Running into an early grave: more is worse. No, wait! More can be good . . .

By now we’ve all heard it – by “we” I mean those of us who are drawn to strenuous exercise – and by “it” I mean the damage to health purportedly inflicted by that very exercise. That is, you can have too much of a Good Thing––the Good Thing in this case being the kind of prolonged intense effort that produces the runner’s high, a sense of satisfaction in your degree of fitness, and often the pride that comes with busting through the pain barrier in a hard workout.

The science says that if your hope is for a longer or higher quality life, you’re probably kidding yourself.  I speak of the sinister “U-shaped curve” correlating strenuous exercise with mortality. The upright on one side of the “U” represents the high mortality of sedentary folks, and the opposite upright represents the high mortality of super-exercisers––to include you, perhaps. In the valley between are found those whose more moderate exercise habits confer a longer life span, if not the level of fitness you enjoy and crave.

Perhaps the most influential research on the association between exercise and mortality appeared in the results of the Copenhagen City Heart Study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2015.  The abstract concludes, “the findings suggest a U-shaped association between all-cause mortality and dose of jogging as calibrated by pace, quantity, and frequency of jogging. Light and moderate joggers have lower mortality than sedentary non-joggers, whereas strenuous joggers have a mortality rate not statistically different from that of the sedentary group!”  (The exclamation point is mine.)

Before you start thinking of ways to throw shade at the American College of Cardiology, take note of the carefully chosen word “suggest” in the conclusions. There were more than 5,000 subjects in the study and the authors marshal an impressive array of confidence intervals by way of validating the evidence. Even so, the Background section of the abstract does say that “the ideal dose of exercise to improve longevity is uncertain.” Continue reading “Running into an early grave: more is worse. No, wait! More can be good . . .”

The Price of Fairness: How Many Categories of Athletes Should We Have?

The hottest spark in the women’s testosterone controversy: the case of Caster Semenya

The standoff between Caster Semenya and the IAAF concerning levels of testosterone permitted for women in international competition has driven so much heated debate on both sides, that a middle-ground compromise was proposed by former 10,000 meter world champion Liz McColgan. The proposal: have separate events for transgender athletes and those with differences of sex development (DSD) like Caster Semenya, in addition to the conventional men’s and women’s categories.

The IAAF rules on Semenya have recently been validated by a 2-1 decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). They mandate that Semenya lower her testosterone levels with medication to bring them in line with the natural levels of other, non-DSD women, for international competition at certain distances. However, Semenya has continued a legal fight against the IAAF and recently achieved a victory in a Swiss court.

Continue reading “The Price of Fairness: How Many Categories of Athletes Should We Have?”

Middle-Distance Track Gets a Boost in the Eastern U.S. – Why It’s Good for Road Racing

Eastern Track League Bursts out of the Blocks

The recent formation of the Eastern Track League (ETL) out of five East Coast middle distance track and field groups is a welcome shot in the arm – er, leg? – for USA track and field across the nation.

The ETL has just launched a series of six meets to conclude with a final bearing prize money in Washington, DC on July 13, heading toward the USATF championships later in the month in Des Moines. For an overview of the series, see http://easterntrackleague.com/

You can find additional information on all five remaining meets on Road Race Management’s Online Guide to Prize Money Races.

So . . .  the prize money events in the ETL final (men’s and women’s) are only 800m, 1500m, and the 3000m steeplechase. Not long ago I lamented the IAAF dropping the 5000m and 10,000m for scoring in the Diamond League meets beginning in 2020. Now I’m cheering for middle distances on the track? How does this connect to road racing? And should it?

Continue reading “Middle-Distance Track Gets a Boost in the Eastern U.S. – Why It’s Good for Road Racing”

When Is Reporting an Infraction a “Betrayal?”

When Ashley Rollins found her Boston Qualifying time at the California International Marathon (CIM) was nullified because she was paced, she lashed out at the person who informed on her, saying the informer had betrayed her and was “mean-spirited,” “deplorable” and “cruel.”

The formal rules on pacing in a road race are pretty clear and logical. Rule #1 is the pacer must be registered in the race and participating in the event. Even if registered, the pacer cannot jump in after the start of the race. The woman who ran with Rollins at the CIM was not registered and jumped in at the halfway point. When that was reported to Marathon Investigation, the race was notified, and Rollins’s results, instead of producing a BQ, produced a DQ.

Continue reading “When Is Reporting an Infraction a “Betrayal?””

The Testosterone Controversy Concerning Female Athletes: Must It Be So Complicated?

Here’s the bare bones of the controversy centered, for the moment, on Caster Semenya, who dominates women’s middle distance running.  Semenya’s testosterone levels score in the male range. The IAAF says that constitutes an unfair advantage over other female athletes with normal testosterone levels. They have created a regulation to require that Semenya, and others like her, take medication to lower their testosterone to an approved level to qualify for international competition.  Semenya has challenged that regulation, and brought the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).  The medication regime must begin six months prior to the competition–although for the moment the IAAF has relaxed that condition, because the CAS has postponed a decision until late April, less than six months before the start of the World Championships.

Caster Semenya vs the IAAF raises a host of complex questions regarding the psychological and biological dimensions of individual gender identity and gender identification, as well as the social and cultural aspects of group identity. Today we are presented with an unprecedented range of possibilities, with the standard contrast between straight and LGBTQ (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transexual-Queer) being only a starting point.

It is very complex, and appreciating its complexity takes a great deal of empathy, patience, and a preparedness to have one’s unconscious biases and preconceptions challenged deeply.

But . . .

When it comes to the natural testosterone levels of women in sport, maybe it doesn’t have to be so complicated.

For a nuanced commentary on the pros and cons of the issue – what the IAAF terms “Differences in Sexual Development”regarding such athletes as Caster Semenya – read “Here’s What’s at Stake in the Caster Semenya Case” by Martin Fitz Huber in Outside magazine.

For my money, Huber puts his finger on the heart of the quandary when he says: “arguing this is a human rights issue, rather than a question of athletic fairness, is perhaps the strongest point in Semenya’s favor.” (I have emphasized “human rights issue.”)

A very strong point which I believe is decisive.

Continue reading “The Testosterone Controversy Concerning Female Athletes: Must It Be So Complicated?”

Long Distances Vanishing from the Diamond League–Who Cares?

The IAAF has dropped distances beyond 3,000 meters from its Diamond League series, beginning in 2020. The Diamond League comprises 14 track-and-field meets between May and September. Ten of the competitions are held in Europe, and one in the U.S. (the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene). The move sharply stung long-distance runners and their fans. One of the fiercest reactions came from long-distance great Haile Gebrselassie, who pointed out the shift would disproportionately affect Ethiopian and and Kenyan runners.

Chopping 5,000 and 10,000 meters from Diamond League competitions could reverberate throughout the entire running world. It is from their arena that the best marathoners have often emerged.

What’s going on? These distances have been part of the Olympics since 1912, and they have been indispensable yardsticks by which long-distance prowess is measured worldwide. These distances will be contested in the World Championships in 2019 and 2021, but cutting them from the Diamond League will curtail opportunities for the world’s best to hone their fitness and to size up their competitors and learn from them. This could erode the quality of long distance races in other venues.

What’s going on, it would seem, is a focusing on events that excite the modern TV viewer, especially the American viewer, who finds the length of races above 3000 meters boring. The Diamond League makes up a substantial chunk of NBC’s track and field coverage, and you can well imagine that many American viewers–fed a sports diet consisting largely of games emphasizing quickness and power–are turned off by the sluggish progress of races that occupy the track for one laborious lap after another after another after another. Following long-distance races may repeatedly call for cameras to cut away from explosive field events such as the high jump, long jump, triple jump, and pole vault. During the course of a meet, the high jump elicits many more “wows” than the finish of the 10,000 meters. The athleticism of pole vaulters is awesome. The long races impose large gaps between shorter races that offer more suspense per minute. What’s more, there are few Americans to be found in super-elite long distance fields consisting largely of African runners.

The bias toward speed and explosiveness is part of a general culture shift in the Instagram age, where leaders in politics, sports, entertainment, and even science broadcast their thoughts in Twitter blasts; a twelve-hour news cycle has become the norm; and multiple explosions are necessities in action movies. Internet users expect results from their web searches to pop up on the screen within microseconds. Who needs a trip to the library to look up the populations of the Middle East countries?

The 5,000 and 10,000 meters appeal primarily to traditionalists who gravitate to a slower pace of life generally–depending on culture, background, and often just age. With participation in marathons and half marathons dropping steadily, it has become apparent that many who joined the half-marathon surge several years ago have wearied of the time and energy required to keep long-distance-fit. They’ve consigned their half marathon to their bucket list—one and done. The satisfaction that comes from striding rhythmically along at one’s aerobic red line for mile after mile is enjoyed by only a few—a group to which you the reader probably belong—and it is only those few who can really appreciate what it takes to compete in a six-mile-long race.

Are we a fading breed? The organizers of the Diamond League seem to think so.

Olympics Reputation Sinks, Part II: Injustice in Host Cities

Is one Olympic host city the answer to the downsides of host city bidding?

The Olympics–who needs them? Chicago, Boston, and the state of Colorado said no thanks, as well as Hamburg and Budapest in Europe. Opposition to Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 continue to raise questions about the overall benefit of the Games to host cities, when economic growth for private profit  is pitted against the socioeconomic good of the public at large.

For starters, the economic argument has long been controversial in itself.  In a paper in The Sport Journal, the authors concluded that “The Benefits of Bidding and Hosting the Olympic Games Are Difficult to Justify Due to the Overall Costs” (see Analysis of costs of hosting Olympics). Andrew Zimbalist’s 2015 book, Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, identified the 1970s as the turning point when the payoff for gambling on Olympic hosting began to drop below break-even. Zimbalist, a sports economist, used four case studies–Barcelona, Sochi, Rio, and London–to support his thesis that the costs of modern Olympic extravaganzas outrun tangible economic benefits in most cities.  Los Angeles’s success in 1984 owed in part to the use of existing infrastructure rather than having to build all new facilities.

An article from the Council on Foreign Relations has a revealing graph illustrating the discrepancies between projected and final costs in eleven cities from 1996 through 2016. In most cases the final cost more than doubled the original estimate. So-called white elephants such as Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium incur maintenance costs that linger long after the initial construction – the “Bird’s Nest” costs $10 million a year to maintain and sits mostly unused. See Council on Foreign Relations addresses costs of Olympic Games.

Continue reading “Olympics Reputation Sinks, Part II: Injustice in Host Cities”

Olympics Reputation Sinks, Part I: Russian Doping Scandal

Laxity on the part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) toward performance-enhancing drugs is nowhere better illustrated than in the case of state-sponsored doping by Russia. It’s a long and twisted tale going back decades, but the McLaren Report, issued in 2016, made glaringly clear the massive doping of Russian athletes in many sports, particularly at the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Last September, WADA lifted the suspension of the Russian national team, in a good-faith gesture intended to get cooperation from the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) to submit data and samples for WADA’s inspection. At this moment in mid-February 2019, the suspension remains lifted, despite:

  • RUSADA’s failure to provide data and samples by the December 31st date stipulated by WADA as being in compliance;
  • Now that, as of mid-January, the data and samples are finally in WADA’s possession, they have not yet been authenticated, a task expected to take months;
  • Russia has not admitted to state-sponsored doping, one of the conditions originally called for in order to put RUSADA in compliance and reinstate Russian athletes as part of a national team.

What part does the IOC play in this? Continue reading “Olympics Reputation Sinks, Part I: Russian Doping Scandal”

Cheating: Worth the Risk?

Cheating at the top, maybe.

For elite athletes, the temptation of many incentives in combination is hard to resist, especially when you realize how many competitors are cheating – you are trying to compensate for a disadvantage.

Cheating among elite athletes is rife.  If you didn’t know how rife, consider a study that appeared in Sports Medicine in January 2018 on the prevalence of doping in athletics. It yielded a troubling result: a survey of 2,167 elite athletes at two different games found a prevalence of 43.6% in one and 57.1% in the other during the prior year, when the respondents were guaranteed anonymity. (For statistics fans, the 95% confidence interval was 39.4-47.9 at the first and 52.4-61.8 at the other.) You can find an abstract of the study at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28849386.  The researchers concluded that “doping appears remarkably widespread among elite athletes, and remains largely unchecked despite current biological testing.”

Evidently the cost to the athletes is low enough that a high percentage of them are willing to take the risk of getting caught. In addition, punishments even for those who are caught are so lenient they fail to create a strong deterrent.

Cheating, per this study, occurs among elites at a rate (as much as 57%!?) that surprised me.  Then, I considered the incentives, both tangible (in the form of prize money, appearance money, sponsorship and product endorsements), and intangible.

Intangibles take many forms: recognition, respect, renown, admiration, awe, and even fame. At a group level (team, school, community, region, nation), the gratitude of the group plays a significant part. Just qualifying for acceptance into some group such as a national team figures in the calculation of whether to cheat. Taken together, these incentives add up to a powerful temptation. The numbers discovered by the study referred to above suggest just how powerful.  Continue reading “Cheating: Worth the Risk?”

Bring Back 20K, 25K and 30K? Is Revival a Possibility?

Commenting on Kenenisa Bekele’s win in the December 2017 running of the Tata Kolkata 25K, Bekele’s elite coach Jos Hermens was asked if perhaps the 25K and 30K distances should be run more often. Hermens said, “I think the 25 or 30K are extremely interesting, as only full and half marathon is quite boring and always concentrating on times. In the case of the 25K or 30K and also 15K or 10 miles or even 20K, there might of should be less emphasis on times, but more on racing!”

Music to my ears! “Only full and half marathon is quite boring,” absolutely. Over the years, I have been repeatedly disappointed by conversions of all those distances—especially 20K, when I was still racing—to half marathons.

Half marathons are everywhere! There are at least two national calendars that post nothing but half marathons! Since I post prize money races to Road Race Management’s Online Guide to Prize Money Races and Elite Athletes, I am almighty tired of constantly adding half marathons to the list.

 

Continue reading “Bring Back 20K, 25K and 30K? Is Revival a Possibility?”