Comeback Kings and Queens

Review of the week: 21 – 27 September 2015

Tour de France 2015, sagan (20062619745)

Peter Sagan (above) is no longer the eternal second. Having failed to win a single stage of the Tour de France in 2014 or 2015, despite securing the green points jersey in both, he claimed his first World Championships rainbow jersey with victory in the road race.

In fact, all of the senior champions were first time winners who had been waiting a long time for their titles. The women’s road race went to Lizzie Armitstead of Great Britain, who had previously taken three silver medals, but no golds, in individual global events.

The time trial crowns were claimed by Vasil Kiriyenka of Belarus and Linda Villumsen of New Zealand. Kiriyenka had come third or fourth every year since 2012 while Villumsen had the most frustrating record of all, with two silvers and three bronzes before her win.

The Worlds took place in Richmond, Virginia and the hosts had the rare experience of topping the medal table. The men’s team time trial was won by the BMC Racing Team, including Taylor Phinney, returning after surgery following a near-fatal crash last year.

But the big star for the future is undoubtedly Chloe Dygert, who won both the road race and time trial events for junior women, the first cyclist to do since Nicole Cooke in 2001.

Like Phinney, she was returning from an injury, in her case a torn left anterior cruciate ligament which brought  a promising basketball career to a premature end. Her success can in part be attributed to the dirt bike trail built by her father at their Indiana home.

Matthew Anderson (FIVB MWC Poland 2014)

It was also a good week for the USA in men’s volleyball, where it won the World Cup to qualify for Rio next year. As with the women’s tournament, Brazil did not participate as they have already qualified automatically. The MVP was Matthew Anderson (above), also on the comeback trail after taking a break from the sport with depression last year.

The Olympic champion, Poland, seemed on course to secure a spot only to lose its final game to Italy, allowing it to leapfrog it in the rankings and claim second place instead. But all is not lost for Poland, which will surely take the chance to qualify at a later date.

China and Russia won most medals at the Wheelchair Fencing World Championships, while South Korea showed its usual dominance at the Olympic test event in archery.

Even here, a new talent emerged from the shadow of more experienced rivals. Ki Bo Bae suffered a shock defeat to allow 19-year-old compatriot Choi Misun to win the women’s title instead. South Korean archery does allow comebacks but only from its own ranks.

Next week: Basketball for men in Asia and for women in Africa, and women’s volleyball


Canoeing in Hungary Part 3

Another River to Cross

Vajda Attila

When the Berlin Wall fell, Hungary was one of the leading canoeing nations. It had much more important things to think about but it was a pleasing achievement nevertheless.

It could not stand still however. As discussed last week, Romania has failed to maintain its Cold War level of investment. Sport has become a capitalist enterprise and Hungary has to keep its oars moving to stay with competitors who are spending more and more.

The key has been the Olympic Centre in Szeged. Opened in 1981 during the communist era, it had been maintained as a world class canoeing venue and training centre. In 2019, it will host the World Championships for the fourth time in a little over twenty years.

Szeged has allowed Hungary to develop a whole new generation of talent, such as Attila Vadja (above), gold medallist in the C1 1,000m at the 2008 Olympic Games. Vadja was even born in Szeged and might well be the first of many medallists with that birthplace.

Another of Hungary’s rivals, the Soviet Union, has not so much fallen behind as fallen apart. Its many rivers were widely distributed across its constituent nations and no less than six of them have won Olympic medals in canoeing since separating. But no one of them has dominated, leaving Germany as the only remaining force apart from Hungary.


Obsessive fans are also a major factor. Hundreds of enthusiastic Hungarians converged on Eton Dorney to watch canoeing at London 2012 (above). They have voted a canoeist as their top sportsman or woman 13 times, more than any other sport except swimming.

This passion for canoeing makes funding the sport a more attractive proposition for the government and for sponsors. This is turn makes victories easier to achieve, attracting an ever increasing number of fans, in a virtuous circle. Medallists often become coaches after retirement, and then help to produce yet more medallists. Success breeds success.

Consider Katalin Rozsnyoi. She won an Olympic silver medal in 1968 and then went on to coach many of the country’s top stars. She has been voted coach of the year six times.

Once an upward spiral of this nature has begun, the reason why the sport became so big in the first place becomes less and less important. The Danube starts to lose its lustre.

The final irony is this. Szeged lies on one of the largest rivers in Hungary, the Tisza. It is not on the Danube. Progress has been maintained by moving on when the time is right.

Next week: The surprising links between canoeing and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

Drama on the Green

Review of the week: 14 – 20 September 2015

2011 Women's British Open - Suzann Pettersen (22)

There were accusations of unsporting behaviour on final day of the Solheim Cup. The US player, Alison Lee, with her ball inches lying just from the hole, assumed that Suzann Pettersen (above) would concede that she would make the putt. But when Lee picked up the ball, Pettersen refused to concede, with the result that Europe won the hole instead.

Pettersen later apologised and, if anything, the controversy seems to have inspired the American team into action. They took a huge 8 and a half points from the final 12 singles matches, and turned a 10-6 deficit into one of the greatest comebacks in golfing history.

Slalom Canoeing

Before its partition, Czechoslovakia had always been one of the most successful nations in slalom canoeing. Since 1992, of the two states which succeeded it, it is Slovakia which has performed the better but, this year, the Czech Republic has overtaken its neighbour.

The Czechs won two of the four gold medals in Olympic events, while neither Slovakia nor France, the other leading nation, won any. Jessica Fox of Australia won the women’s C1 for the third year in a row but this event will sadly not be on the programme in Rio.

Rugby Union and Athletics

The Rugby World Cup got underway and started with a major shock, as 80-1 outsiders Japan defeated the twice former champions, South Africa. It should be a major boost for development of the sport in Japan, which is also scheduled to host the 2019 World Cup.

As the All-Africa Games concluded, the most surprising outcome was the performance of sprinters from the Ivory Coast, who won five gold medals, including a women’s sprint double for Marie-Josee Ta Lou. Egypt topped the overall medal table by a wide margin.

Pau Gasol by Augustas Didzgalvis

Basketball and Triathlon

Last week was good for Italy, but this was Spain’s week, as it won the men’s EuroBasket. Pau Gasol (above) was the MVP, scoring 25 points in the final and a staggering 40 points in the semi-final against France. Losing finallists, Lithaunia, have also qualified for Rio.

Spain also took the first two places in the final race of the Triathlon World Series. Javier Gomez finished second to claim his fifth world title while Mario Mola won the event to finish second on the overall podium. American Gwen Jorgensen won a second women’s title and, in paratriathlon, Australia and the United States won three gold medals each.

Disability Sport and Tennis

Elsewhere in disability sport, two European Championships took place. Great Britain retained its title in wheelchair rugby but lost its dominance in para-dressage, as the Netherlands continued an incredible year in equestrian sport to top the medal table.

Finally, in tennis, Great Britain and Belgium won their respective semi-finals to reach a historic Davis Cup final in November. They have met in a final before but not since 1904.

Next week: The Road Cycling World Championships, men’s volleyball and archery

Canoeing in Hungary Part 2

A Meander into Romania

Ivan Patzaichin

It is oft-repeated that distance runners, Derartu Tulu, Kenenisa Bekele and the Dibaba sisters, all come from the same village in Ethiopia. But forgive me if I am not impressed.

A more balanced account is found in the excellent documentary “Town of Runners“. The clue in the title is that Bekoji is not a village but a town. With a population of 17,000, it is a veritable megalopolis compared with some of the birthplaces of Olympic champions.

Consider Ivan Patzaichin of Romania (above). He has won 7 Olympic medals, 4 of them gold, and four other canoeists from his home village of Mila 23 have also won medals. Another three medallists are from the neighbouring villages of Crisan and Caraorman.

The three villages have a combined population of 1,200, making them less than a tenth of the size of Bekoji. They have produced one Olympic medallist for every 150 people.

Many nearby villages have similarly impressive records. Just 1% of Romanians live in Tulcea County, but it has produced at least 20 of their 44 Olympic canoeing medallists.

The explanation, once again, is the Danube, and the evidence is even starker and more compelling than for Hungary. Mila 23 is so named because of its location 23 miles from the mouth of the Danube, in the Black Sea. Tulcea County surrounds the Danube Delta.


Mila 23 (above) and its neighbouring villages do not have any roads and are navigable only by boat. This provides an informal training ground for local budding canoeists.

Informal training alone is not enough and Romania had little success before the Second World War. When communism arrived, the one upside, among its many downsides, was government investment in sport. Formal coaching complemented playing on the river.

But Romania is no longer a canoeing power so where did it all go wrong? To begin with, the country has fared much less well than Hungary in the transition to capitalism and its ability to fund sport has greatly diminished. From 20 gold medals at the boycotted 1984 Olympics, it won 2 at London 2012. Even women’s gymnastics now has few Romanians.

And Patzaichin is also concerned that the people of Tulcea County are losing interest in river-based sports. He has founded a charity, wittily known as Row-mania, and has even written a comic book about his life to encourage children to follow in his paddle strokes.

This is hopefully not the end for the region as a source of medals. But even if it is, it has surely done enough to demonstrate the importance of the Danube to canoeing history.

Next week: How Hungarian canoeing survived the upheavals that hurt many of its rivals

Dolce Vittoria for Italy

Review of the week: 7 – 13 September 2015

Flavia Pennetta (14957701628)

It was pizza and gelato all round for sports fans in Italy this week, as it had two major victories, both of them unexpected. Flavia Pennetta (above) defeated her compatriot Roberta Vinci in the final of the US Open, while Fabio Aru won the Vuelta a Espana.

Aru’s success came while cycling for the Astana team, after its leader Vincenzo Nibali had been disqualified. Also Italian, Nibali had shown too much of the national love for fast cars and had held onto the team car as it accelerated towards the front of the race.

In New York, Hungary was also celebrating as Dalma Galfi took the girls’s singles and, with Fanny Stollar, was one of two Hungarian semi-finalists. The country has yet to win a senior singles titles during the Open Era but looks like it might soon break that record.

New Zealand followed up its rowing triumphs last week, as South Korean born golfer Lydia Ko won the Evian Championship. Germany dominated the European Eventing Championship as its occupied five of the top ten places in the individual competition, Michael Jung taking gold for a third time, and it won the team event by, well, a canter.

Saori yoshida

Wrestling and Rhythmic Gymnastics

Saori Yoshida of Japan (above) claimed a remarkable 13th title at the World Wrestling Championships. She has been reported as saying that she has no childhood memories except of wrestling, a story which has a whiff of exaggeration about it. I certainly hope that it is not true because, even with such dominance, I am not sure it would be worth it.

Kaori Icho won a 10th world title. The two Japanese fighters have three Olympic gold medals apiece and will be going for a fourth in Rio, a record for a wrestler of either sex.

But Russia topped the medal table with four gold medals. It continued the tradition of its wrestlers being from the more far-flung regions of the country, two of its champions hailing from the disputed territory of Dagestan and the other two being born in Siberia.

Russia blew away all comers at the World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships. Aged just 17, Yana Kudryavtseva won five gold medals for the second competition in a row.

All-Africa Games and Commonwealth Youth Games

In Brazzaville, South Africa was by far the top nation in swimming, winning 25 of the 42 golds on offer. This inevitably raises the dreaded race question but the explanation has more to do with wealth and the number of swimming pools. The rule-proving exception is Tunisian Olympic champion, Oussama Mellouli, who benefited from college in the US.

In Samoa, Australia topped the medal table, with a particularly impressive performance in swimming, while Malaysia unexpectedly won all five gold medals available in squash.

Next week: The men’s EuroBasket, the Solheim Cup, canoe slalom and wheelchair rugby

Lies, Damned Lies etc

3 Basic Errors in the Sunday Times Paula Radcliffe Exposé

Paula Radcliffe in Berlin

There are a lot of numbers in last month’s Sunday Times doping story, the one which led to fingers pointing at Paula Radcliffe. Tiny probabilities such as 1 in 100 or 1 in 1,000 are lavishly splattered all over the article, like chicken entrails at a consultation with a witch doctor. But every single one of the numbers is plain gibberish, or giblet-ish if you prefer.

Error Number 1: Ignoring Altitude

The article states that “Any score above 103 is abnormal for women athletes” and, in assessing blood results, it has treated any “off-score” of more than 103 as suspicious.

(The technicalities of testing and definitions of terms such as off-score are summarised here, if you are curious, but the statistical analysis can be understood without them).

But, if an athlete has been training at altitude, a higher score of 111.7 is required before it should be considered to be suspicious. There is a very wide consensus about this – it was recommended in a paper co-authored by the expert advisers to the Sunday Times.

The data is from an IAAF database used to target test athletes who might be doping. It was not designed to uncover doping on its own – there are not enough details to draw meaningful conclusions. Athletes were not asked about altitude training, for instance.

Radcliffe’s supposedly suspicious scores were 114.86, 109.86 and 109.3, all obtained after training at altitude. You do not need to be a genius with statistics to see that only one of those scores should have been treated by the investigation as being suspicious.

And this does not just affect Paula Radcliffe. Altitude training is not taken into account for any of the athletes, so the article greatly overestimates the prevalence of doping.

Error Number 2: The Prosecutor’s Fallacy

In two of the worst ever miscarriages of justice, Sally Clark and Angela Cannings (below) were wrongly convicted of murdering their children. They were both eventually freed by the Court of Appeal while a third suspect, Trupti Patel, was found not guilty by a jury.

Of course, it would not be right to compare Paula Radcliffe’s experience with the horror that these three women went through. But they do all have something in common. The false accusations were caused by the same fundamental misunderstanding of statistics.

Angela Cannings

The Sunday Times states that “The baseline for abnormal is any score that has less than a one in 100 chance of being natural.” This key assumption is, however, entirely wrong.

The baseline scores are in fact based on a one in 100 chance of a clean athlete recording a suspicious score. They relate to the probability of a clean athlete having a suspicious sample rather than the probability of a suspicious sample coming from a clean athlete.

This error is known as the prosecutor’s fallacy because it is associated with overzealous prosecutors with a poor grasp of statistics. It was one of many errors by Roy Meadow, the so-called expert whose testimony resulted in the convictions of Clark and Cannings.

In fact, a score which is marked as suspicious has a much higher chance of being natural.

The correct probability is calculated by dividing the number of clean suspicious scores by the total number of suspicious scores, both clean and dirty. To make the calculation, we first have to estimate how many suspicious scores are produced by actual dopers.

The Sunday Times puts the prevalence of suspicious scores at a little over 10% so let us say that, of every 1,000 samples, 100 are suspicious for reasons of doping. Of the other 900, there will be 9 suspicious false positives produced by clean athletes. Therefore, the probability that a suspicious score has come from a clean athlete is 9 / (100 + 9) = 8.26%.

And, given that the article overestimates the prevalence of doping, the figure could be much higher. If only 5% of athletes are producing suspicious scores through doping, the probability of a suspicious score being from a clean athlete is 9.5 / (50 + 9.5) = 15.97%.

It is highly unlikely that there would be two or more suspicious scores from the same athlete and so that would rightly trigger an investigation. But when there has been just one suspicious score which cannot be explained by altitude, as with Paula Radcliffe, it is then necessary to consider the substantial possibility that it has been caused by chance.

Error Number 3: Paula Must Explain Herself

The Sunday Times lists a number of factors which might lead to elevated blood scores: “genetic disposition, natural biological variation, analyser error, altitude exposure and acute illness” and said that the experts tried to exclude these causes. But many of these, such as genetic disposition, cannot be excluded because we simply do not know enough.

The biggest problem is that, by its very nature, chance variation cannot be excluded. The statistical model has a built-in assumption that there are sometimes chance variations which will push scores up to a suspicious level, either randomly or for reasons unknown.

This had resulted in a misconception that Radcliffe is in some way obliged to explain her single suspicious score. But if it is blind chance, she cannot. It is like asking your sister to explain why she threw two sixes at the crucial moment of your game of backgammon.

It would, of course, help if there were a simplistic media-friendly explanation because, as well as the 8% – 16% error rate caused by chance, there will be a further errors due to other confounding factors. But chance is often enough on its own to explain the result.

I realise that, if you are a suspicious type, this is not wholly satisfactory, but I am afraid I cannot do any more to alleviate your suspicions. In any event, you should probably get back to your game of backgammon to make sure your sister is not rigging the dice again.

In these situations, it is tempting to demand more information, as though it will make a problem easier to solve – this is not always true. Before demanding more information, we should first ensure that we fully understand the information which we already have.

Around the World in Eight Sports

Review of the week: 31 August – 6 September

Hamish Bond

It was a tight battle between two countries on opposite sides of the world, at the World Rowing Championships on the beautiful Lac d’Aiguebelette in France. Great Britain just edged New Zealand at the top of the medal table when it took victory in the men’s eight.

But the Kiwis would have been in first place had only events on the Olympic programme been included. They look in great shape for Rio with 2012 gold medallists Hamish Bond (above) and Eric Murray winning an extraordinary sixth consecutive coxless pairs title.

Despite their distance, Great Britain and New Zealand have a lot in common. They both have a long rowing tradition, Britain with the Henley Regatta and New Zealand with its schools competition, the Maadi Cup, which has been taking place annually since 1947.

Winning the Maadi Cup can be the first stroke in the race for Olympic medals. Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan, the double sculls gold medallists from London 2012, both had Maadi Cup victories in their school days, both winning the under-18 single sculls.

But tradition is not enough. Funding from UK Sport and High Performance Sport New Zealand ensures a smooth passage through the water for rowers from those countries.

Nino Schurter at the Worlds 2011

There was similar rivalry between France and Switzerland at the Mountain Bike World Championships. France won a larger share of the medals but Nino Schurter (above) of Switzerland pipped Julien Absalon of France in the men’s cross country. Schurter must now be favourite to win the Olympic gold medal in Rio, to add to his silver and bronze.

Great Britain’s men and Germany’s women were victorious at the European Wheelchair Basketball Championships and there was plenty of action on other continents as well.

In Asia, Japan hosted the Women’s World Cup in volleyball, where China was crowned as champion and Serbia also qualified for Rio. The gold medallist from London, Brazil, was absent, having pre-qualified as the host country, but will also be a threat next year.

Japan won the Asian Championships to qualify for the Olympics in women’s basketball and the Asian Boxing Championships were dominated, as usual, by Kazakhstan, which won 5 of the 10 weight categories. Its neighbour, Uzbekistan is hoping to emulate it, and punched above its weight by reaching 7 finals, but it only managed to take home 2 golds.

In North America, the US Open tennis tournament got underway in New York and, in South America, there were Olympic test events in Rio in beach volleyball and canoeing.

Last but not least, opening ceremonies took place at the All-Africa Games in Brazzaville, Congo, and the Commonwealth Youth Games in Samoa. They will be covered next week.

Canoeing in Hungary Part 1

Messing About in Boats

Off to a 4 weeks river trip

Imagine a boat which you can fit into a backpack and take camping with you. In the early 1900s, Johann Klepper imagined exactly that and began to manufacture folding kayaks.

Klepper’s factory was in a prime location, in the town of Rosenheim on the river Inn. The Inn flows into a much larger river downstream – it is a tributary of the mighty Danube.

The folding kayak started a craze for canoeing holidays, which spread through Germany and central Europe. When canoeing became an Olympic sport in 1936, nearly all of the medals were won by Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Hungary was a slow starter in comparison with its neighbours but it would claim its first Olympic medals in 1952.

With the exception of Germany, all of these countries are landlocked but they do all have the advantage of being situated on the river Danube. Of the four, Hungary is particularly blessed as the Danube passes magnificently through its capital city, Budapest (below).

Klepper’s canoe was so pervasive that the 1936 Games even included events for folding kayaks. The tiny fragile canoe had tamed the fearsome Danube and turned it into an ally.

Volt Királyi palota (138. számú műemlék) 3

A river is not strictly necessary. Sweden was another early Olympic canoeing power and many of its medallists have come from Nykoping, a small town on the east coast. There, the sport is so popular that it now has an international canoeing stadium in its harbour.

A fjord will also do. In recent years, Flekkefjord in Norway, with a population of 8,000, has produced three of the country’s greatest canoeists, including Eirik Veras Larsen. A fjord passes right through the middle of the town which surely is a factor in its success.

But for Hungary it was the Danube, an advantage which was intensified by communism, and the illicit investment in amateur sport which it brought. Austria could not keep up.

Czechoslovakia took a different course, a much less calm one, specialising in whitewater canoeing. This resulted in a rapid descent of its competitiveness on flatter waters but it created a canoe slalom legacy that continues in the Czech Republic and Slovakia today.

The Soviet Union, with many major rivers to rival the Danube, became another medal-winning power of the Cold War era. And another communist country had an impact too.

Imagine if Johann Klepper had taken one of his kayaks and paddled it the whole length of the Danube, a distance of nearly 1,800 miles. He would eventually have come out into the Black Sea, with the last part of his journey visiting a little known part of Romania.

The importance of the Danube in Olympic canoeing history is most strikingly illustrated by the story of that remote location, and it will be the subject of next week’s blog post.

Rift Valley of Gold

Review of the week: 24 – 30 August 2015

David Rudisha Beijing 2015

Just as the first humans poured out of Africa to populate the world, it seemed that the flow of medallists from Kenya kept on coming at the World Athletics Championships.

Peking Man was a long way behind, as was everybody else, with the sprightly exception of Jamaica, which equalled the Kenyan tally of 7 golds. Kenya’s usual dominance of the distance events was supplemented by victories in the men’s 400m hurdles and javelin.

Just as prolific are the theories used to explain it, many of which are reducible to one or two words: genetics, running camps, a “Kenyan style” of running or training, or doping.

The final explanation received some weak support this week as two Kenyan sprinters were suspended, having failed tests at their team hotel, before the competition began.

But more than two words are required. Running camps, for example, are typically run by American or European agents as profit-making businesses. They often receive no state support and are funded by a cut of the prize money won by athletes in city marathons.

There is almost no prize money in the 800m or 400m hurdles and Kenya’s track stars are part of a different system altogether. They have nothing to do with the famous Kenyan running camps, and so most of them are employed by the government in some capacity.

For example, David Rudisha, the 800m world champion (above), is a police officer, who represents the police team in domestic meets. However, it would be fair to say that he does not spend very much time fighting crime. It is a mechanism for paying him a salary.

There is little centralised training. Just as British athletes are given lottery funding but are free to choose their own coaches, Kenyan runners have a similar level of autonomy. Rudisha continues to be trained by his mentor, the Irish priest, Brother Colm O’Connell.

The independence of these training groups means that no generalisations can be drawn between them. As with athletes in the United States or Europe, there is no good reason to assume that a method which is being used in one group will be replicated elsewhere.

The secret of Kenyan athletics is that it has lots of secrets. A simple explanation cannot account for them all. Anybody who says that it can doesn’t understand Kenyan athletics.

Teddy Riner

The other headlines were an 11th gold medal for Usain Bolt, and a 9th for Allyson Felix in the 400m. Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands took the 200m in a European record.

Two countries won their first medals, both of them finishing behind Kenyans. Amel Tuka of Bosnia-Herzegovina came third to Rudisha, and Ihab El-Sayed of Egypt claimed silver in the javelin event won by Julius Yego. El-Sayed and Yego have the same Finnish coach.

Teddy Riner of France (above) won an eighth title at the World Judo Championships, a record, and Japan had its most dominant performance since 2010, winning 8 of the 16 events. It won only one gold at London 2012 but it may have peaked just right for Rio.

The Netherlands continued its equestrian successes from last week into EuroHockey, where it won the men’s tournament, but its women suffered a shock defeat to the hosts, England, in the final. Ireland reached the semi-finals of the men’s event for the first time.

There was more surprises in the Blind Football European Championships, where Turkey defeated the favourites Spain on the way to the title, and in AfroBasket, where Nigeria beat perennial winners Angola in the final. Not even Kenyan running will reign forever.

Next week: Rowing, women’s volleyball, Asian boxing and basketball, and mountain bike