As some may know, the East Coast has been hit in less than a week by both a one-in-a-century earthquake, which I didn’t notice because I was at the moment on the second floor of a low-rise building, and hurricane Irene, which wreaked havoc along much of the shoreline but was only just strong winds and rain up here. Since both Massachusetts and New York State have been spared by both the hurricane and the earthquake, these were God’s punishment for the Southern (Eastern) states not having passes a gay marriage law. Obviously.
In different news, the World Championships is in full swing and already giving staggering races. (I’m watching them online on Universal Sports, though mostly on a replay: 13 hours difference doesn’t make for easy real time viewing.)
First was the women Marathon and the first of the two Kenyan triplets: Kiplagat was the big favorite, but astounding was the overall Kenyan performance with Jeptoo and Cherop coming second and third. On the following day, more to the same with Cheruiyot, Kipyego, Masai, and Cherono coming first, second, third and fourth: all four Kenyans! By what I read, no other team ever managed such a sweep in both the Worlds and the Olympics.
I watched the second day while stuck at home because of Irene, and what a day it was: the greatest emotion came in the men 10,000m with the Ethiopian Jeilan coming out of nowhere and stealing the gold Mo Farah was probably already seeing in front of him. What a finish! Farah’s face in those last 100m tells it all; the final lap unfortunately overshadowed the other news-worthy event of the race: Kenenisa Bekele stopped and DNF’ed with 10 laps to go. (Event I didn’t see since the broadcast was focused on irrelevant long jumps. Really?!)
Finally the surprise for many: Bolt DQ’ed with a false start at the 100m final. Honestly the rule of ‘one mistake you’re out’ seems a bit too harsh to me, and probably to many others who watched the race. (The IAAF might have heard the fans complaining since they are considering changing the rule.)
Completely unrelated. Here are few reads I found a couple of months ago, put on a draft hoping to blog them soon; they eventually ended up in an awfully long backlog. (This is what happens with not just one but two movings.)
[training vs talent]
Weirdly enough there is an ongoing discussion on whether training is superior to talent, along the lines of champions are made, not born. The idea that innate talent, i.e., genetics is trumped by sheer will and training is, to me, absurd and I was greatly surprised to find out how many believe in the so-called 10,000 hours myth, which basically states that elite levels can be achieved after 10,000 hours of (deliberately) training regardless of where one starts from.
The myth is often based on poor or poorly understood science. More often than not is heard that no “speed” gene was ever found, hence speed can not be the result of genetics; said statement is so absurd, it’s hard to know where to start. First, no animal (or human, if you’re keeping tags) characteristics is ever based on a single gene, but is always the result of the hundreds of genes working in concert to produce the result; being true for simple phenotypes like a person’s height, it’s even more so for more complex ones like speed where even its definition is hardly simple (do we consider a person fast because they can run a 100m fast, like Bolt? or because they can run a long distance at a high pace, like Gebrselassie?).
Then, the myth is fomented by what I can only describe as poor science: a 1993 study by Anders Ericsson found that a violinist achieves world expert level after an average of 10,000 hours; everybody else practiced less and are less successful. What caught my eye on this study is the lack of a variance around those averages: what’s the spread in hours of practice for elite level violinists? Are there amateur violinists who trained for more than 10,000 hours and never achieved elite level? And how many? Also and more importantly, how many are elite level violinists who trained for far less than 10,000 hours?
Unfortunately the study provided only the averages and not the standard deviation, which sounds like poor science.
Regardless the myth is there and if you want a more eloquent discussion, I’d suggest the following blog posts: Talent Training and Performance Secrets and Training Talent, 10,000 Hours, and Genes.
It should also be clear that the opposite is obviously false too: genetics alone doesn’t make champions, after all even Usain Bolt or Haile Gebrselassie need to train to perform. Though having the right genes sure helps.
[the pistorius controversy]
Pistorius stirred a new controversy as he qualified for the World Championships a couple of months in Italy. My opinion basically follows a minimal path: if there is indication that the blades give him an unfair advantage against his competition, he shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the same field as able-bodied athletes. It does sound harsh because of empathy towards him and what he accomplished, and nobody is stealing it from him — he will always remain an example for many — but the question remains and in my opinion, it should be addressed scientifically without feelings or emotions to cloud the judgement.
Here is an interview with Ross Tucker, a sport scientist who studied the issue and came to the conclusion that the evidences produced during the lawsuit were biased towards Pistorius (which is why a scientific inquiry should be solved by scientists and never by lawyers) and that the current scientific evidence points to the orthotics giving him an advantage. The rebuke to said interview followed shortly.
A thorough analysis on the science of Pistorius’s performance can be found in a three part article on The Science of Sport (Ross Tucker’s personal blog):
part 1 – The scientific interpretation of Oscar Pistorius research
part 2 – The scientific evidence for an advantage for Oscar Pistorius
part 3 – Pistorius: the “12 sec advantage” and mechanical superiority
Finally, since all this post was about science and bad science, here is a great post explaining how to spot bad science and fads. The example given there is CrossFit, but while reading it I was constantly reminded of barefoot running…