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.