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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

The s**t hit the fan in Spain. A summary of the initial happenings:
The world 3000 metres champion and one of Spain’s most famous athletes, Marta Dominguez, was released on bail yesterday following a police operation against a doping network. 'Operation Galgo' carried out by the Spanish Civil Guard has led to five people being arrested including the athletic trainers César Pérez and Manuel Pascua Piqueras, as well as a doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes. It is expected that Dominguez will be called to appear in court in the next few days. The operation covered several provinces.
Athletics Weekly reported on Friday that, in all, fourteen athletes and coaches had been arrested. It appears that the authorities have video evidence of blood doping and that defending European Cross Country Champion Alemayehu Bezabeh has confessed. Others implicated include 2002 European 5000m champion Alberto García. The arrested doctors have worked with such notable athletes as '95 World Marathon Champ Martin Fiz and super-cyclist Miguel Indurain, who was Lance Armstrong before there was a Lance Armstrong.

Dominguez was supposedly the intermediary between doctors and athletes in the distribution of banned substances (and/or practices). She is also a vice-president of RFEA, Spain's national governing body for track and field. Or was, as she has been suspended from that position. If all of this comes out to be true, it's pretty alarming that a key person in a doping ring was a VP of a NGB.

While Dominguez is a big sports hero in Spain, there are an awful lot of people who are happy to it go down. European 5,000 silver medalist Jesús España called all of this "an open secret" and is happy to see the cheaters in hot water with the law. He is far from alone in the Spanish running community in that opinion.  It's similar to how America would feel if the feds ever get the goods on Armstrong; those who barely know what he does will be disappointed, but anyone who really pays attention will welcome it.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: law enforcement, not drug testing, is the best weapon we have in the fight against doping. That doesn't mean we should abandon drug testing, but that we must understand that it is only one of many ways to get the job done.

The British are coming. As NPR pointed out earlier in the week, Brits are quite satisfied with being unhappy. Correspondent Philip Reeves said that "there's little the English relish more than a large dose of self-pity". While the truly major-league inward criticism is saved for their perpetually underachieving national football team, Britain's distance runners get a Triple-A version of it. So what will they do about today, when (figuratively) the sun came out in perpetually gloomy Britain?

Britain won three of the six team races at today's European Cross Country Championships. Add in another team silver and three more individual medals and they led the medals table. And there could have been so much more; leading U-32 runner James Wilkinson dropped out due to illness, and Britain likely would have won that race had he been up to form. The only other team without a medal were the senior men, who lost UK Trials winner Andy Vernon to illness--and European track gold and silver medalists Mo Farah and Chris Thompson did not even try out for the team.  It was a hugely successful day.

UK Athletics head coach Charles Van Commenee should be more popular than Fabio Capello, Steve McClaren, or really any football manager since Sir Bobby Robson. I'm sure Van Commenee would be grateful for even a fraction of their pay. While it's hard to directly credit a national coach for individual athletes' successes, he's done a lot to change the attitude and remove obstacles. But will the English be happy with someone who...makes them happy? What a paradox.

People sometimes start out in the wrong events. Via Twitter, American javelin record holder Kara Patterson let it be known that she started as a half-miler/miler in junior high before wisely making a shift to the throws. Which is odd, because top American miler/half-miler Erin Donohue was a champion javelin thrower in high school.

The Jamaicans are leaving us behind. I don't mean in sprinting, although they may be. I mean in the business of track and field. Earlier this week it was announced that worldwide TV distributor IEC in Sports had come to agreement with JAAA for rights to the Jamaica International Invitational and the Jamaican Championships. This means the Jamaican federation will make some dough off their two biggest domestic meets.

How about us?  Are we distributing our meets around the world?  Yes and no.  The two Diamond League meets, the Prefontaine Classic and the adidas Grand Prix, are transmitted globally as part of the circuit.  But what else do we have that anyone wants?  The USATF Championships/Olympic Trials would be a draw, and maybe the Boston Indoor Games.  Everything other domestic meet of interest is either of inferior quality (Millrose Games) or of a purely provincial interest (NCAA Championships, Penn Relays, etc.).  Has it even occurred to anyone at USATF to try to sell our meets overseas?  And this is yet another signal that we are in serious need of decent domestic meets.

Chicago Tribune Olympic writer Phil Hersh is fond of citing the adage: "the only amateurs left in the Olympic movement are the people running it".  It may not be coincidental that the same week the JAAA announced this deal, it changed its name from the Jamaica Amateur Athletic Association to the Jamaica Athletic Administrative Association.

The Metrodome is now a source of one-liners.  Among the best...
Just hold a Brett Favre press conference at midfield.  All that hot air will reinflate the dome in no time!

The collapse of the Metrodome is God's way of saying domes are for pussies!

In all seriousness, the NFL has announced that entry to the game, rescheduled for Monday night in Detroit, will be free.  It's a 45-minute drive from my house, and there's literally no chance the Lions will lose.  I may go.

Pat Henry and I agree on a lot.  The head coach of Texas A&M's defending NCAA championship team was interviewed in this month's issue of Track and Field News.  He said that college track is in a crisis situation in terms of lack of attention, funding, fan interest, and all-around respect.  He said that the road we are now going down will not turn us back from this.  And he said that team-oriented competition within a 2-3 hour framework is the key to luring back the interest of the public (and the media).

He suggested a radical change to the NCAA Championships, one that would have teams rather than individuals qualify to the NCAA Championship.  It's basically the same approach I suggested last May.  The specifics of how it happens are different (he likes stats for qualifying, I like competition) but we're in full agreement on the basics.  Look for more on this topic in the coming week.

I have to respect Henry for coming out and saying this, because if it happened it wouldn't benefit him or his program in the short term.  The Aggies' men's team was only third at last year's Big XII outdoor championships, and likely would not have won their NCAA title under the type of competition he suggests.  Their tremendous indoor facility in College Station takes in much less in terms of entry fees from the 8- and 12-team meets it currently hosts than from the kind of 30- and 40-team meets it could.  He appears dedicated to getting track a bigger pie, even if his slice of it is smaller, than from getting a bigger slice of an ever-smaller pie.  It's unusual for a major player in Division I athletics to be dedicated to serving everyone instead of only himself, and I appreciate that.

Japan really loves its ekidens. Brett Larner took us inside the world of the Hakone Ekiden, the most popular of Japan's long-distance road relays.
As the year is winding down Japan's distance runners, all the way from junior high school to the jitsugyodan corporate world, are gearing up for the national championship ekidens. It's a quirk of the system that the biggest of them all, the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden, is a regional university men's event for the Kanto area around Tokyo. Twenty teams, ten men per school, each man running one of ten stages roughly a half marathon in distance over the course of two days all with a live national broadcast with 30% viewership ratings and millions more lining the course. It's hard to overstate how important and popular it is and how captivating to watch.
He goes on to analyze this year's field and who the various favorites are. It's worth noting that there are 45 sub-29:00 runners entered in this all-collegiate race; by contrast the USA, supposedly experiencing a resurgence of distance running, had only 42 such runners last year regardless of age.

The article is a must-read, if for no other reason than to gain some small understanding of Japan's fascination with distance running. A key quote, speaking of Toya University's team:
Along with a keen sense of strategy, the team's greatest asset is Fifth Stage ace [Ryuji] Kashiwabara, who singlehandedly decided the last two Hakones by smashing the record on his nearly 900 m climb stage. Following last year's race marathon great Toshihiko Seko told Kashiwabara in a televised interview, "Next year you should run the Second Stage. That's where all the best people run." It goes without saying that this would be a major strategic error for the team and probably doesn't need to be mentioned that Seko is [rival] Waseda [University]'s most famous alumnus.

And another epic race. This is known as the Bierathlon.
What I can glean from this video involves costumes, racing, carrying crates of beer, chugging beer and more racing. Also, projective vomiting, though I’ll spare you a link to that video.

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