Archive for the ‘athletics’ Category

Diversity of cities bidding for events makes comparisons tricky

On 11 November the host cities for the 2017 IAAF World Championships in Athletics and for the 2018 Commonwealth Games will be elected. In both cases the cities competing could scarcely be more different, making direct comparisons very difficult.

For the IAAF the choice is between Doha in Qatar and London. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Games Federation will vote for their event to be hosted either in the Sri Lankan city of Hambantota or in Brisbane, Australia (in fact the bid is formally from the Gold Coast). The fact that both elections are on the same day seems to be pure coincidence.

In the contest between Doha and London, both candidates have websites, athlete ambassadors (such as Yelena Isinbayeva for Doha and Ed Moses for London) and plans for ambitious development programmes. But the two cities themselves are dramatically different in almost every way: culture, geography, size, climate, history, political system, economy, sporting habits and so on.

Commonwealth Games candidates Hambantota and Brisbane are also radically different. Apart from the fact that they are both on the coast and looking to boost their tourism credentials, it’s hard to see what else they might have in common.

The 71 Commonwealth Games Associations with a vote have a 144 page evaluation commission report at their disposal which concludes, with various qualifications, that the Brisbane bid presents a “low risk” whereas the Hambantota bid presents a “medium to high risk”. The report gives a steer on technical aspects such as venues, transport and accommodation but the comparison for voters is not really between the spectator capacities of venues, it is a choice between an established sporting destination and one which is entirely new.

If the voters decide on the new option, Brisbane backers will justifiably feel that their lower risk bid has not been fairly recognised. On the other hand, if Brisbane prevails, Hambantota supporters will question why their bid wasn’t stopped at an early stage, saving the Sri Lankan government a lot of time and money: it’s clear to any observer that much more new construction would be needed to host the Games there.

One possible solution to this issue would be a rotation policy but as the Commonwealth Games Federation possesses the rights to one high profile event every four years, it would be a tough political challenge to develop and implement such a policy.

As the IAAF owns rights to a number of events varying in scale, there is an opportunity to “try out” a new market with a smaller championship but the real interest is in the biennial World Championships. The bid committee from the city which loses out for 2017 will very likely feel that the quality of their bid was a less significant factor in the decision than political considerations.

There is no easy answer for the leaders of the event owning bodies. Limit the bidding process solely to technical criteria and it will be the “usual suspects” among cities and countries which generally host the big events; make an arbitrary decision solely on political criteria and watch the number of bids dwindle next time.

If rights-holders want to maximise the number of bids and to increase the number of countries capable of putting major events, reducing the cost and complexity of hosting should be a priority. In setting up the Youth Olympic Games the International Olympic Committee has made innovations intended to keep down the cost of organisation and others would do well to follow suit.

I make no predictions for the IAAF World Championships and Commonwealth Games host city elections, except that the losers will argue they have been hard done by.

Is Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius too good?

On 19 July South African athlete Oscar Pistorius achieved the qualifying time for the 400m at the forthcoming World Athletics Championships in Korea and for next year’s Olympic Games using prosthetic legs. His story of personal triumph inspires an unusual mix of emotions.

In running 45.07 in a race in Italy he moved into the top 20 in the 2011 rankings and proved himself a genuine contender against any 400m runner in the world. That makes some people uncomfortable.

When he burst on the scene as a prodigiously talented teenager at the Paralympic Games in 2004 it was a wonderful story: an individual born with a rare disability who had both legs amputated below the knee as a baby proved he could overcome the challenge and run remarkably fast with prosthetic legs.

In 2005 he set a new 400m personal best of 47.24 which took him into international territory among able-bodies athletes but some way off world class.

There was a long legal battle in 2007-8 before the Court of Arbitration for Sport finally ruled that Pistorius did not gain an advantage in comparison to other runners. He narrowly missed out on qualification for the Beijing Olympic Games but won three gold medals in the Paralympic Games.

His recent performance generated a huge amount of media interest around the world with most commentators in favour of him competing (see, for example the London Evening Standard- “Ignore the moral dilemma, let Oscar run in our Games” and Corriere dello Sport – “Blade Runner’s enterprise makes the world more equal and gives inspiration to those who, like him, have never resigned themselves to the limits imposed by their physique or insidious discrimination”). Meanwhile, the BBC presents both sides of the argument - “The debate surrounding Oscar ‘Blade Runner’ Pistorius”

Public blog comments are more mixed (over 40 comments on this article in the Guardian and sceptical views on athletics blogs).

While everybody admires his performances and wants to watch him run, some people are uncomfortable if he is genuinely challenging for the top places at the Olympic Games. In the opinion of many, finishing 6th in the first round at the Olympic Games would be acceptable but winning the gold medal would not be.

That main concerns expressed are that the artificial legs give Pistorius an advantage (or at least a more advanced version might do so in future) and that a potentially dangerous precedent is being set. Could crazy ambitious parents one day consider amputating the legs of their children to make them run faster?

Sport occasionally throws up these difficult dilemmas but Oscar has overcome every barrier put in his way and thoroughly deserves his chance to compete at the World Championships and the Olympic Games. If he stays fit and gets selected by South Africa he could become a global icon.

The final word on the subject and the best headline accompanies James Corrigan’s article in the Independent: “Puritans are just taking the Pistorius”.

Commonwealth Games: differentiate to survive

Looking beyond the construction delays in Delhi as the city prepares  for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, there are some useful lessons for the future of major multi-sport events.

The Times of India is one of many news outlets that has covered in detail the scramble to finish preparations in time for the opening of the Games on 3 October. It has featured a number of stories about athletes withdrawing, sometimes blaming minor injuries, sometimes explicitly citing potential risks to their health.

The first and perhaps biggest name to withdraw was sprinter Usain Bolt (focusing on 2011). He has been followed by numerous elite competitors including  British cyclists such as Chris Hoy (clash with European Championships), Australian discus thrower Dani Samuels (concerns about health and safety), tennis player Elena Baltacha (health worries), and many others.

The clue is in the sports of the high profile absentees:
- Athletics – this is the only year in a four year cycle without either a World Championships or Olympic Games (and there were European Championships this year) so athletes want to have a rest
- Cycling – the European Championships clashes with the Commonwealth Games and has become an important event for Olympic qualification
- Tennis – with the focus on the four Grand Slam events, players have often appeared indifferent to the Olympic Games and other multi-sport events featuring tennis

It is noticeable that there are far fewer absentees in sports such as rugby 7s, netball, hockey, swimming and indeed the para-sport events on the Commonwealth Games programme in athletics, swimming, table tennis and power lifting.

These are all sports which have room in their calendar for the Commonwealth Games and which draw many of their top athletes from the eligible countries. From a British perspective there is also the interest of seeing England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland plus Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man compete in separate teams.

While athletics and tennis draw big television audiences for their biggest events, they will not do so in the absence of their star performers. I would argue that multi-sport competitions such as the Asian Games, Pan-American Games and others would benefit from differentiating more in their sports programmes and schedules.

Attempts to cut sports from major events will always be met with resistance – few stakeholders will vote for their own abolition – but innovation can bring success. The Commonwealth Games was the first to introduce rugby 7s to a multi-sport event and it is now on the Olympic programme. Similarly, the recent Youth Olympic Games in Singapore trialled new formats such as combined male/female relay events, which were well-received.

It is inevitable that hard-pressed athletes will pick and choose major championships in an over-crowded calendar. For event owners it is better to acknowledge that fact and to look for ways to differentiate than to imitate the Olympic Games and fall short.

Caster Semenya and the gender question in athletics

It was on 19 August, just a few hours before South African athlete Caster Semenya won the women’s 800m final at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics, when news was leaked about a “gender verification” test. Three weeks on, the Daily Telegraph in Australia broke a story that she has an inter-gender condition, which was picked up by news agencies including AP and has consequently spread all over the world.

In response the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has stated that the news reports are unofficial. The case will not be concluded until the next IAAF Council meeting on 20-21 November, which leaves plenty more time for lurid headlines and speculation.

The media circus is particularly harsh on Semenya because all parties agree that the athlete herself has done nothing wrong. If she is ruled ineligible for women’s athletics in future it is because of a pre-existing medical condition.

Unfortunately there have been a number of cases in the history of athletics when a man has competed in the guise of a woman or a female athlete has developed a masculine physique due to doping. It is clear that there have to be rules to determine gender as there are separate competitions for men and women. The difficulty is in determining how and when to conduct tests.

Gender testing was routine in athletics for over 30 years until it was decided in 1999 that it was demeaning for the athletes. In recent years tests have only been conducted in response to complaints. Obviously it is in the interests of all concerned that such cases should be handled confidentially.

So how did the Caster Semenya story become such a cause célèbre? It resulted from a series of events:

  • First of all, Caster Semenya improved dramatically, winning the African Junior Championships in July by running the fastest 800m time in the world this year. It seems that gender tests were then conducted in response to complaints
  • While she was competing at the World Championships a few weeks later, reports indicate that a fax mentioning the tests was sent to the wrong person, allowing the story to leak
  • Semenya then won the 800m final by a huge margin in one of the fastest times ever
  • Athletics South Africa made some serious allegations against the IAAF
  • On her return to South Africa, it became evident that defending Caster Semenya had become a political cause in South Africa
  • Test results (whether accurate or inaccurate) were leaked to the media

When the sporting stakes are so high - the outcome of a World Championship event is being decided (leaving aside the serious issue of the rights of the individual athlete) - it is difficult for the international governing body to avoid accusations of bias of one kind or another. Similarly, the national federation will either face criticism from the international body for challenging their authority, or be hounded by the people and government at home for failing to support their athlete if they are seen as too weak.

No doubt enquiries will follow. At this stage we can already learn the lesson that serious damage is done when confidential information goes astray. It may not be the IAAF’s fault but we have also seen that the lengthy decision-making process prolongs the angry debate and trial by media.

Let us hope that sports organisations around the world learn some of the communications lessons from this case. That way there might at least be one positive outcome from this unhappy episode.

Usain Bolt and sporting objectivity

Competing at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in recent days, Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt has proven himself to be the fastest runner of the 6.7 billion or so people on the planet.

It could be argued (although I haven’t seen anyone try it), that there may be a man somewhere who is faster than Bolt, someone competing in another sport or an unfulfilled talent. More likely there is a young boy alive who will one day beat Bolt’s record times for 100m and 200m. But for now Usain Bolt is number one. It’s as simple as that.

The objective nature of sporting results distinguishes sport from performance art in particular: the team or athlete who performs better on the day wins. However, in many sports there are external factors such as refereeing decisions which can influence a one-off result, and in ball sports most aspects of the performance can only be measured relative to the opposition. Athletics strips away the external considerations, leaving climatic conditions and the dreaded risk of doping by a competitor as the main factors outside the control of the individual participants. 

And so when Usain Bolt smashed the world records for 100m and 200m in Berlin last week, surpassing his times from Beijing, they were records which any runner could theoretically break in a local race, leaving no doubt about his global pre-eminence. (9.58 seconds for the 100m and 19.19 seconds for the 200m, in case you want to give it a go.)

As Bolt also takes an evident delight in playing to the camera it is no surprise that his exploits have filled the airwaves and front pages from Argentina to Bangladesh via Croatia. He can help athletics reach well beyond its traditional audience and, at the age of 23, looks to be on the way to becoming a global icon.

Just consider: outside the sporting sphere, how many people can objectively be judged the best in the world at what they do? How many of those do something which can be instantly and universally understood, something which most of us have had a go at during our lives?

Usain Bolt’s medals and records have been widely celebrated but it may take a few years before the magnitude of his achievements is fully recognised. All sports fans will be hoping that he stays healthy and motivated for many years to come.