Thursday, July 26, 2012

Drum piece–The Olympics, the Spectre of Doping, the greatness of Rudisha

My Drum piece this week was on the Olympics. Now any long-time readers of this blog would know I am a bit of an Olympics nut. I now own the 2004, 2008 and 2012 editions of David Wallechinsky’s “The Complete Book of the Olympics”. During the Beijing Olympics, in the day prior to Twitter (or at least the day s prior to anyone I know being on it) I wrote a running diary of the Olympics.

And when it comes to the Olympics all I really, truly care about is the athletics. I’ll will definitely watch every single other thing (and pretend to be an expert on it all – “geez she really stuffed up the landing after that Double Kafelnikov jump… 9.95” – but I am a track and field snob. But what I dislike most about track and field is that most women’s World Records are beyond reach because they were set during an era when cheating through steroid use was rampant and pretty much unchecked. At that time there was only testing done in-competition, and thus to get caught you really had to be stupid. It gave a boon to women who suddenly had testosterone flowing through them like they were men – to whit:


I guess it was just coincidence that the record dried up after out of competition testing was introduced in 1990…

I really hope Sally Pearson wins Gold. Back four years ago when she won silver here’s what I wrote (back when she was Sally McLellan):

The great thing about athletics (and sport in general) is that nothing is written in stone. The winner, Dawn Harper, had the 3rd slowest PB of the field, and the Lopes-Schliep had the 2nd slowest, and McLellan the 4th slowest. Form, history, experience all mean bugger all when you need to lay it down over 100m in an Olympic final.

To do what McLellan did you need to have ice in your veins. In her interview afterwards she was in shock, but displayed the reasons for her run - total commitment of mind and body:

"I walked out into that stadium and I've never, ever been so pumped in my life," she said.
"I was acting really strangely for myself.
"I was yelling out, I was saying `come on' really loud and I was just talking to myself out loud in front of everyone sand I never do that.
"I was really ready to go ... I just said 'no guts, no glory', and I got it."

London is long way away, and a lot can go wrong between now and then (just ask Liu Xang); but from the way she spoke last night, you know she's already focusing on it –and then silver won't be enough.

The way she won the World Championships last year was breathtaking. It was to see an athlete peak at exactly the right moment. If she does lose it will take a massive run by someone else, because I just do not see her choking. And I hope her post race interview is as great as last time:

But then I want her to break the world record.

With the men, the doping issue was as big, but not as long lived in the record books – because the advantage provided was not as severe (except in strength events like shot put etc):


Incidentally the oldest world records in men’s athletics are those in the events most beneficial for drug cheats – Discus (1986), Hammer Throw (1986) and Shot Put (1990).

It is rather surprising to note that since 1990 the 100m world record has been broke nor equalled 14 times – more than any other event.

Which brings us to Bolt. Now I will say this – I don’t think he is on the gear. But more than that, I hope he is not, because I think if he is ever found guilty of doping it will almost kill the sport. The data does suggest he is a step ahead of history:


But that is no proof of anything other than we are seeing something extraordinary. Exceptional data can reveal an anomaly, or it can reveal something exceptional.

And then there is the Women’s 100m WR improvements:


Yes, “Flo-Jo” improved it by over a quarter of a second.

While issues of her doping are pretty high on the gossip-scale (including by athletes at the time), the big question mark about that record is that most observers are pretty sure it was run with a massive tailwind. Officially the tail wind was zero, and yet at the same moment the race was run, the triple-jump completion that was happening just 10 metres away was registering winds of up to 4.3 m/s – more than double the 2 m/s allowable for a WR. So perhaps her second best time of 10.61 (with a 1.2m/s tailwind) is the more “legitimate” WR. But even that would be an improvement of .15 secs (and .

Scarily, when you look at Bolt, the 200m is probably his best event – he holds every age world record from 15 year olds up. The race has now been run 213 times faster than 20 seconds by 47 different men. A chart of the number of times the 200m has been run under 20 seconds reveals again a stark measure of Bolt’s difference to the filed:


The 2 guys at the far left of the chart  - Bolt and Yohan Blake – both train together in Jamaica.

Here’s the same chart for the 100m (hard to believe that the 10sec mark for the 100m has now been broken 575 times, and only once has it been done by an Australian – Patrick Johnson in Japan when he ran 9.93 with the almost perfect 1.8 m/s tailwind – incidentally his second best time over the distance was 10.10 secs):


There has long been whispers about poor out of competition testing in that country, but it has improved since 2009. And the reality is many Caribbean born sprinters have in the past prospered – it’s just that they prospered for other countries ala  Donavan Bailey of Canada. Indeed, in the 1996, the entire gold medal winning Canadian 4x100m relay team were born in the Caribbean – 2 of them from Jamaica. So it is not that much of a shock that Jamaican sprinters are doing well.


The cruelness of the Olympics coming around only once every 4 years is highlighted in the men’s 800m race. Since 1972, no holder of the 800m world record has won an Olympic Gold Medal – this is mostly because since the 1980 Moscow Olympics the record has been held at each Olympics by either Sebastian Coe or Wilson Kipketer. Coe ran a shocker at Moscow and finished second, and four years later was beaten by another all-time great, Joachim Cruz. His best years were also 1979 and 1981 when he broke the world record. His time set in 1981 was over a second and half faster than anyone else had ever run.

Kipketer, a Kenyan who had moved to Denmark in 1990, was at Atlanta in 1996, despite being the reigning World Champion was denied the chance to compete because he was not a full Danish citizen. In 1997 he first equalled Coe’s world record and then broke it 2 more times. In 2000 at Sydney, coming off a torn calf muscle injury he ran a poor tactical race and like Coe in 1980, came second. (I was actually in the stadium. I nearly cried as Kipketer was my favourite athlete – he ran like liquid.) In Athens in 2004, age beat him and he did well to finish 3rd.

But at London, a new record holder will be in attendance. Kenya's David Rudisha broke Kipketer’s 13 year old record in 2010 (and then broke his own record 7 days later. This year he has run the four fastest times, and his best time this year is a second and a half better than anyone else. Watch his run in Paris in July and see a man operating on a different level to the rest of the field.

He is the surest of sure things at London, but if the Olympics have shown anything – think Hicham El Guerrouj in Sydney – it is that sure things are not guaranteed wins.

But for watching drama, excellence all wrapped up in less than 2 minutes, get up for the 800m final on Friday 10 August at 5am. I just can’t see him being beaten.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Federer releases Abbey Road

Twelve months ago after Roger Federer’s loss in the Wimbledon Quarter Finals to Jo Wilfred Tsonga – a match in which Federer led two sets to love – I compared Federer to The Beatles, and noted:

… when Federer lost in 5 sets to Jo Wilfred Tsonga, we have to realise that the end is here. The age of Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper is gone. It won’t come back. Federer also had had his Magical Mystery Tour period – in 2008 he lost in the semi-final of the Aussie Open, then got beaten by Nadal in the French Open and (gasp) Wimbledon.

The decline has begun they said. Vale Federer. Thanks for it all.

And then he came out with The White Album and won 4 of the next 6 Grand Slam titles, and came runner-up in the other two.

But still the decline was to come.

I compared his loss to The Beatles Let it Be, writing:

this match is not a Magical Mystery Tour, or Yellow Submarine. It is Let it Be. It is not a hiccup, it actually is as good as he can play. And when you look at the graph you see that from when he started winning he never went more than three tournaments without a Grand Slam. It’s now been six since his last win.

Tennis fans, and especially Federer loyalists, will hope that there is time for an Abbey Road – that one last Grand Slam where the stars align and for 7 matches he comes back. It is more likely to happen than not.

We only had to wait 12 months.

Sunday night at the ungodly hours of 3:15am (EST) Federer beat the local hero, Andy Murray in 4 sets to take his 7th Wimbledon title and 17th Grand Slam. He also (in some ways I think more significantly) recaptured the Number 1 in the world spot – and ensures he will break Pete Sampras’ record for most weeks at Number 1.

His play during the match – especially during the 2rd and 4th sets went into spaces in the tennis space-time continuum that Federer first went forth and discovered. In those sets he played some outrageous forehands which found angles on the court that were never intended to be used; his backhand was as lethal at times as in his younger days. It was as though when the roof came on at 1-1 in the third set, the Wimbledon Centre Court was turned into a time machine.

And yet while Federer reminded us all of his brilliance, it was not the same as back in 2004-07.

I wrote last year that even if Federer came back to play another great tournament, it would be glorious, but different. You only get one chance to change the game, and that time has passed for Federer.

Tennis is now played through the Federer lens. The shots, the tactics, the geometry were all altered by Federer to the extent that it’s as big a shift in tennis as was to poetry when The Beatles came along and destroyed the view of rock’n’roll previously held.

That doesn’t diminish those who came before – but just as The Beatles rendered Elvis rather irrelevant, so too did Federer to the giants who strode the court when he began. Sampras and Agassi knew their time was up.

Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Del Potro, Tsonga, even Tomic all play the game on Federer’s terms. Nadal’s genius is like that of The Rolling Stones, he has found his own magical niche – and what he does he does even better than does Federer. Djokovic may be like The Kinks or possibly The Who – able to string together a magical period where you think, heck if he could hold it all together there’s no limit to what he can achieve. Murray is good enough to be The Who, but for now he is Herman's Hermits.

And so while watching Federer Sunday night was a joy for tennis fans, when we saw him play those impossible shots we didn’t think – well that’s something new; more – well that’s something we haven’t seen him do for a while.

Federer fans can tell when he is “on”. His backhand is the guide. His forehand – where he skips sweetly around his backhand and then unleashes a shot that sweetly skips past his opponent's reach – is his weapon, but the backhand is the defence. In the first set – which he played the better tennis – it looked good – even accounting for the unforced errors. The unforced errors were interesting – they were not errors that suggested defeat – more frustration. In his semi-final against Djokovic, in the second set Federer lost almost every point that went beyond 4 shots. Often the point would end with a Federer unforced error – but an error made playing a shot that was just going to put the ball back in play. His errors against Murray were more often when attempting a winner. There was an attack behind the errors that implied if he could align his sights, then it would click.

While watching the first set – after recovering the break of serve I remarked to a friend that the match was being played on Federer’s racquet – it was on his terms.

And then he was broken.

If there has been one consistent aspect of this autumn period of Federer’s career it has been his ability to throw in a very loose service game in the midst of a set in which his serve looks impenetrable. And very often that one game is all it takes.

And so when it happened Sunday night I wondered to myself if this was the script to be played out.

The second set featured Murray looking more in charge – he was the one who seemed destined to break and go up 2 sets to love. His supporters (apart from the very sensible Ivan Lendl) were excited and his confidence seemed sky high.

And then Federer broke him to win the set.

And that was the match.

The start of the third showed Federer in a mood. The rain delay was good timing for Murray – a chance to regroup, but it was also time for Federer to get a rest (probably no minor thing for a near 31 year old) – it let the roof go on, which although he protests he would prefer the match to be played in the open, favoured his game. And most crucially it enabled him to review his game plan with his coach. The response when he returned was to target Murray’s weakest shot – his second serve. Rather than chip the ball back Federer quickly let Murray know every second serve would be treated as an opportunity to play target practice.

As a result, Murray’s first serve cracked under the added pressure of knowing it was his only chance of winning a point. In the second set Murray served 72% of his first serves in. In the third it dropped to 49%, in the 4th it was 45%.

That folks is all she wrote. You ain’t going to beat Federer – regardless of how old he is – if you can’t get more than half your first serves in.

In the 3rd and 4th sets Murray played some brilliant shots to win points, but as with unforced errors there are two types of winners – there is the type that shows you can win a point any way you want, and there is the type that you make because you need to just to win a point.

By the time Murray was grimacing and gesticulating at the end of the 3rd it was just a case of Federer maintaining his focus and not indulging in one of his autumn-period sloppy service games.

His demeanour suggested he wasn’t going to allow that to happen.

And thus he won the title. It wasn’t one of his greatest matches. It wasn’t up there with the finals he won at Wimbledon against Nadal or Roddick, nor the one he lost against Nadal, nor the semi-final he lost against Safin at the Australian Open in 2005, but that is judging the match against some of the best games ever played.

His entire tournament was an amalgam of heaven and earth. In the first round he lost 3 games in the whole match – 1 in each set. In the second he got lazy and lost 6 games. Having stayed up to watch these matches I didn’t bother maintaining a vigil for his third round match against French plodder Julien Benneteau. I woke to find that Federer had lost the first two sets and looked set to follow Rafa Nadal out of the tournament. Had he lost then, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray would likely have met in the final.

The fourth round seemed to be the one in which Federer would finally succumb to reality and time. In his first set against Xavier Malisse he looked shocking. Malisse is an honest player whose greatest thing he’ll be able to tell his grandkids is that he once beat Roger Federer when they were both 18 year old. And then lost to him the next 10 times they played.

But on this day Federer could barely move to his right to hit a forehand. He took a time out – an event rare enough to suggest portents of doom. And then to his great credit, when they reached the tie break, Malisse played an absolute shocker. He hit 5 unforced errors that handed Federer the set. A rain delay soon after allowed Federer time to get a massage and get his back warm. He rolled Malisse 6-1 in the second, and it looked all set for the usual Fed-express. Instead the usual autumn-period sloppy service game Federer appeared and Malisse won the third 6-4. But a 6-3 win in the 4th set gave Federer the match and time over the middle weekend to get more work done on his back.

Whatever they did, did indeed work, for in the Quarter Final – his jaw-dropping, 33rd in a row (a record so incredible that for Djokovic, who has the second best streak going, to break it, would need to keep making quarter finals until the US Open in 2017) – he was back in playing tennis in heaven mode. He destroyed Mikhail Youzhny 6-1 6-2 6-2.

He had thus far had a pretty easy draw. He hadn't done it easy, but no one he faced would have really considered themselves a chance prior to the tournament.

But the semi final was different.

Here he faced Novak Djokovic in the midst of his career- summer. Djokovic has not only made 11 Quarter Finals in a row, he has made 9 semi finals in a row (only one behind Pete Sampras’s best streak of 10), he also had made 4 finals in a row and won three of them. Tennis players when they get hot need to cash in, and Djokovic has cashed in as well as anyone in an 18 month period.

Federer took the first set of their semi-final seemingly while Djokovic was still in the change rooms. It was over so quickly that Djokovic hardly had time to get warm. No worries, he got very warm in the second and unleashed some pure tennis brilliance.

He was unplayable. Federer was struggling to stay on the same court as him. He couldn’t keep with him in rallies, and Djokovic was hitting the ball so deep that Federer never had time to get into an attacking position. I can’t recall him hitting one clean winner, though the statistics say he hit 6 of them. Djokovic hit 12 in the set and forced many more errors from Federer’s racquet. 

Djokovic won it 6-3. They were one set a piece, but Djokovic looked in front. He needed only to keep up that level and Federer would be gone – and truly it would have been a match in which the new replaced the old.

But Djokovic couldn’t keep up that level. He dropped ever so slightly, and Federer improved ever so slightly. Suddenly Federer was the one hitting the ball deep, and Novak was now struggling to keep the pace. In both the 3rd and 4th sets Federer hit more winners and more importantly hit winners that beat Djokovic for pace – forehands than blew past him, rather than shots with angles that were unplayable.

But due to what happened last year in the US Open when Federer lost the match although serving at 40-15, 5-4 in the 5th set, again no one put down their glasses and said it was over. Federer made his fans earn it in that last game, but he prevailed without having to face a break point, and then he looked to the final and Andy Murray.

So what does this win mean for his career and for those who chase him?

Last year I charted his Grand Slam career – giving 1 point for a first round loss, 2 for a 2nd round and so on until an 8 for a Grand Slam win:


This win elevates his 4 slam average (the black line) to above the semi-final level. Again it shows that while it was a wonderful display, he is not where he was in 2005-2009 when he averaged getting to the final of each grand slam- and did so 10 times in a row, then 8 times in a row (the 1st and 2nd best streaks ever – Nadal losing in the 2nd ended his 5 finals streak).

But what about his overall tally of 17 grand slam finals?

Here is the update of the graphs I used 2 weeks ago to chart the progress of Federer against some of the other greats of the post 1980 era (I’ve added in Murray to show were he lies):


That little bump at the end of Federer’s graph make life that bit tougher for Nadal. Rafa sits on 11 wins. He now needs 6 more to equal Federer. His last 6 took 15 grand slams. If he keeps up that pace he’ll get there at around his 53rd Grand Slam. But saying it is much easier than doing it. As both Federer and Sampras show – the last half of the grand slams is tougher to get than the first half. In fact if you set a trend line from the start of his career, if he plays as many slams as does Sampras, Nadal is projected to win 15 titles.

The graph also shows, Murray needs to start winning. He’s overdue.

A look at the pace of wins after their first grand slam also shows the difficulty now present for Nadal:


At the pace he’s going Nadal, if he plays as many Grand Slams after his first win as did Sampras, would end up with 18 titles. But trend lines can be rather misleading – if you applied the same trend to Federer he’d be projected to end up with 25 titles!

Both Nadal and Federer have won a Grand Slam title 7 times- Federer, Wimbledon, Nadal, the French Open. The difference is if you take that happy hunting ground away from them both, Federer still has 10 Grand Slam titles, Nadal has only 4. For Nadal to break Federer’s total he’ll need to win more at the non-French Open grand slams than he has in the past. That would require doing something like Federer did in 2005-2009 when he reached the final of 18 out of 19 tournaments.

And that is hard to see happening.

Such things are for the future, however. It probably won’t change the debate about the relative worth of the two players either. They will forever be The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Both great, both great in different ways, and if we are truly honest, the Stones are always just that bit in the shadow of The Beatles, if only because they came first.

And so we move on to the US Open, via a trip back to Wimbledon for the Olympics. It is a bonus for the players as it doesn’t involve anyone defending any ranking points and thus any points are added to their total without having to lose any from the previous year’s tournament. How many points you need to defend is crucial – as Bernard Tomic found when he lost his points from making the quarter final last year and tumbled to number 45 in the world.

As Federer only leads Djokovic by 75 points, the Olympics are a big opportunity for Djokovic to retain the top ranking. The US summer however contains many points for Djokovic to defend. From the two master tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati and the US Open, Djokovic is defending 3,600 points (a win in the US Open, Canada and runner-up in Cincinnati). Federer on the other hand is only defending 990 points. The two of them are now over 2,000 points ahead of Nadal. So until the US Open no one else is a chance to be number 1.

The US Open sets up as an intriguing tournament. Despite Federer winning I get the sense the younger generation are getting close to stepping up. Thus far Djokovic won on his best surface – the Australian Open hard courts. Nadal won on his favoured clay, and Federer won on the grass. Andy Murray’s best surface is the US hard courts. I think he can win it.

This autumn has become a glorious Indian summer for Federer. Talk of retirement is dismissed – he’s enjoying the game too much – he’s too good to retire. He may no longer be changing the way tennis is played, just as Abbey Road, despite being such a wonderful album didn’t do anything other than show that The Beatles when they really clicked were better than anyone else.

Sunday night was one for the ages, because we know despite his ranking and despite his play it could be the last one of the Federer age. But for now just enjoy that great music – Federer showing he is still at times the “Sun King” and that it’s not quite time to sing “The End”.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

My Book– The Rise of the Fifth Estate

On Tuesday, as usual, I discovered news through Twitter. Michelle Bennett of 3RRRFM tweeted me saying my book looked good and she couldn’t wait to read it. This rather surprised me as I had no idea the release had even been announced. A quick look on my publishers’ (Scribe) website showed that their catalogue for July-December was out, and sure enough I was there on page 17.

The blurb is below for your pleasure:

Book blurb

Even though at the top of the page “September 2012” It will be out at the end of August. I’ve seen various dates on Angus and Robertson, Penguin and Book Depository ranging from the 22nd, 25th, and 27th.

I know I should be more across such details, and I was told 25th so it’ll be around then I guess!

And yes there will be an e-book version!

I’ll let you know about book launches etc.

For those wondering, there are only seven graphs in the entire book. And in keeping with my early days of blogging, one of them is (with his magnanimous permission) from Possum.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

RBA keeps Cash Rate at 3.50%

Today the Reserve Bank to no one’s great surprise kept the cash rate on hold at 3.50%


This level is well below the average of the past 20 years (5.37%), the past 10 years (5.10%) and the past 5 years (4.83%)

Obviously of course while this is great it doesn't automatically mean everything is better than ever before – as the chart I used a couple weeks ago on the percentage of disposable income spent on interest payments showed:


In terms of macroeconomic policy however, I think keeping the rates steady was an excellent move. Much better to try and keep rate at a level that gives room to move later if need be – last thing we want to do is be America, the UK or Canada:


The RBA Governor’s statement suggested overseas was not great, but perhaps not as horrible as it was, however, just for a bit of fun it might soon be just as horrible:

Growth in the world economy picked up in the early months of 2012, having slowed in the second half of 2011. But more recent indicators continue to suggest weakening in Europe and a slower pace of growth in China. Conditions in other parts of Asia have recovered from the effects of last year's natural disasters, but the ongoing trend is unclear and could be dampened by the effects of slower growth outside the region. The United States continues to grow at a modest pace. Commodity prices have declined, which is helping to reduce inflation and providing scope for some countries to ease macroeconomic policies. Australia's terms of trade have peaked, though they remain historically high.

Not a lot of joy to be found there. How about the domestic economy?

In Australia, recent data suggest that the economy continued to grow in the first part of 2012, at a pace somewhat stronger than had been earlier indicated. Labour market conditions also firmed a little, notwithstanding job shedding in some industries; the rate of unemployment remains low.

The first sentence reflects the GDP figures of last month that were certainly above expectations. Inflation?

There have been no changes to the Bank's outlook for inflation. Over the coming one to two years, and abstracting from the effects of the carbon price, inflation is expected to be consistent with the target. Maintaining low inflation over the longer term will, however, require growth in domestic costs to slow as the effects of the earlier exchange rate appreciation wane.

The RBA’s outlook for inflation is 2-3 per cent. And the aspect of the exchange rate declining is to do with our terms of trade also declining – the view is that our exchange rate follows our terms of trade:


And when the exchange rate declines, that makes imports more expensive and thus inflation goes up.

Interest rates for borrowers have declined, to be a little below their medium-term averages. Business credit has increased more strongly in recent months, though credit growth remains modest overall. The housing market remains subdued. The exchange rate has been volatile recently, but overall remains high.

The exchange rate is still very high historically. After the RBA cut rates in May by 50 basis points and the Federal Budget projected a surplus, the exchange rate declined (as hoped). But in the past 5 weeks it has gone back up:


And historically?


The statement concluded:

As a result of the sequence of earlier decisions, there has been a material easing in monetary policy over the past six months. At today's meeting, the Board judged that, with inflation expected to be consistent with the target and growth close to trend, but with a more subdued international outlook than was the case a few months ago, the stance of monetary policy remained appropriate.

In other words – things are okish at the moment, and things might get worse later so let;s hold our fire while inflation is not an issue.

The other data release today was the Building Approvals by the ABS. The news was quite good:

  • The trend estimate for total dwellings approved rose 1.6% in May and has risen for 4 months.
  • The seasonally adjusted estimate for total dwellings approved rose 27.3% in May following a fall of 7.6% in the previous month.


And a look at the 12 monthly growth of total building approvals does show improvement:


And although private sector housing approvals grew by 8.7% in May, that followed a 11% fall in April, so all in all the private sector housing market remains in the doldrums:


Anyone betting on another housing boom like in 2001, would be better off spending that money on the lottery:


With housing growth like that, don’t expect the RBA to be worrying about increasing interest rates any time soon.