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.


Adnane said...

Great post. I would highly recommend you to leave a comment with a link to your insightful post on the following website, where once again, innuendo based on prejudice, and prejudice only are thrown out to smear and defame. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting analyse.
Makhloufi was fast but what surprised me the most is the acceleration....long distance runner can run fast (sometimes) but usually acceleration is very progressive, but not this time.
and above all, his face ?!!?! he was not showing any "pain", even "fresh" when he crossed the line.....this is "surprising"

Doctor Dave said...

Good post and a salient point about a 25s 200m not being a proof of drug taking. To put it in perspective, Ovett and Coe used to run 25 s last 200m at the end of the 1500m 30 years ago!

Steve said...

Reasoned article BUT... list Smackloufi's best times as if certain they were done clean. His 3:30 and 1:43 were very probably also 'enhanced'.

We all know EPO usage affects individuals differently with certain athletes receiving higher hematocrit level increases than others, so comparing standard progression curves for doped athletes is fatuous.

As the Science of Sport guys have outlined, he is under suspicion due to a history of North Africans before him, most recently Selsouli and Lalou. Not necessarily his individual performances, although they do little to quell any suspicion. Easy off to 14.x last 100m was more out of necessity of limiting suspicion than fatigue.

His 25.2 mid race blew all other favourites out of the water, allowing for Leo, Centro and the Norwegian to profit. Had it been a sustained pace increase then I think positions from 2-5 would have been different.

Moving on re: the Norwegian. I would too look upon this critically, had it not been that the Norwegian Oly Association has one of the strictest drug testing programs on the planet, if not the.

I hope, for the sport, he's clean but I'd be willing to wage a considerable sum that this isn't the case.

Also, Algeria were based in Antrim, N.Ireland pre games. Sufficiently out of the way in the pre-Games build up per chance?

Adeel said...

Adnane, thanks, but I'm not going to sign up for a Runners World account just to comment.

Anonymous, people always judge whether someone was doped or not based on expressions, but if I went and compared ten dirty athletes' expressions to that of ten clean athletes, would I really notice a difference?

Doctor Dave, I agree fully. It also goes to say that when people say East Africans are superior to Europeans or North Americans, the latter are not even approaching the performances of thirty or forty years ago.

Steve, I just don't see why a 25-second 200 is that amazing when I think just about every championship 1500 I've ever seen has had a 200 at that speed. Feel free to correct me on this point.

If Makhloufi's nationality or region has to enter the picture, than Manzano and Rupp have to be tied to Gatlin, Jones, Barry Bonds and Ben Johnson.

Algeria may have trained in Northern Ireland, but I believe that Canada and America trained even farther away in Germany.

The strongest argument for Makhloufi being dirty is the same argument you and I have against any professional athlete. I think we have an image of what a doper looks like, and that they'd fit an ideal profile, but I think we'd be surprised by who is doping (though, sadly, probably not by who isn't doping).

Steve said...

I was being flippant with my pre-training games point.

Unfortunately, he blew the field away. He may have won by 0.7 in the record book, but I was there, and he was in a different race. Leo only medalled by the virtue of not attempting to cover his move.

Perhaps most telling is the reaction of the other athlete, both post-race and in interviews. As an athlete, you know who is, and who isn't on it. The Norweigan, I believe, was only one to shake his hand which speaks volumes.

While many cited Cram's commentary as distasteful, I found it intriguing, and both him, Coe and Foster all insinuating 'inteference'. None of them would unless given substanial grounds for this, and given all three's positions in the athletics fraternity, I would tend to believe their sources than biased blogs with agendas or message boards (letsrun).

JD said...

Interesting that Kiprop had a hamstring injury but was still able to compete somewhat successfully in the semis. He was not overpowering but he did qualify. However in the final he was clearly not the same.

Makhloufi easily blew away his semifinal heat clearly with no need to conserve energy. But then in his 800 heat he had an injury that was so bad, he couldn't go farther than a 200 meter jog. Medical records were apparently enough to prove his injury and avoid disqualification from the Olympics for sporting reasons.

Then Makhloufi miraculously recovered enough to again blow away the 1,500 field with ease, this time in the final. He also showed no effects of his big effort in the semi or the bad injury from the 800 heat.

Suspicion over Makhloufi goes beyond his nationality. Fellow competitors have a pretty good notion over who is blatantly cheating. It reminds me of Riccardo Ricco in cycling. All his competitors knew he was cheating. Ricco was naive enough confirm suspicion and go beyond blatantly cheating by almost killed himself when self medicating.

Personally, I think Makhloufi will test positive. And remember, Olympic blood samples are being held for the long term, so this chapter won't be closed for a number of years.

Fact said...

Using Alan Webb as your example takes away from the credibility of this because Webb was immediately swallowed up.