a "pure festival for runners and clubs" and declaring that "foreign nationals who enter the race for the purpose of winning prize money" would be excluded from the awards. Those who win money without trying to do so, however, would probably also be excluded from the awards. Part of the reasoning was that the prize money was aimed at developing the sport in Korea.

An argument can be made, though I don't think it's a good one, that outsiders, usually Kenyans, who travel around a country running road races for small amounts of money kill the sport, though I don't know how good it is for the sport to financially reward comparatively mediocre performances. Many races work around this by having domestic prize money, including major races in Korea, America and Canada. This was already the case in this race, which has separate prize money for international and domestic elites (in typical Korean fashion, they're actually competing in separate categories, it seems). This is actually a matter of not allowing anyone without Korean citizenship to win amateur prize money and doing so two weeks before the race, after registration is closed, which is pretty much the worst conceivable way of managing a terrible decision.

I would love to name this race and its major sponsor, which was behind this fiasco, but a healthy fear of Korean libel laws keeps me from doing so.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The London Olympics show the meaninglessness of fast times

The marathon, over the past five years, has seen a sea change in the quality of times. The 5k, starting this year, also seems to have come back to life after some lean years. The fastest time since 2006 was recorded this year by Dejene Gebremeskel, and that race in Paris featured five of the twenty fastest times ever run. A similar resurgence was seen in the 1500, where breaking 3:30 had become scarce, but Asbel Kiprop's 3:28 was the fastest since 2004, followed closely by Silas Kiplagat and Nixon Chipseba. In the marathon, meanwhile, Kenya and Ethiopia entered five 2:04 runners between them, with the sixth a few seconds short of breaking 2:05 himself.

However, the winning time in the 5,000 was the slowest in decades, the 10,000 was the slowest in a decade, while the marathon was comparatively fast, albeit somewhat slow for the state of the event today, even if it did include a 14:11 surge. In every single event, runners who had achieved success in paced races not only failed, but they failed miserably. In the past, successful runners were those who could win in paced races as well as championship races, but I'm having a hard time thinking of a championship event where the runners with the fastest times of the year fared as poorly as they did.

The 800 was the lone exception, but that's because David Rudisha is not only fitter and faster than anyone else running the event, he is also capable of front-running, leading the entire way. In the 1500, the winner ran the seventh-fastest time of the year. In the 5,000, the winner ran the eleventh-fastest time. In the 10,000, while Farah did not run a 10,000 this year, the runners with the fastest times this year went DNF, 12th, 4th, 3rd and 8th. In the 1500, the fastest runners of the year went 12th, 7th, 11th and 9th.

The last two days of the Olympics gave ample evidence of the inability of runners with fast seed times to perform in championship races. In the 5,000, the fastest times of the year belonged to Gebremeskel, Hagos Gebrhiwet, and Yenew Alamirew of Ethiopia, as well as Isiah Koech and Thomas Longosiwa of Kenya, all of whom ran under 12:50 about a month before the 5,000-metre final. Despite this, and knowing that Mo Farah had the best kick in the field, having outkicked Gebremeskel in the 5,000 at Daegu last year, they essentially did nothing for the first half of the race.

There were so many laps over 70 second that just about everyone presumably warmed up faster than they ran the first 3k of the race. Considering that Farah held off Gebremeskel by about 3 metres, not to mention the fact that he himself said he was tired in the heats, if the Ethiopians had even gone after five laps instead of six, the outcome would have been very different. Clearly, the fitness was there after the heats were run in 13:15 and 13:25, the former being a record, but in the race, nobody either had the courage or the presence of mind to make the pace.

For the Ethiopians, who have been very successful in distance races over the last 20 years, the marathon was an absolute disaster. Most notable in missing from the team was Tsegaye Kebede, who not only won bronze at Beijing, but, excluding his debut at Amsterdam in 2007, has run ten marathons in the last five years and never done worse than third place. Those ten marathons included third at Beijing, third at the Berlin world championships, wins at Paris (2008), Fukuoka (2008-2009) and London (2010), as well as third-place finishes at New York last fall and at London this spring. I can't think of a surer bet in a fast, unpaced marathon than Kebede, except maybe Abel Kirui, though the latter's resume is not quite as long as Kebede.

Also left off the team was Gebre Gebremariam, who won New York in 2010, ran third in Boston 2011 and then was fourth at New York last year. Finishing 14th at Boston this spring, however, probably kept him off the team. Gebremariam ended up running the 10,000 and did as well as he has ever done in a decade's worth of championship track finals, finishing 8th. He was 4th in the Athens 5k and 6th in the 10k at Osaka, but other than that, he has often finished outside the top 10.

Instead, Ethiopia chose the runners who had run fastest this year: Ayele Abshero, Dino Sefer and Getu Feleke. Neither of them finished the race, hardly surprising when you consider that Sefer's coach actually begged the Ethiopian federation to not select him for the Olympics, such was his lack of maturity in the event, having done nothing in his 2:04 personal best but follow the steady pace of others on a cool, flat course devoid of turns, changes in pace or even many other competitors. If there was a worse way to choose a more ill-suited team for the marathon, I can't think of it and the Ethiopian federation was equally stumped, it seems.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Gelana's victory continues Olympic medal streak for Japanese-trained marathoners

On the surface, Tiki Gelana's 2:23 Olympic record in the women's marathon Sunday represented another failure by Japanese marathoners, so much so that it prompted an editorial (English translation here courtesy of Brett Larner) blaming the "lazy, self-indulgent training" of Japanese marathoners as the problem. However, what Gelana did was to continue the streak, now at 24 years and 7 Olympics, of at least one Japanese-trained man or woman winning an Olympic medal, as well as a streak of 4 Olympics where one marathon champion trained in Japan. Note that this isn't a matter of a runner simply having a training base in Japan.

The list includes Kenyan Douglas Wakiihuri in 1988 (silver), Japanese Koichi Morishita and Yuki Arimori in 1992 (both won silver), Arimori and Kenyan Eric Wainana in 1996 (both won bronze), Naoko Takahashi and Wainana in 2000 (Takahashi won gold, Wainana improved to silver), 2004 gold medalist Mizuko Noguchi and 2008 gold medalist Samuel Wanjiru. There are three Kenyan men who have won a medal in the Olympic marathon and they have all trained in Japan. Conversely, for all its stupefying success in big city marathons, Kenya has never produced an male Olympic medalist who didn't train in Japan.

The Olympic marathon is stunningly unpredictable. It might be the only discipline in track, if not all of sport, where a world record-holder has medaled once in the last half century and not in the last 30 years for men, while a female world record-holder has won two medals in the last 30 years. For those quibbling at home, I'm counting medals by current and former world record-holders at the time of the Olympics, but not future world record-holders, so Carlos Lopes doesn't count as his record came the year after his victory at the 1984 Olympics.

It is against this backdrop of near-certain failure that Japanese-trained athletes have been so consistent, as loosely as the term might apply to the Olympic marathon, earning 10 out of 45 medals awarded over this stretch. Compare that to 8 medals by Kenyan athletes and 5 by Ethiopian athletes, and it's clear that Japan is doing something right when it comes to the marathon in taking otherwise unremarkable athletes like Wakiihuri, Arimori and Wainana, ones who would never rate a mention as the best of all-time or even an era, and turning them into Olympic medalists.

To the extent that there is a knack for succeeding in a championship marathon that will likely be run in hot weather, which is basically like success at rolling the dice, Japan has cornered the market. I can't personally speak for the degree of involvement Japan had in the success of each of these athletes, though I suspect that, like anything else in the sport, there really is no secret. For the Kenyan athletes, structured training while avoiding over-racing and Kenya's rainy season, which can often wash out roads and make training impossible, are significant. For both Kenyan and Japanese athletes, the single-minded focus on the marathon that is the hallmark of the Japanese system (find another country where the national record in the marathon is 2:06:16, but the 1500 record is just 3:37) has long been paying dividends, alongside training in hot, humid weather.

Japan has extended its streak in producing at least one marathon medalist from each Olympic medalist, but it has the chance to add another medalist this Sunday. It's unlikely that a Japanese man will medal, with the only possible candidate being Arata Fujiwara, whose chances, I think, are bolstered by the fact that both Kenya and Ethiopia seem to have chosen their teams in the most amateurish way possible, based almost entirely on time, on what is not a very fast course. On the other hand, it's just as likely that having six men who have all run faster than 2:05:04 will produce a replica of the Beijing race.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Men's 1500: Makhloufi's kick doesn't prove he's dirty, or what really happened

If you were told that a runner with a 3:32 personal best, who had made four previous Olympic Games or World Championships but only made one final, had won a silver medal in the men's 1500, you would probably think he was doping, right? Those are the credentials of Leo Manzano. On the other hand, Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria won the race with a 3:30 personal best, himself having previously failed to make it out of the semifinals in Berlin or Daegu. Immediately, LetsRun exploded with confident predictions that Manzano would soon win gold, just as Asbel Kiprop had won gold after Bahraini Rashid Ramzi was disqualified after the Beijing Olympics. Of course, it's no coincidence that American Matt Centrowitz would win bronze if Makhloufi was disqualified.

Makhloufi was seen as suspicious online, but also on the BBC. For those watching who don't normally follow track, the suspicion seemed outrageous. The suspicion, as far as I can tell, comes from: 1) Makhloufi's performance in the semifinal, where he ran a 3:33 with a 1:49 last 800, 52-second last lap and a sub-39 last 300, 2) the similarity of Makhloufi's emergence to that of Rashid Ramzi in 2005, right down to the fast heat, the dominating kick in the final and, of course, being an Algerian to Ramzi's Moroccon origins and 3) the way that Makhloufi was able to win despite easing up on the final straight.

I can not say for sure that Makhloufi is clean, of course, and I admit that I thought Ramzi was clean, but I see no more reason for Makhloufi or even Ramzi to be dirty than Galen Rupp or Ryan Hall, two runners who were also-rans at major competitions before jumping to the next level all of a sudden. Makhloufi is a great deal different from Ramzi in that he's only 24 years old, has been running internationally for a few years and ran World Cross Country as a junior in 2007. He ran a 3:30 earlier this year in Monaco.

The similarities to Ramzi are purely racial when you consider that the performance by Norwegian Henrik Ingebrigtsen was probably the biggest jump made by anybody in the final. Ingebrigtsen actually ran a personal best (and a national record) in the final, finishing fifth. The idea of a runner "coming out of nowhere" is also nonsense. Every runner comes out of nowhere to LetsRun unless he is American, English-speaking or a famous East African. When Ibrahim Jeilan won gold in the men's 10,000 at last year's World Championships, not only did LetsRun collectively consider him to be a nobody, but even Mo Farah admitted that he had no idea who Jeilan was, even though Jeilan had run 27:02 a five years before that race.

As for the kick that was too fast to have been clean, Makhloufi split a 12.6 from 1200 to 1300, and we all know that anybody who drops a 12.x 100 into a 1500 has to be doped to the gills. He then accelerated to run a 12.5 on the final turn before easing up to a 14.3 on the final straightaway, a final 300 of 39.4. It was the 200 segment from 1200 to 1400 that cemented Makhloufi's reputation in the mind of LetsRun posters. If not that, then it was how hard he was breathing after the race, a favourite of amateur doping analysts, who use their experience on the European circuit to know how hard an athlete should be breathing after a world-class 1500.

For comparison, Asbel Kiprop ran a 51-second last lap to win the World Championships at Daegu last year and Yusuf Saad Kamel ran a 38-point 300 to win at Berlin in 2009. The real story in this race is actually the complete failure of the top-seeded runners to do anything. Look at the year's best times, and compare them to the results of the final.

Fastest times in 2012

1. Asbel Kiprop 3:28.88
2. Silas Kiplagat 3:29.63
3. Nixon Chipseba 3:29.77
4. Ayanleh Souleiman 3:30.31
5. Nick Willis 3:30.35
6. Amine Laalou 3:30.54
7. Taoufek Makhloufi 3:30.80
8. Bethwell Birgen 3:31.00
9. Mekonnen Gebremedhin 3:31.45

Six of the nine fastest 1500 runners this year ran in the final. Of the six who ran, Makhloufi ranked fifth for personal bests. The slowest times belonged to the Americans and the Norwegian, which LetsRun would take as a sign of dodging the doping control at major European meets. Manzano, who finished second, had the tenth-fastest personal best out of the 12 runners in the final. We could take that as a sign that this was an unpredictable race. With the first three laps run in 2:54 (3:38 1500 pace), the field had effectively handed the race to the fastest 800-metre runner in the bunch.

Normally, this would be Olympic and World champion Asbel Kiprop, who owned the fastest 800 time in the field alongside the fastest 1500 time, but Kiprop was clearly injured, lagging behind the whole field for much of the race and finishing last in 3:43. The only other runner in the field who had ever broken 1:44 was Makhloufi. He had ran 1:43.88 to Kiprop's 1:43.15. Kiprop is definitely the superior talent, but Makhloufi had a rare opportunity in a slow pace and a favourite who had been knocked out of contention.

When Makhloufi kicked, Gebremedhin of Ethiopia and Kiplagat went with him. They paid the price for it, as Iguider passed them both to move into on the final straight. Manzano made a huge move on the final straight, passing Gebremedhin and Kiplagat, but also Iguider, putting a huge gap on all three on his way to winning bronze. If Makhloufi made it look too easy by making everyone else look bush league, the same can be said of Manzano, an even bigger nobody on paper than Makhloufi.

The finishing order was almost inverted, as I could have believed Kiprop winning ahead of Chipseba, with Bilal Mansoor Ali taking bronze and Nick Willis finishing fourth. I don't think anyone would have been surprised by Manzano finishing eleventh and Makhloufi in twelfth. What happened today was similar to the men's 10,000 in that the Kenyan men seemed to move backwards when it counted most, and other big names like Willis, Centrowitz or Iguider either came up empty or moved too late. Those who followed Makhloufi, meanwhile, suffered most, with Kiplagat and Gebremedhin finishing sixth and seventh. I don't know who else followed, as the camera only followed these top three runners.

It may well turn out that Makhloufi tests positive, but for every athlete that the media and fans have accused of being doped, about the only one who has ever tested positive was Rashid Ramzi. He is, in effect, the pancake that stuck to the wall. I don't doubt that there are others, but if we're going to believe LetsRun and, apparently, the BBC, those who take drugs are invariably non-Western, at least when it comes to distance-running.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The only worse tactic would have been to lend roller blades

Going into the men's 10,000, it was clear that, in a turn of events maybe more striking than the eventual finishing order, the Kenyans and Ethiopians weren't going to win anything if they let the race come down to the kick. None of the Kenyans had a fast kick, and the best among them was noted for his complete lack of it. Of the Ethiopians, Kenenisa Bekele's best chance at winning was a fast pace. So, an opening 200 of 30 seconds looked good, but after that, the pace was unimaginably slow, going through 2k in 5:59 (the women opened in 6:11 yesterday).

 At that point, it was still possible for the Africans to make a go of it with a withering pace over the final 5 or 8 kilometres. Instead, there was the odd surge and quicker lap, mostly by perennial nice guy (in that he gives us a race worth watching) Zersenay Tadese, but they continued to plod through, with a 2:47 6th kilometre and a 2:46 9th kilometre. A large pack, maybe with 12 men in contention at the start, but those with the finishing speed were obviously more in contention than those without.

Bekele finished fourth and Tadese sixth in what was the slowest championship 10,000 since the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, which was also the last one where an Ethiopian didn't win. Obviously, there's no guarantee that Bekele the Elder could have won or even earned silver or bronze by setting a faster pace. Considering that Farah and Rupp have run 26:46 and 26:48 of late while Tariku Bekele won the Ethiopian trials at Hengelo, the medals probably went to the most deserving runners and in the right order.

Many of those who missed out on medals trusted in their kick, but runners like Bekele and Tadese simply do not have that luxury. Tadese was never going to beat anybody in any kick of any kind, and a 13:25 second 5k didn't run the legs off of anybody. The Ethiopians, Kenyans and to a lesser extent the Eritreans simply showed up lacking in fitness, tactics, positioning in varying quantities.

Farah and Rupp are on the upside of their careers while much of the field on display today has been running championship distance races at the highest level for a decade. That the medals went to a Briton and an American in what is probably the single most competitive distance race will hopefully have two effects. The first effect should be to put to rest the notion that only East Africans or those with East African genes can compete at the highest levels of the sport, seeing as how Rupp ran a 54-second last lap to finish second, but also, for example, that Derek Clayton ran a 2:08 almost 50 years ago while Dave Moorcroft ran 13:00 30 years ago.

Second, this might help to revive distance running as a global sport. Farah's victory and subsequent celebration in front of a home crowd was a great moment in distance running, the sort that hasn't been seen in a long time. I don't think it's true that a sport dominated by East Africans can't be compelling, just as the 100 being dominated by Americans and Jamaicans doesn't keep people from watching. Others, sadly, do feel that Western athletes need to be winning in order for the sport to be in health. Now that the moment is here, hopefully something comes of it.