Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Month: May 2017

Sport Geek #75: the case for legalising drugs in sport

This week, a polemic. I’ve been thinking about Maria Sharapova’s return to the circuit, the plan to wipe world records in athletics, and drugs generally in sports. The truth is, I can’t see a way out, and I don’t think I’m alone. The road goes nowhere. So the conclusion I keep coming to is: make performance enhancing drugs legal.

This is clearly not a popular view. But let’s try it out for a moment. I’m going to look at the main objections and try and unpack this. Bear with me.

Testing doesn’t work

Of course testing works on a basic level, but the big picture is testing clearly doesn’t work. We have a situation where retrospective testing has caught a whole bunch of athletes from London 2012 and Beijing 2008 years later. Is that good? Not really. The clean athletes have missed their moment of glory, the public has moved on, and the history books just look messy.

Also, as pointed out elsewhere, most major drug scandals are due to whistleblowers, not testing: Russia, Lance Armstrong, Balco. Even Ben Jonson was (probably) set up (he got busted on a drug he wasn’t taking, apparently).

Added to that, testing catches about 1 per cent of athletes. Whereas most estimates put non-approved drug use at around 30 to 40 per cent. It’s woeful. Even if we got to catching a third of athletes, there are generations that got away with it. The war was lost a long time ago. And in the future? Continue reading

Sport Geek #74: the (nearly) two-hour marathon

Marathon world record, from Sports Geek (published 2016)

In my book, Sports Geek, I bravely (stupidly?) suggested that the two hour marathon was way out of reach. The reasoning was: we’re getting excited by current times, not looking at context. Also, we are not looking at the half marathon as proxy. As I put it:

… we aren’t learning from the past. If we extrapolated the marathon records set in the 1960s, we would have expected the two-hour mark to be broken back in 1977. Clearly, extrapolation isn’t everything.

I then looked at the half marathon as a proxy – the ratio should be around 2.1, and the half marathon world record is nowhere near 57 minutes.

A look at the half marathon record progression shows a more consistent pace of improvement. It also shows that to get to 57 minutes, we are looking at many decades, if ever.

This might simply tell us that runners don’t take the half marathon as seriously. Or, it might give us a warning sign not to expect the 2-hour marathon for many years to come.

So to the recent assault on the two-hour mark. Man, that was close. You can call it either way – as Quartz put it, even in a rigged race they failed. Or, it was a fantastic attempt to show what can be done. Regardless, it has put up for discussion the whole limits of performance issue, and may change running for ever.

THREE THINGS FROM ELSEWHERE

Is LeBron James better in the playoffs? No, he’s always this good.

Swearing makes you stronger. Fucking brilliant.

Women coaching men.  Tough gig.

Sport Geek #73: wipe clean, F=ma, and Sochi success

Unquestionably, the most interesting story from a sports stats perspective this week is the proposal to erase lots of athletics world records. This has been an idea that has been kicked around for a while, but not taken that seriously, until now.

Of course, under any set of reset rules, someone will lose out. Currently Paula Radcliffe is making a lot of noise, and you might see her point. However, I think it’s a great idea, and here’s why.

First, the current marquee records of the women’s 100m, 200m and 400m are a total sham. They were set in the drug-fuelled years before serious testing took place – pre 1989. Everyone knows they are a joke, and the inability of women to challenge them since should be seen as a sign of strength in drug testing, not weakness. That means though, that the true world record holders, whoever they are, are being denied glory and financial reward. I looked into this for my book, Sports Geek. The problem can be summed up as: Flo-Jo.

Second, athletes should remember that records are temporary, medals are permanent. Lots of runners have been delighted to set world records, but know that someday it goes. (I suspect Radcliffe’s determination to hold on to her marathon record is in part due to her inability to win Olympic gold. The title of her website is “Paula Radcliffe – Marathon world record holder”). The point is: it’s a privilege, not a right, to be the holder of a world record.

Lastly, if a couple of legit records get wiped, maybe that’s acceptable collateral damage. Fans and commentators will know the true mark, as will competitors. Just as sprinters know that the women’s current records are a sham. Wouldn’t it be better to inject some honesty into the game, for fans and competitors alike?

Read more: Sean Ingle in the Guardian.

FOOTBALL

Manchester United are unlucky – FiveThirtyEight crunch the numbers to show how.

F1

When your biggest star dies, someone or something has to take the blame. Vice looks at Senna, 20 years on.

NFL

“[American] Football as we know it is done, because the lawyers are here.” SBNation looks at a sport in turmoil, the equation that can’t be beaten (F=ma if you must know), and what the future might hold.

BASEBALL

It’s taken more than a century but Major League Baseball finally has its first African player. Quartz explains.

TENNIS

Welcome back, Maria? SportingIntelligence looks at the doping dilemma, and also Pep Guardiola (who failed tests for nandrolone, which I didn’t know before)

BOXING

Anthony Joshua: he the man. The Economist asks if boxing’s heavyweight division will get a revival?

OLYMPICS

Where’s the tumbleweed disaster? City Journal looks at Sochi, the Olympics that didn’t turn to dust.

That is all.

© 2017 Rob Minto

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