Monday, June 09, 2014

What does it mean to finish a 26:44 10k in 1:57?

In 2011, not long after losing a 10k on the track for the first time in his life, Kenenisa Bekele ran a 26:43 at Brussels. He ran the last two laps in 1:57-1:58, closing in roughly 60-61 and then 57 for the last lap. Kenyan Michael Rotich was not far behind as Bekele barely held him off. You can probably credit him with the same splits. Galen Rupp was unable to keep up, but ran the last two laps in around 2:03, with splits of roughly 61 and 62. Bekele's 26:43 remains the fastest time of this decade and the 21st-fastest performance of all-time.

Galen Rupp, though, came close to topping that performance with a 26:44 last Friday night in Eugene, Oregon. Having set out to run faster than his national record of 26:48, he slowed in the ninth kilometre, and it looked as though he would finish in just under 27 minutes. Improbably, though, after having let the pace slow to 65-second laps, Rupp ran the second-last lap in 59 seconds and then came back to run the last lap in 58 seconds. If this Rupp had been in the 2011 race at Brussels, he would have been either right behind Bekele. He might even have been able to beat Bekele.

A 1:57 800 for a 10k is not unheard of, especially in a championship race. Bekele ran the last 800 of his first Olympic gold medal in around 1:54, splitting 61/53 in a 27:05 race. He ran 27:08 at Helsinki, closing in 63/54 and then 1:58 at Osaka (63/55) in another 27:05 race. I can't find his splits for Beijing, but in his last major global title, Bekele ran 26:46, closing in 63 and 58 seconds for the last two laps, destroying a highly competitive field in the process (Rupp was almost a minute back in that race). But, in a race where he was pushed to the absolute limit of his abilities, his 26:17 world record, Bekele ran the last 800 of his world record 26:17 in just 2:00, split as 63/57.

Clearly, Rupp wasn't pushed to the absolute brink of his abilities. While it's probably impossible for him or anyone to push themselves so hard in the first 24 laps that the last lap is simply an average of the first 24, a 1:57 finish is remarkable. At the very least, we can agree that Rupp can run under 26:40. What is remarkable, though, is that Rupp has closed his PB faster than Bekele, and probably most of the others ahead of him on the all-time performance list for the 10,000 metres. What's even more remarkable is that Rupp, while always a talented distance runner who, along with his coach, was willing to forego success at a younger age for bigger goals in the long-term, was never really known for his speed.

As late as 2012, his 26th birthday, Rupp could barely break 4 minutes for the mile. His best performance at either the mile or the 1500 was a 3:39 1500 in 2009 or a 3:57 in 2010, performances that are roughly equivalent. Then, all of a sudden, Rupp ran a 3:34 in May of 2012. He won a silver medal at the London Olympics, which was not a surprise for someone who had ran 26:48 the previous year, but what was surprising was the fact that he ran the last lap in about 54 seconds. Rupp then went on to run a 3:50 indoor mile the following winter, while his training partner, who had his own mid-career breakthrough in 2012 from an also-ran in championship finals to a sudden world-beater, ran a 3:28 in the summer.

There are any number of explanations for these performances, such as focused training, sprints, weights, thyroid medication, excellent coaching, excellent tactics, late-blooming talent, and so on. We don't know for sure whether Rupp and Farah are doping, and we probably never will. On the other hand, they're a bit like Barry Bonds, who hit a career-best 49 home runs at the age of 35 after having never hit more than 46 in a single season (which he did at the age of 28), and then hit 73 the following year at the age of 36. Bonds never failed a drug test and we'll never know for sure whether he used drugs. However, no one considers Bonds' records to be legitimate.

I can only hope that track fans in America and around the world, who were so quick to accuse Taoufik Makhloufi of doping after coming out of "nowhere" to win an Olympic gold medal against an underwhelming field, are more skeptic of all athletes who suddenly achieve mid-career breakthroughs that are akin to Seinfeld's magic loogie that changes direction in mid-air. As one commenter on this interview with Vern Gambetta, former conditioning coach with the Nike Oregon Project says of his conversation with a doctor highly involved in an Olympic sport, "the only surprise for him is never the discovery of doping, nor the relative rarity or frequency of its occurrence, but always the level of public shock."

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Smaller audiences, global audiences and focus groups are homogenizing movies

As I sat down to watch the latest X-men movie, I got the feeling that I had seen this movie before. "Isn't this the tenth time I'm seeing the exact same movie?" I asked myself. The answer, after getting home, was that the complicatedly-named X-men: Days of Future Past is the 7th X-men movie since 2000, and that there are two more sequels on the way in 2016 and 2017, at which point we will have had nine X-men movies in 17 years. This goes along with five Spider-Man movies since 2002, with two more scheduled for 2016 and 2018, three Batman movies since 2005, three Iron Man movies since 2008, and so on.

Then I remembered a recent piece in The Atlantic explaining the present suffocating homogeneity of movies. The author, Derek Thompson, says it's so because "studios are making fewer, more expensive films, there is much more risk riding on each project. Hollywood mitigates that risk in two ways: safer subjects and more testing." As well, "Hollywood has become sensational at predicting what its audiences want to see. And, ironically, for that very reason, it's become better at making relentlessly average movies." While I'm put off by the annoying preponderance of superhero movies, Thompson points out that not only is the trend towards superhero movies, but it's also towards ordinary movies that are neither excellent nor terrible.

It's unfathomable (or maybe only slightly fathomable based on the way people act in old movies, TV shows and novels) today, but Thompson writes that there was a time when 60% of Americans would go to the movies on a given weekend. Americans bought an average of 20-30 movie tickets per year, a number that's now at 4. As a result, studios make fewer movies and have a far greater need for these movies to succeed financially. They are also far more dependent on overseas audiences for revenue, meaning that a movie like "12 Years a Slave" is less likely to be made than it once was, because it theoretically does not appeal to audiences in, say, Seoul or Beijing unlike another Transformers movie, no matter how insipid the latter might be.

The other reason for homogeneity, which discourages risk-taking, is that studios have refined and mastered the art of understanding what audiences like. Although Thompson only mentions typical domestic viewers, there is no doubt that studios take into account the tastes of audiences outside of America considering the extent to which the sensitivities of the Chinese government play a role in shaping Hollywood movies. Thompson writes that "studios are so worried about what audiences think—and so skilled at soliciting their feedback—that they ensure that the next blockbuster always reminds audiences of the last blockbuster."

It's not the case that audiences are dumber, as popular thinking would go, or that studios have run out of original ideas. It's not that there's a shortage of original ideas, or that people today are too dumb to enjoy good movies, but that studios, which release far fewer films than they once did, have figured out how to make each release count. Viewers, such as myself, who went to see X-men because I like to eat popcorn and don't mind an X-men movie, have helped Hollywood make each release count.

With China projected to become the world's biggest movie market by 2020, we're unlikely to see this trend change at any point in the future. Although this may well change before China becomes the world's largest movie market, China allows just 34 imported films to be shown in its theatres each year, an artificial bottleneck that encourages not just homogeneity but also greater watchfulness to things like clothes hanging outside to dry in scenes depicting Chinese cities. If Chinese audiences are anything like Korean audiences, sci-fi and superhero movies like Avatar or Transformers are likely to dominate at the expense of movies like 12 Years a Slave or No Country for Old Men, which are much more difficult for foreign audiences to understand for a number of reasons.

Just about every country has seen its culture altered by the intrusion of American pop culture. What's interesting is the prospect of American pop culture being altered by the importance of overseas ticket sales. While nine X-men movies in less than two decades might seem ridiculous, in a world where Chinese audiences count for more than American audiences, we might as well see another nine X-men movies between 2020 and 2040, a prospect that might be utterly ridiculous but not so ridiculous as to not be profitable.