Archive for June, 2009

Steeple barriers: safety or fairness?

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

(My stories from Day Two and Day Three are online. It’s been busy here.)

The buzz in Eugene since yesterday evening has been about Nicole Bush. The runner-up at the NCAA women’s steeplechase, from Michigan State, Bush finished third in her heat on Friday evening and was visibly limping afterward. This wasn’t odd–several of the women were limping, and several including co-favorite Jenny Barringer told officials and reporters that the water barrier was at 36 inches (the men’s height), not 30 inches (the women’s height.)

Bush, when asked, told David Monti of Race Results Weekly that it “might be” an ankle injury. Turns out she broke her foot, which makes her both more impressive (she finished a steeplechase on a broken foot? And finished third?) and all the more tragic (a healthy Bush might have contended for the third spot on the World Championships team, and now she may not even be running again by Berlin).

It’s hard not to get a little frustrated about this. Earlier this season, there was an incident in the men’s 400m hurdles at Carson where the last women’s hurdle flight was left on the track, so the men found their last flight both lower and earlier than they expected it. Now we can’t get all the women’s steeple barriers the right height.

What’s more, it was obvious after the first round of the race, when the women came off the track, that there was a problem. Jenny Barringer hits those barriers every day; she could probably tell the difference between 35 inches and 36. So what is USATF to do? They could set the barrier correctly for the second heat, giving them a safer race but a clear advantage in qualifying and an utter mess for selecting the final. Or they could leave it as is, risking more injuries but giving both heats the same disadvantage. They apparently chose the latter (to be fair, they didn’t know Bush was injured at the time) but who knows if it was the right decision.

Doug Logan made some statements to the TAFWA breakfast on Friday about accountability, transparency, and ownership of issues. I’m not sure if this is a USATF issue or an Oregon issue, but I’m curious to see if, today, someone takes ownership of the issue and creates some transparency around those steeplechase rounds. It’s an unfortunate situation with lots of losers and no clear villians.

Update: The Register Guard is all over the story, of course. They say it’s a USATF issue, and Logan is in accept-and-apologize mode. And they quote Kara June on the same safety-or-fairness question. Well done, R-G.

Yesterday’s work

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Here’s my story about Day 1 of the USATF Championships. I’m hoping that was just warmup.

Rumbles about the future

Friday, June 26th, 2009

This year’s TAFWA (Track and Field Writers of America) breakfast was the longest I’ve ever attended, but it included presentations from three top USATF officials, five of the six runners who made the 10,000m team for Berlin last night, and a few words from Alberto Salazar, not to mention the annual awards presentations. I’ll attempt to have a better report on soon, but there were two bits I found particularly interesting.

First, Doug Logan talking about the new Nike deal for USATF described the athlete support section in a way which reminded me strongly of Logan’s old job at MLS. Logan is (justifiably) unhappy with the dominant role of agents and shoe-company sponsors in the sport, and claims to have a long-term plan to change how sponsorship and athlete support work in the sport, at least in this country. This deal provides a clue, as USATF is wading in to bridging the gap between collegiate competition and competent, mature professional athletes.

It’s a great selling point, because post-collegiate support was a major complaint in the Project 30 report, but it’s also likely to disappoint the shoe companies and agents because it begins the process of having all athletes essentially sponsored by the federation. This is the MLS model, where all players are contracted and paid by the league, not the teams. It’s a little like socialism in that it suppresses the open sponsorship market for athletes, and it may undercut how much the top athletes get paid, but it may also spread the available sponsorship money across a broader base of athletes, and if it works in that way it might be worth the trouble.

(As an aside, there is widespread disappointment in Eugene that many of our sport’s stars aren’t running “their” events because they have byes through to Berlin. Bernard Lagat is at least putting on a show in the 800m, but Wariner in the 200m and Tyson Gay running just one round are both wet firecrackers. Those who complain about this largely blame the agents, not the athletes. I think the real problem is that stars like Wariner and Gay aren’t going to be competing inside the live television window.)

Interesting fragment #2 came when Alberto Salazar, usually one who shuns the spotlight, followed two of his athletes to the podium and delivered a brief, apparently unscripted minute of praise for his colleague, Jerry Schumacher, and a number of other coaches around the country (Terrence Mahon was also mentioned by name). As part of this, Salazar mentioned that he thought a coach could only develop and mentor six or seven top-level athletes at once, and that he wanted to continue to attract top-flight coaches like Schumacher to Portland, each coaching a small group of developing athletes under the Oregon Track Club umbrella and support structure, as long as he could persuade Nike to keep funding it. Considering the success he and Schumacher have been having in the last few years, I tend to think this is a good idea. Questions: who’s next?

(Full disclosure: I am a nominee to be Vice President of TAFWA starting next year; the elections are happening later this year, and so far as I know there are no other nominees. Join now if you want to vote against me.)

Reality interferes with my cleverness

Friday, June 26th, 2009

I was trying to find an excuse to use the phrase, “Eugene’s Onegin” in a story, but I’ve realized that it’s (a) too mean a thing to say about a person, for the most part, and (b) too obscure an allusion to get away with.

Replacing mileage with weights

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

My article about Masters middle-distance ace Scott Hartley is in the CrossFit Journal today. The Journal is a pay site, so I won’t be posting the text here. Hartley is a very interesting story in that he’s faced problems common to a lot of runners, but his solution to those problems (that problem) has been decidedly uncommon. It’s not clear to me whether his approach would work for true distance runners (10K and up) as well as it does for Scott as a middle-distance guy, but so far I haven’t heard of anyone at his level who has tried.

Third, or fourth?

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Could we get our numbers straight, please?

The Eugene Register-Guard says Jenny Barringer was the third American woman under 4:00 for 1500m. The USTFCCCA says she was the fourth.

USATF (and several others, including the IAAF) say Dwight Phillips had the longest long jump since 1991. The Register-Guard says since 1994.

I’m guessing the confusion in the jump is because Phillips actually tied a mark from 1994, so some writers are counting it and others aren’t. Understandable, but still confusing.

I’m at a bit of a loss to explain the Barringer discrepancy, though, at least without my annuals in front of me. The IAAF all-time list shows Mary Slaney and Suzy Favor Hamilton ahead of Barringer, as has been noted elsewhere; who is this mystery third person?

Again, without more documentation, I can only guess. One possibility involves the difference between performances and performers: Mary Slaney actually has two marks faster than Barringer’s, so Barringer may be the third performer with the fourth performance. Another possibility is that the IAAF has removed marks from their list due to doping suspensions, but there actually is a “drugs disqualification” section on that list, and there are no Americans on it (there’s only one name, in fact).

Later: Peter Gambaccini points out that the discrepancy is probably due to the third sub-4 ahead of Barringer’s being run indoors. (And, as I suspected, by an athlete who was later DQ’ed for doping, though the mark still stands as the indoor AR. Mr. Logan, tear down this record!) So some writers are counting it and others aren’t. I wish there was an agreed-upon convention for this, but I don’t see how we’d get everyone to agree upon it.

Race timing and the “chip wars”

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Last fall, I wrote a piece for New England Runner about the changing face of transponder (aka “chip”) timing, where long-dominant ChampionChip was seeing a new wave of competition from lighter, cheaper, and sometimes “disposable” new technology.

Even since publication, however, the chip world has moved on from the state of last fall. I’m told that ChampionChip is nearly out of the picture (you’ll still see them around, as timing companies which own ChampionChip equipment will keep using it) and the disposable chips are dominating. I haven’t heard if the waste issues raised by the disposables have been addressed, nor do I know if the “holy grail” of chip timing, a transponder which can be embedded in the bib number and worn without any extra work from the runner, is any closer.

With that said, here’s where things stood last September. This is as I submitted it, not as it eventually ran, so there may be errors and issues; bear in mind that “this year” means 2008. Hyperlinks, rather than coming up in the text, are all provided at the end of the story.


Women’s 800m at the Prefontaine Classic

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

Considering her far-from-in-form performance earlier this season, I’m far from the only one to be unsurprised at Pamela Jelimo’s underwhelming performance at the Prefontaine Classic this afternoon. She ran the first 600m like last year’s Jelimo, and then someone tossed her a fridge on the backstretch and that was the end of it: for whatever reason, she’s not in the condition she needs to be to run like she did last year.

The two things which were surprising in that race were:

One, Maggie Vessey. Sure, I’d heard her name before, but in this context she may as well have been dropped from Mars. Fortunately NBC showed (visually and audibly) that Vessey was just as surprised as the rest of us; she ran through the line like a pro, then her eyes went wide as she realized what she’d done. (Also: she was dead last in the field when Jelimo imploded. However weird a race it was, Vessey ran well and deserved the win.)

Second, the speechlessness of the NBC announcers at Jelimo’s collapse. They knew she’d run poorly so far this season–they mentioned it–but they were clearly still reading the 2008 script and hadn’t done any homework on anyone else in the field. They were almost silent during the most exciting (and, in their defense, most chaotic) part of the race. Sorry, guys, you got caught out on this one, and it made you look bad.

Tyson’s analysis

Monday, June 1st, 2009

I’ve been fascinated recently by how finely sprinters are able to break down their races. I suppose it’s no more surprising than the 1/50 slicing needed to break a 10,000m race down into 200m segments, but I love hearing them talk about plans and goals for 20m segments of a race which lasts less than twenty seconds.

At any rate, there’s a lot of that in my Tyson Gay follow-up on today.

Also, Gay has to rate as one of the most polite athletes to give a press conference. I’ve seen him on-screen looking positively scared of the reporters (in Osaka, after winning) and while he had plenty to say and not much shyness on Saturday, he also started his answers to two different questions (completely sincerely) with “Yes, ma’am.”