Olympic thoughts – Fast women

Tuesday afternoon, day eleven of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, gave me an opportunity to look at world-class 800m running. It was the final of the women’s competition and from a British perspective there was huge interest. Three women making the final brought back memories of the 1980-84 Olympics when British men ruled middle distance running with Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott at the top of their game.

Racing two laps of the track, beginning in lanes with a standing start, runners break at the end of the first bend so that by the 200m mark they’re running together. I’d estimate the time for the first 200m was 27.7 seconds, the next 200 was a relatively slow 30.12s to give a first lap of 57.82s. The second lap was 57.39s (29.33s + 28.06s) for a winning time of 1:55.21

The race was won by USA’s 19-year-old Athing Mu and she is something of a sensation, as is silver medallist Keely Hodgkinson who is the same age. There’s a possibility they could be pushing each other to faster times for the next decade. There was almost a bronze medal for Britain’s Jemma Reekie but she was beaten on the line by Raevyn Rogers; and Britain’s third runner Alexandra Bell finished 7th out of eight.

This was one of the faster 800m finals but they’re usually won in the 1:55-57 range. From what I’ve learned about running the 800 the first lap is typically faster with the second about two seconds slower; but today was a negative split. The slower second 200m was the culprit and would have been part of Mu’s gameplan as she has run 49.57sec for the 400m. She would have been confident that if she could be leading at the bell, she’d be able to outpace the rest of the field over the second lap. Consequently she took the lead as the pack formed on the back straight of the first lap and then imperceptibly slowed the pace. She never relinquished first place and went on to win by two-thirds of a second which is huge at this level.

There is nothing slow about these women. The pace of the winning time is 3:52/mile (2:24/km) with the average per 200m being 28.8 secs. If they could do a parkrun at this pace, they’d be done in twelve minutes. But remember, as I wrote in my article on True Speed, top speed is a lot higher.

As it happened the women’s 800m final was followed twenty-five minutes later by the women’s 200m final and gives us a good chance to compare. Having already won the 100m title with the 2nd fastest time in history, Elaine Thompson-Herah was now going for a “double double”. She didn’t disappoint as she went on to run the 2nd fastest 200m time in history at 21.53s – that’s six seconds quicker than the fastest 800m split.

By comparison, the PBs of the three British women for 200m aren’t close. Alexandra Bell ran 25.74s in 2016, Keely Hodgkinson ran 26.5s in 2018 and Jemma Reekie a wind-assisted 27.3s in 2015. These times are not poor by the standards of the rest of us but, as you can see, they’re a long way off being close to competitive over a sprint distance. There’s a genetic element to what event you’re best suited to, but also note how the longer the distance you run, the more you trade off speed for endurance. Mu’s two laps of fifty-seven seconds were significantly slower than her 400m ability.

Olympic thoughts – Empty seats

Day 7 of the Tokyo Olympics brought the opening sessions of the athletics. Empty seats have been a feature of sporting events throughout the pandemic and while the Japanese organisers had managed to break up the monotony of the seating with blocks of black, white, grey and brown creating something resembling QR codes or pixelated photos, it brought back memories for me. I attended the opening night of the athletics at the 2004 Olympics in Athens in a stadium that was three-quarters full.

The spectator-less seats of Tokyo provide a back drop to the men’s 10,000m final

It was the final night of my two-week trip to Greece during which, the second week had been spent rushing between Olympic venues to watch as many different sports as possible. To top it off, it was my birthday so a great way to finish off my holiday before heading for home.

The session started at 7:30pm and went on past midnight. The athletics ticket was the most expensive one I bought at 90 Euros, which was £60 at the exchange rates of the time, but I didn’t mind paying that to watch world-class athletics on my birthday. By comparison the much sought after swimming tickets, cost as much as 200 Euros if memory serves me right. Funnily enough I didn’t go to the swimming!

The Olympic stadium from the outside with Olympic flame alight.

I arrived early from an afternoon at the beach volleyball and took a final look round the Olympic complex before entering the stadium. I knew my way round the complex by now from all the time I’d spent there and I’d seen the inside of the stadium on grainy television from watching the torch lighting and opening ceremony a week earlier. Since then it had been Olympics morning, noon and night.

My seat was at the start of the back straight, opposite the finish line, at the end of the first bend. It was on the lower tier, many rows back and, as I walked down the aisle, there were already many other spectators in place. I had to squeeze past twenty people to get to my seat with all the attendant standing up, sitting down and apologising. Once I finally got to my seat, I realised how cramped it was going to be. Elbows touching with people on both sides of me and my knees against the seat in front. I wondered how I’d get through four hours of this.

As had become my tendency, I said “Hello” to the people either side of me and this turned into a chat with the chap on my left. “Are you on your own?” he asked. I replied affirmatively and he went on to explain that he and his wife had been given complimentary tickets by the IT company for whom he worked. The only problem was her ticket was at the other end of the stadium and they weren’t next to each other. Then he pounced.

“Would you mind swapping with her?”

Always happy to help and not feeling it could be any worse, I agreed and we went back through the embarrassing process of squeezing past the twenty seated people to get to the aisle. Up the stairs and out of the arena. We walked around the outside of the stadium, which seemed to take forever, until we were right below the Olympic flame that I’d seen being lit a week before.

I never questioned what was happening as the man phoned his wife. She came out of the stadium handed me her ticket, I handed her mine, they thanked me and that was it – I never saw them again. I walked up to the entrance, showed the ticket to the checker and they let me in with no problem. I emerged into a section full of empty white seats, my heart leapt into my mouth and I thought I’d been duped.

The rows of empty seats where I was to be seated. More empty seats are visible at the other end.

Rationality took over. The ticket was ok, security had let me in and I was just in a section where there was no-one else. On reflection, the organisers probably wanted to fill other areas first, particularly where my original seat was, as that would be seen on television. I strode down the steps to my seat in row 13 and was able to stretch out. There were perhaps fifteen people dotted around the whole section and I certainly wasn’t bumping elbows anymore.

I relax. Comfortably socially-distanced when it wasn’t needed!

There was no-one within ten metres of me – perfect for today’s social distancing but in 2004 we had different issues. Previous Olympics had been disrupted by a bomb in Atlanta and terrorists in Munich and we were only a few years removed from Sept 11th and the invasion of Iraq, security was always tight. There was a long list of things you couldn’t take into stadia and backpacks were always checked. I bought and lived off snack food and drink from vendors the whole week because you weren’t even allowed to take so much as bottled water into an event. Fortunately the prices were reasonable even if it wasn’t healthy. Looking at the photos I’m surprised at how bloated I look.

I tried to get a selfie at every event. The second heat of the women’s 5,000m going on in the background.

With only empty seats between me and the front, I wondered whether I could move down there but didn’t want to risk a confrontation with security or the threat of being removed from the stadium, so for half an hour I sat thirteen rows back with the raft of empty seats stretching out in front of me. At 8pm I snuck down to the front row and sat within metres of the track for the rest of the night. Whenever an event was due to take place, the competing athletes would enter the arena, parade clockwise around the edge for spectators to see them. For me, they were almost in touching distance.

Denise Lewis and other heptathletes parade past on the way to their next event. Twenty-four hours later, Denise would no longer be the reigning champion.

Some events, such as the men’s high jump and discus, took place down the other end of the stadium so I watched them on the video screen. But situated where I was, on the bend, I got to see the 200m and shot putt of the women’s heptathlon featuring reigning champion Denise Lewis and fellow Brit Kelly Sotherton while, of course, all the other track events went past. It was amazing to be so close to the action. The organisers had scheduled a mixture of events for the session such that, almost every discipline was on display.

Kelly Holmes begins her pursuit of double gold beginning in the 800m.

The highlight of the night was the final of the men’s 10,000m; most other events were heats or qualifiers. I wasn’t into running enough then to appreciate the significance of reigning champion Heile Gebrselassie handing over his crown to Kenenisa Bekele. Of course, these days I know much more about running and looking back though all these photos has given me a new appreciation for what I experienced that night and who I saw.

The final of the men’s 10,000m. Ethiopia’s Sileshi Sihine, Heile Gebrselassie and Keninisa Bekele ahead of Kenya’s Moses Mosop and Uganda’s Boniface Kiprop.

At 11pm some people from the neighbouring section realised it would be much more comfortable in my empty section than their own crowd-filled one so they snuck over. After having had it almost to myself, I felt strangely territorial about them entering my space even though there were more than enough seats for everyone. Maybe it was they were loud and noisy that irked me but no matter, it really didn’t take anything away from my experience. I was just tired after a week of constantly rushing from venue to venue; getting up at 6am, getting to bed at midnight and surviving on less sleep than I needed. Four hours of athletics had been a great end to my Olympic experience. When London rolled around eight years later, I was happy to sit at home and watch on television as I’d already been there, done that.

Another view of the empty seats as I stand below the scoreboard with Olympic torch towering behind it.

I would apologise for the low quality photos and video but it was the early days of digital. My camera was only 3MP, couldn’t record sound and I borrowed a 512MB SD card from someone at work to be able to store more images. Watching these video after so many years reminds me of the serendipity and luck that came my way when I agreed to swap seats with someone I’d never met!

A silent pan round the Olympic stadium – many empty seats

Eventual gold medallist Sweden’s Caroline Kluft runs in lane 3 (lane 1 is empty) while GB’s bronze medallist, Kellly Sotherton, runs nearest the camera. Powerful running in the final heptathlon event of day 1 – the 200m

Kenenisa Bekele in the final 200 metres on his way to gold holds off Sihine with the legendary Heile Gebrselassie twenty seconds adrift and featuring from 21-30secs in

A heat of the women’s 100m takes place in the distance. Heptathletes can be seen warming up in the foreground

Olympic thoughts – Is this sustainable?

Day 5 of the Tokyo Olympics had me watching cycling again with more commentary from Chris Boardman. This time it was the men’s individual time trial which was eventually won by Primoz Roglic of Slovenia.

Boardman accurately predicted it would take around 55-mins to cover the course, not too difficult maths when the riders are going at 48km/hr and the course is 44.1km long. At just under an hour it’s an event that’s comparable to elite men’s half marathon running, or in physiological terms it’s being run at Threshold. For lesser runners that might be a 10-mile run or only a 10K – it’s applies to whatever you can cover in an hour.

The nugget of commentary that really struck me was Boardman’s description about riding at Threshold. He stated:

“The first five minutes is free, you don’t feel the pain. That’s the bit where you have to use your head rather than your heart and then it becomes self-regulating, you start to get a feel for the pace, the pain sets in and then you manage it”

What he was describing was how, when you begin a race the legs are free of lactate and waste products that eventually begin to make them feel heavy and the effort to keep them moving gets tougher. With fresh legs it’s easy to go off too fast – build up the lactate quickly and then suffer; the ideal is to ration the build-up evenly over the course of the race. This is true at all race distances and even true during interval training.

After co-commentator Simon Brotherton mentioned that there’s a “fine line between pushing as hard as you can but not going too far into the red” to viewers, Boardman responded with more gold dust:

“There’s a constant calculation going on between …

How far is it to go?

How hard am I trying?

Is this sustainable? And if the answer is yes, you’re not going hard enough. If the answer is no, it’s too late so you’re looking for maybe”

What a fantastic piece of commentary. I must admit the idea of maybe seems quite novel to me. I’ve probably always pushed myself into maybe without realising it and just aimed to hang on, but I’d usually coach people to keep in the comfort zone of yes. We like things to be black-or-white, yes-or-no; Boardman showed that the best in world are risking playing on the edge with maybe!

Next time you’re on the start line at parkrun remember these quotes from Boardman and see how they reflect your experience. The great thing about parkrun is you can test “yes”, “no”, “maybe” over the weeks and begin to learn what each feels like.

Olympic thoughts – All you need is love

Day 3 of the Tokyo Olympics brought Great Britain’s first golds in mountain biking, swimming and diving where it was a story of at last for Tom Daley. Thirteen years ago in Beijing, the nation watched as 14-year-old Tom became a sensation reaching the final. Four years later, at the home games in London he was one of the “poster boys” with his good looks and friendly, amiable personality but could only win bronze in the 10 metre individual event. Another Olympic cycle on brought another bronze in Rio this time in the synchronised event. Many thought he might retire after his tears at not winning again but he rebounded to win gold in the 2017 World Championships.

An Olympic cycle is a long time. Tom has been lucky to have started early and is now in his fourth Olympics at only 27. Yesterday I read Uzbekistan gymnast, Oksana Chusovitina, has retired after her eighth games at age forty-six – her first was in Barcelona almost thirty years ago.

In the years since Rio, Tom has got married to American Dustin Lance Black and become a father. He credits that with helping him to arrive in Tokyo feeling less pressured to win. In the post-gold interviews Tom said he knew that whatever he achieved, good or bad, he’d go home and still feel loved by his husband and three year old Robbie.

It seems to me that buried somewhere in Tom’s psyche was a belief that he was only loveable when he was achieving. I don’t think it’s an unusual belief particularly among many of the younger generation who are constantly being set targets in school and herded into activities to bolster their future CVs rather than for the enjoyment of doing them. The success of our Olympic programmes in recent years has been down to a harder-nosed approach to success and failure, if you aren’t a medal prospect your lottery funding ends and a lifetime of hard work and trying in your sport is dashed in the stroke of an administrator’s pen. The TeamGB Olympic successes we celebrate every four years hide a darker fallout of athletes, swimmers, rowers, boxers, cyclists, martial artists and gymnasts, among others, who couldn’t make the cut.

But the trap of conditional love is also prevalent among older generations who were simply brought up in environments where love wasn’t easily expressed, mistakes were punished and you had to be a genuine winner for your success to be celebrated – they didn’t get participation trophies.

Unconditional love is a concept that most people don’t understand because they don’t see any further than skin deep. They don’t look at the real person beneath but instead choose to love or hate based on looks, behaviours and material success. They allow their own emotional reactions to project onto the other person rather than accepting them for both their flaws and strengths. They don’t understand unconditional love is about valuing people for who they are, not what they are.

Somewhere along the way Tom must have absorbed some kind of message like this. It’s not necessarily down to his parents, it could be his coaches, his teachers or anyone else he’s come into contact with. He seems a rather sensitive soul and was bullied when younger. Dents to his self-esteem may have been papered over through his diving success. Even when he wasn’t winning Olympic golds, he was still receiving love and affection for being one of the best divers in the world, not simply for being Tom Daley.