Looking back on 2013
It’s been a crazy, roller-coaster year in the world of sport and sports science. A roller-caster with more downs than ups, at least by my immediate recollection. Some of the downs were, well, spectacular free-falls. It began with Lance Armstrong finally admitting what most in cycling already knew, albeit to Oprah and only partially truthfully. He’s since embarked on a very public roadshow where he has continued to confirm pretty much what everyone knew to nobody who really matters for the long-term improvement of the sport. Tell the authorities everything in 2014, Lance. On the upside, cycling got itself a new president, and got rid of Pat McQuaid, which means 2014 will begin with more hope than ever that it has turned the corner. I am not holding my breath.
Then came the fall of Oscar Pistorius, most spectacularly and tragically of all, when he shot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp through a bathroom door on Valentine’s day. Whether it was an accident (his version), or deliberate (the state’s version), four shots through a closed door initiated a media frenzy that we in SA had not seen before. His trial takes place in March next year, and will no doubt dominate the South African news. We’ll find other things to talk about then…perhaps the performances of his heir to the title of “fastest man with no legs”, Alan Oliveira, who has had the kind of 2013 that should make everyone sit up and take notice, and realize just where the world of double-amputee sprinting is headed. Let’s hope that 2014 produces even faster performances from more amputee athletes, until one day soon, double amputees are beating Usain Bolt, LaShawn Merritt and Kirani James. Of course, that would be an unwanted situation for the sport, but I would enjoy seeing how people try to explain that one away if it’s not the result of technology which very obviously improves performance. It wasn’t an advantage for Pistorius, after all, right?
There were also falls from grace for Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay, who both failed drugs tests. The full details of Gay’s transgression have yet to be revealed, but steroids are involved. Meanwhile, Powell’s, along with some Jamaican team-mates, once again put supplements squarely under the spotlight. Maybe 2014 will be the year that athletes learn to just say a big, emphatic “NO” to supplements? Yeah, I know, but Christmas ’tis the time for dreaming…
Jamaican sprinting and Kenyan distance running found itself under the microscope too, with increasing pressure to raise the standards of testing beyond the level they were at – zero. This after it was revealed that Jamaica had conducted only one random drug test in the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympics, while Kenya dragged their heels on investigations into allegations of doping combined with a steady drip-drip of failed tests from their athletes. Perhaps 2014 is the year that we finally get some re-assurances or full exposure (either would be preferable to opaque deniability). Yeah, OK, still day-dreaming…
In more positive news, the marathon world record was broken, once again in Berlin, once again to a Kenyan, this time Wilson Kipsang. Only weeks after, Dennis Kimmetto broke the Chicago Marathon record, and then Geoffrey Mutai dominated in New York, setting the 2014 marathon season up for some spectacular racing. Into that world will step Mo Farah and Kenenisa Bekele, both earmarked for a London showdown after they produced one of the races of 2013 in the Great North Run (you can watch the final 2km at the bottom of the post).
On sports science, and looking ahead to 2014
Moving to the science, this year we discussed the “how” of scientific, including low-carbohydrate diets and deviant thinking, science vs marketing, Long-term Athlete Development’s likely failure for most sports in most countries, and some thoughts on high performance sport strategy. All will feature again in 2014.
The genetic basis for long distance running was a topic I wrote about for a review article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, as was a comprehensive review of the literature on barefoot running with my PhD Student Nic Tam. That review, along with some original research on barefoot running, will be a focus of 2014, so stay tuned for more on one of the more interesting topics in sports science.
As usual, the entire month of July was devoted to covering the Tour de France. Always a catalyst for good discussion, it also always makes me a target for hostile responses from people who suffer from what I began calling “performance pixelation”. It even got me labelled a pseudoscientist who was out for fame and publicity, by Andy Coggan and Ed Coyle, which I took as a nice compliment. Merry Christmas, guys. The New York Times did this piece on me and Michael Puchowicz during the Tour, to follow a piece I wrote for the same paper the year before.
More seriously, let me end 2013 by stressing the same thing I must have typed 15 times in July – you can’t positively diagnose doping by analyzing single performances. The error is too large, too many confounding factors exist and so if you ever attempt to isolate one performance and declare it “proof of doping”, then you are making the performance pixellation error and should be run out of town. However, if you are sensible, then you can, recognizing these limitations, gain insight from such analysis that is interesting and which paints a picture when you step back and view it as a whole. I tried to explain the concepts of performance analysis in this post, aimed at those who choose blindness rather than looking at the world with one eye, just because they don’t have both (here’s looking at you, Lionel!). We’ll do the same in 2014.
On that note, a tip of the hat to The Doc, Michael Puchowicz, who runs the Tumblr site Veloclinic, and who did some amazing analysis of cycling this year. Most recently, he developed a model called the Flock-Puchowicz Kinetic Metabolic Component Model for predicting power output as a function of duration. There is a video explainer at this link. His VAM and pVAM methods inspired much debate during the Tour de France, and I hope 2014 brings more of the same. Even if some do say it is pseudoscience!
The year ended with the first even Science of Sport/ SSISA High Performance Conference, called the Performance Leadership Summit. We invited David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene (the best book of 2013, without a doubt), to share his insights on sporting performance, doping and supplements, and added to the programme a number of South Africa’s best coaches, scientists and sporting thinkers, including Roger Barrow, Paddy Upton and Ernst van Dyk. David also judged my “What is Talent?” contest, where you got a chance to share your thoughts on this fascinating topic – the top 5 submissions can be read here. The Performance Leadership Summit is certainly going to happen in 2014, and I hope that wherever you are in the world, you’ll think about coming out and joining us in Cape Town for a few days. It will be in November, specific dates to be confirmed as soon as possible.
Bring on 2014
More personally, it’s been a challenging year, with conflicting academic demands from UCT, strategic demands from SSISA and various other sporting challenges. Lots of travel, some amazing conferences and contacts, and it looks as though that will continue in 2014. Beats getting bored, that’s for sure. The Science of Sport website was also redesigned, and I hope that the new look and archiving functions have made your experience a whole lot better. To repeat, we welcome donations – the button is top right of the page.
What needs to happen in 2014 is more writing, and a return to basics. Obviously, the big events like the Tour, the Major Marathons, will continue to be a focus, but the resolution for next year is to write more on the science, translating and delivering it for you when I come across interesting publications, or attend conferences. 2014 will produce loads on barefoot running, elite Kenyan physiology and fatigue research, and that’s just from my research. Let’s hope time (and my energy levels) allow it!
Until then, however, I wish you all the best over this festive season, hoping that you have a wonderful Christmas, wherever you are, and a Happy New Year!
Kenenisa Bekele vs Mo Farah, 2013. A taste of things to come?
This post is part of the following threads: News/Controversies, Tour de France Analysis, Tour de France timeline, Year-in-Reviews – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.