Archive for Olympics

wanton and furious cycling

Posted in pictures, Running, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2017 by xi'an

A cyclist was convicted of “wanton or furious driving” last week in London after hitting a pedestrian crossing the street, leading to her death a few days later. The main legal argument for the conviction was that the cyclist was riding a “fixie”,  a bike with no front brake and fixed-gear, as used in track cycling. Which is illegal in Britain and, I just found out, in France too. (He was actually facing manslaughter, for which he got acquitted.) This is a most tragic accident, alas leading to a loss of a human life, and I did not look at the specifics, but I do not get the argument about the brakes and the furious driving: if the rider was going at about 28 km/h, which seems a reasonable speed in low density areas [and is just above my average speed in suburban Paris], and if the pedestrian stepped in his path six meters ahead, he had less than a second to react. Front brake or not, I am certainly unable to react and stop in this interval. And braking hard with the front brake will invariably lead to going over the bars: happens to me every time I have to stop for a car with my road bike. And would if I had to stop for a pedestrian.

Incidentally [or accidentally], here is the item of British Law from 1861 on which prosecution was based:

“Whosoever, having the charge of any carriage or vehicle, shall by wanton or furious driving or racing, or other wilful misconduct, or by wilful neglect, do or cause to be done any bodily harm to any person whatsoever, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the discretion of the court, to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years.”

And here are the most reasonable views of the former Olympian Chris Boardman on this affair and the hysteria it created…

bad graph of Olympic proportions

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Running with tags , , , , on August 14, 2016 by xi'an

olympicsIn connection with the current Olympics in Rio, the New York Times produced a sequence of graphs displaying the dominance of some countries for some sports, like the above for long distance running. I find the representation pretty poor, from using a continuous time perspective for 30 Olympic events, to an unexplained colour codes singling out a few countries, to an equally unexplained second axis, with an upward drift above that does not seem to make sense…

gender-neutral Olympics?!

Posted in Mountains, Running, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2012 by xi'an

As usual, reading the latest issue of Significance is quite pleasant and rewarding (although as usual I have to compete with my wife to get hold of the magazine!). This current issue is dedicated to the (London) Olympics. With articles on predictions of future records, on whether or not the 1988 records can be beaten (the Seoul Olympics were the last games before more severe anti-drug tests were introduced), on advices to Usain Bolt for running faster (!) and on the objective dangers of dying from running a marathon (answer: it is much more “dangerous” to train!).

However, a most puzzling (and least statistical) article is Stephanie Kovalchik’s proposal for a gender-neutral Olympics.  The author’s theme is that, in most sports (the exceptions being shooting, yachting, and horse riding, where competitions are mixed), raw performances of women are below those of men for physical and physiological reasons. Stephanie Kovalchik thus “question[s] whether a sex-stratified Olympics is the product of groundless stereotypes about male athletic superiority or could be justified by gender differences at the elite level of sport” (p.20). Unsurprisingly, she concludes that no amount of training seems capable to bring both sexes at the same level: indeed, for instance, Paula Radcliffe, the fastest female marathon runner (2:15:24), is still 11 minutes beyond Patrick Makau, the fastest male marathon runner (2:03:38). They are both super-terrific athletes, the top ones in their categories. Now, Paula runs half-marathon and marathon faster than the best male runners in my team (Insee Paris Club). Where’s the problem?! And why should we try to rank Paula against Patrick?!

A parenthesis: the author mentions a most bizarre (but eventually inappropriate) exception: in the Badwater Ultramarathon, a crazy race covering 135 miles and going from Badwater, Death Valley, at 280’ (85m) below sea level, to the Mt. Whitney Portals at nearly 8,300’ (2530m), with a total of 13,000’ (3962m) of cumulative vertical ascent, four women won over the 25 occurrences of the race. I found this phenomenon quite curious and went to check first the records of the comparable ultra-trail du Mont Blanc, another even crazier race (168km, 9,600 metres of positive height gain, at mostly higher altitudes, between 1000m and 2500m), and saw that last year the first woman in the race was 13th in total, with a difference of four and a half hours with the winner (20:36 hours, believe it or not..!). Going back to the Badwater Ultramarathon, checking the results showed that the race actually attracts a very limited number of runners, from 17 finishers the first year to 83 last year (where the first woman was 7th, about 5 hours from the winner), with a huge variation between runners and between years. So I would not draw so much of a conclusion from this example, certainly not that “in an event where sheer dogged endurance, guts and determination must count for almost everything, we may be there already”. It is rather a law of small numbers: such extreme events attract a very small number of participants with incredibly variable finishing times, e.g. two of the four winning women won out of…5 (1988) and 2 (1989) finishers, while the two other victories were achieved by Pamela Reed over 45 (2003) and 57 (2002) competitors, a much more remarkable feat. Meaning that one or two runners missing or giving up brings a huge change in the final time. The ultra-trail du Mont Blanc now involves a thousand runners and there, numbers count. End of the parenthesis (with total respect to all those runners, I wish I could do it!).

Going back to the paper proposal, Stephanie Kovalchik considers that “credit merit apart from hereditary luck will favour individuals who possess the best genes for sport. Thus, prejudice – in the true sense of pre-judging – at the Olympics runs deeper than gender lines. Geneticism more than sexism is to blame for making the possession of a Y chromosome an advantage at the Games” (p.21). She suggests to instead rank athletes by a “statistical adjustment [that would]  remove the confounding factor of genetic inheritance, to provide a standard of achievement that all could aim at, no matter what their hereditary luck” (p.22). In essence, the winner would be the one that had gained the most compared with a “demographically matched sample of untrained individuals” (p.24). If I may, this sounds perfectly ridiculous! First, the whole point of the Games and of any sporting competition is to determine the “best” athlete. This is not an egalitarian goal and can and does lead to poor outcomes such as cheating, drug enhanced performances, nationalistic recuperations, commercialisation, bribery, and so on. It is thus perfectly coherent to be against those competitions. (I am not a big fan of the Olympics myself for this reason. However, without competition, even at my very humble level, and with little hope of winning anything, I would certainly train much less than I currently do.) But to try to reward efforts to counteract physical differences sounds like political correctness pushed to the extreme!  Second, and this is why I find the paper so a-statistical!, the adjustment must be with respect to a reference population. If we carry the argument to its limit, the only relevant population is made of the athlete him/herself. Indeed, genetic, sociological, cultural, geographical, financial, you-name-it, elements should all be taken into account! Which obviously makes the computation just impossible because then everyone is competing against him/herself.