2014 Wrap Part 2: The science of sport review

30 Dec 2014 Posted by

This is the second part of my 2014 review – the first was a “diary” of sorts, made up of weekly articles that I write for a South African national newspaper, The Times.  Those articles, because of their intended audience, tend to drift into management and tactical aspects of sports science.

Today, in part 2, I look at three of the sports stories that had a sports science link, and also glance ahead to what 2015 will bring.


1. The topical sports science story of 2014 – the sub-2 hour marathon debate

Thanks to Dennis Kimetto (and Emmanuel Mutai, for that matter), who broke Wilson Kipsang’s one-year old marathon world record in Berlin this year, the sub-2 hour marathon debate gained momentum.  It is, in my biased opinion, the most interesting sports science discussion of the moment.

This is of course not a new one – back in October 2008, I wrote the first of about six Science of Sport articles on this topic, after Haile Gebrselassie breached the 2:04 barrier for the first time.  Then in August of 2010, I wrote an article titled “The Sub-2 hour marathon: Who and when?, and there’ve been a host of others since.    They rarely differ in their conclusion, namely that a sub-2 hour marathon is likely to occur one day, but that we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves to expect 3 minutes to be cut off a time that is being nudged down by 20 seconds a year (weather permitting).

Whenever a record is broken, and it’s  by 20 to 30 seconds, people jump ahead 3 minutes (or more) and predict the “imminent” 1:59:59.  Kimetto’s Berlin performance is the latest to inspire this talk.  It went so far as to spawn the creation of a sub-2 hour marathon project, backed by some of the very best scientists in the world, who wrote how they believed that a proper scientific approach would achieve this milestone within five years.

I took issue with that statement and attitude towards science’s role and leverage, not to personally attack the scientists (Andrew, nodding your way), but rather because the way science is promoted as a “white knight” is actually damaging to the uptake and application of sports science.  I wrote a brief comment on Facebook, which angered a few, including a former colleague, Andrew Bosch (who is involved in the project), and led him to question my understanding of the physiology of running and also call for a novel approach to the question.

So, in response to that, and in an attempt to be obliging, I wrote the following piece, which I highlight as my personal favorite of 2014 (mostly because the topic is cool):

The two-hour marathon and the 4-min mile: Lessons from history, physiology and economics

That article presents some of the data on the East African running phenomenon, and it also explains why talking about the 2-hour marathon as the next 4-min mile is a false approach.  A number of people have done this, pointing out that the 4-min mile was a supposedly unbreakable brick wall, until it wasn’t.  True, but the performance improvements were less than 1% each time, and so we have a way to go yet before we’re touching that wall.  More to the point, to suggest the 2-hour marathon is like the 4-min mile is analogous to trying to predict the behavior of the US dollar in 1970 before China, India and other BRIC nations were dominant players.  Globalization of the running, and a shifting economic climate, render the comparison outdated.  You can read more about that in the article I wrote last month.

And then, for the physiology, below is a presentation I did at UCT earlier this year, which also explains some of the history and physiology of the East African runners.  It includes some data from a study I had published earlier this year with my friend Dr Jordan Santos Concejero, in which we found that elite Kenyan runners maintained cerebral oxygenation during a 5km time-trial.


Of course, it’s possible that someone comes along with technology that knocks 2% off the performance, in the same way that Speedo kickstarted the swimsuit wars with high-tech swimsuits in 2008 and 2009.  If that happens, fair enough, but I find the notion that “proper sports science” can save the day myopic or arrogant, or both, because implicit in it is that the current practices are backwards.  And I simply don’t believe that in a competitive sporting environment, science offers the leverage that this project claims it does (with the exception of technology, of course).

Time will tell, but the only way this happens within 5-years is through the aggressive application of technology related to the equipment used by the athletes.


2. A cloud over marathons

While on the subject of marathons and Kenyans, 2014 may not have burst the bubble for East African runners, but it did certainly shake the foundations of any naive athletics followers.  What 2015 will bring more of, I hope, is further investigation into the slow drip of positive doping results coming out of Kenya.  2014’s biggest name bust was Rita Jeptoo, who was on the verge of being awarded the World Marathon Major title for 2014.  Then an EPO positive, later confirmed by the B-sample, sent shockwaves through Kenyan running.  There had of course been relatively high profile positives before – Matthew Kisorio was a sub-60 min half marathon athlete, and he returned to running in 2014 after serving his ban, but Jeptoo is the biggest name to be caught by far.

In response, Kenyan athletics have, and I’m being kind, blundered and blustered their way through their defences and counter-allegations.  The whole of Kenyan sport deserves some kind of condemnation for their approach to doping in 2014, because they also produced an official investigation that named coaches and trainers without offering even a tiny bit of supporting evidence, and then each federation pointed fingers at foreign coaches.   I was on the receiving end of these allegations myself, in connection with Kenyan 7s rugby, and even though I managed to get hold of the report, there is still no evidence of doping to accompany the allegations of systematic doping.  It’s a farcical process that doesn’t exactly give me confidence that Kenya has was it takes to protect the reputation of its athletes against a building wave of doping allegation.

And while the foreign coaches may well be responsible for identifying and then managing the doping programmes of certain athletes, Kenyan sport needs to accept accountability for its own athletes – if they compete under your flag, they’re your problem, and absolving yourself because foreigners supply the drugs is not good enough.  That said, I don’t believe all the Kenyan runners are doping, and at the risk of being naive, I think some of their very best are clean, but the confidence we may have had five years ago, even one year ago, has been dramatically eroded, and transparency and PR will be required in 2015 to regain the trust of neutral observers.


3. The continued ‘problem’ of Gatlin and long-term doping benefits, and the return of Bolt in 2015

Also on the cards for 2015 is the return of Usain Bolt, who was largely non-existent in 2014, aside from a brief appearance at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (where he caused a bigger stir for saying the Games were a “bit shit” than for his running).  In any event, in his absence, Justin Gatlin was totally dominant over 100m and 200m, setting the world’s fastest times in both (6 of the top 7 in the 100m, and the top 2 in the 200m).

Gatlin, of course, is a polarizing figure because he is a convicted dope cheat who returned to the sport after a four-year, and in 2014 ran faster than ever (drug era included), while 8-years older.  He is the fastest ever 30-year old over 100m and 200m, and many have questioned his 2014 performances given his past – his mere presence at meetings offends some; his dominance has sparked far more controversy.

The scientific merit in this particular story comes from a study published this year where scientists in Norway discovered that the benefits of steroids lasted long after the actual doping ended, at least in mice.

The combination of this research finding, which was attributed to a cellular memory mechanism, and Gatlin’s great performances this year, re-opened the debate about life-time bans for drug cheats, because the obvious link is that even if Gatlin is no longer doping in 2014, he is benefitting from what he did in 2006 (and presumably, before).  The passion in this debate was such that Robert Harting, a German discus thrower, actually requested to be removed from the IAAF shortlist for athlete of the year in protest against Gatlin’s inclusion on that same list.

It’s certainly good to see an athlete taking a principled stand in this current climate of omerta and silence, but the debate is an important one.  Should life-time bans accompany the first failed drug test?  My feeling is that until it can be proven with 100% certainty that an athlete doped, I don’t know wheter the system can enforce life-time bans for a first offence.  The harsher the punishment, the more resistance an accused athlete is likely to offer, and my concern is that the fallibility of the testing (we’d be naive to claim that it’s perfect) means the entire system may be crippled by legal battles.  Certainly, the biological passport in cycling is straining under this type of burden of proof, because every case seems to go to arbitration, and lifetime bans would only increase the stakes.

However, if we can get to a point where drugs like testosterone, EPO, growth hormone can be reliably detected, then I absolutely support calls for life-time bans.

You can read the research article on the long-term effects of doping here – Cellular memory mechanism aids hypertrophy after doping,

and then here are a couple of good lay articles explaining the research and its link to Gatlin:

As for Bolt, if there was going to be a good time to have an ‘off-year’, 2014 was it.  The lack of major championships, while still two years out from the Olympics, means that many athletes dip in the even years between Olympic Games.  Add injury, and Bolt’s obvious life of distraction, and it’s perhaps not surprising that he was not at the level of previous years.

What he will return to in 2015 is a more competitive rival, and some questions about his own durability.  It should enliven track, particularly when combined with the return of Yohan Blake, who was also anonymous in 2014.


Next time: Looking ahead to 2015

That’s a wrap, three of the big sports science stories of 2014.  I had planned a look ahead to 2015 but that can wait until next year, also known as two days from now.  Perhaps a wishlist of the things I’d like to see less of and more of, as well as some personal changes for the year ahead.

Until then, thanks again for the support in 2014, have a great New Year’s celebration, and see you in 2015!




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