I love experts. On whatever subject. You know the type, people who know their subject back to front, speak quietly and succinctly, explaining carefully and accessibly, and have the class to admit when they don’t know something. But their expertise shines through.
In the year or so that I’ve been writing this blog, it’s been gratifying to get so many well-considered posts from serious correspondents (as opposed to the knee-jerk reactions from the sort of people who give internet forums such a bad name).
In addition to the many luminaries who have replied to various posts over the last year, I was especially pleased to receive a response recently to a blog from a month ago on Lasse Viren. Its tardy arrival means that few readers will have seen it, so I reprint it here, not only because of the subject matter (accusations of potential blood doping by Viren), but because it is from Professor Craig Sharp, a man credited with being the founder of sports science in Britain (see mini-bio, http://www.faqs.org/sports-science/Sc-Sp/Sharp-Craig.html)
I met Craig at Birmingham University over 25 years ago, after he had responded to a newspaper article I’d written on the vagaries of the female ‘sex-test’ which was still in operation back then. The test was designed to eliminate chromosomal ‘males’ from women’s competition, but it was fraught with problems, not the least being that the women who were forced to take the test found it demeaning.
Now I’m no scientist, but Craig patiently gave me a fascinating personal seminar on the range of chromosomal differences in human reproduction, and for a rare occasion in my life, I can say that I came away, if not the wiser, then infinitely better informed. I occasionally spot the documentation he gave me, lurking amid the compedious files which litter every room in my flat.
Anyway, firstly, here is Craig’s response re Viren:
‘Just a comment re Lasse Viren and blood doping. I was a physiologist with the GBR team at Munich 72, and I happened once to be in the shower area with Lasse. As we had heard a rumour (no more) that one or two Scandinavian runners (unspecified) might have blood doped – I had a wee look at the obvious main I/V injection sites on Lasse. Now, to transfuse a unit (450ml) of blood needs a big needle, and leaves an obvious mark at best. But on the main venous sites on Lasse there were no marks at all – and no elastoplasts covering any suspicious areas.
So, I have never believed that Lasse Viren was other than an extremely gifted runner who trained – and focussed – and raced – brilliantly. And this is not starry-eyed or wishful thinking – I was part of the dope testing team at the 1977 World Table Tennis Champs in Birmingham UK, and I headed the same at the world Canoe Champs at Holme Pierrepont, UK in 1981 – and in my time lectured much and published on doping in sport (albeit long ago, now!). So, I was not ignorant of doping methods – (and indeed recently published on gene doping possibilities.) And as a former veterinary surgeon (turned sports scientist) I was certainly not ignorant of intravenous work!
One of the major curses of doping is that every brilliant result is (understandably) suspect. As Addison wrote ” ‘Tis not in mortals to command success,/ But we’ll do more Sempronius, we’ll deserve it.”
The trouble these days is knowing who deserves it!’
In subsequent emails, Craig has had some equally interesting things to say about subjects and personalities which/who are of interest to many people in the running community; and refer to questions which arise regularly on athletics’ forums.
I have edited his comments, adding references in brackets; the ellipses (dots) indicate where words (repetitions, personal things) are missing; I’m sure you’ll find this as interesting as I did:
‘I’m glad that you still see Steve (Ovett)….. I loved his off-beat humorous take on life, I found him a very relaxing and easy person to be with. I think in part it comes from having absolutely nothing else to prove! When he came to the Olympic Centre (in Birmingham, UK – ed)- he always seemed very at home in the lab. Of course I had a proper awe of his achievements!!!!….
I equally admired Seb (Coe), but only met him a couple of times – and not under the exhausting conditions of the treadmill! I met his father more often – he would come, or phone, about various points of exercise physiology – about which he was genuinely and intelligently knowledgeable. And Peter (Coe) was very open minded (unlike quite a lot of coaches!!) – talking with him was just like talking to another scientific colleague – he was happy to have any areas of lack of knowledge put right – he never minded being told he was wrong, provided one had good evidence, and a better explanation to put in its place!.
I knew Harry Wilson (Ovett’s coach) well, and John Anderson (Dave Moorcroft and Liz McColgan’s coach) very well indeed – and I listened as much to them as vice versa. For example, I separately asked them both – around the late 70’s – what place stretching and flexibility training had in their coaching – of Seb and Dave (Moorcroft) among others. And both said exactly the same thing. “Flexibility training makes runners go more slowly.” Now, I also worked (and still do!) with gymnasts (and with dancers), so I was very surprised at that – but, as I genuinely didn’t know one way or the other, I simply bowed to their coaching expertise.
But not long later, I read in one of the good medico-scientific journals a piece of excellent work carried out on over 100 subjects, who had been divided, on a proper physiotherapy assessement of 23 (I think it was) flexibility measures – and were graded as: 1) very flexible; 2) medium, i.e. ‘normal’; 3) poor. And they were then assessed on the treadmill – and their running economy was in inverse relation to their flexibility, just as Harry and John had noted from their own experience. The ‘less flexibles’ had. by definition, tighter tendons and ligaments – so had to stretch them more during their stride, which stored more elastic energy in them. The great animal locomotion authority, McNeill Alexander, of whom you’ll know, calculated that over 35% of the energy of a single step was stored (and released) in the Achilles tendon, and around 17% similarly in the ligaments of the longitudical and tranvserse arches of the foot (as it flattened down). This was in humans, running at a speed of about 300m/minute. These data are off the top of my head, but are reasonably accurate…….
At the time of Dave Moorcroft’s great days, he used to come a lot to my lab in Birmingham – about every month at one time. And I was a wee bit worried about just exactly what use I was to him – as his results almost always got steadily better – but I had no real advice other than to keep doing more of the same! So I said to David that I genuinely didn’t see what help I was giving him. And he said “Craig, if I have a bad period in training or racing – and if my lab results are the same as before – then I know that the problem must be in my head – and not my body. But if I’m not going so well, and the results are down a bit – then I know what to deal with. What you give me – is reassurance.”
I remember too, Harry (Wilson) – I think it was – later asked me to do a full lab test at the BOMC on a young elite woman 800m runner, two or three weeks before a major race. I said that there was absolutely no point in doing that, as there wouldn’t be any time to modify anything in the light of the test results. But Harry said “NO, I know that – and the results don’t matter. But it will do her morale good, just to be tested – as all her foreign opponents have been, and she knows that.” So, we tested her, and made quite a fuss of her. And she ran well. So, Harry was using us for psychological reasons, and good for him……
At my age, I am quite interested in ‘the past’ – well especially 1945 – 60. (I was taken by my Polish stepfather to one rainy day of the 1948 Olympics – and saw Gaston Reiff beat Zatopek by 1.5m (0.2s) in the 5000m – having started the final lap with about 50metres of a lead!!! That was what turned me on to Athletics!!! …..
Bengt Saltin….. Dave Costill and Tim Noakes, I would say, are the three best sports physiologists in the world.
………..Another friend, Harvard evolutionary anthropologist Daniel Lieberman….. and others think we shouldn’t wear shoes, Tim Noakes thinks runners drink too much of the wrong drinks – both groups blame the profit motive. And some people are now saying that lactic acid is not the prime cause of fatigue that it has been made out to be – and Tim thinks that fatigue anyway is not locally sited in muscles (lactic acid or glycogen) or lungs or heart or blood (glucose or oxygen) or temperature or dehydration – but in a site in the brain that correlates all of these together – what he calls ‘The Central Fatigue Governor’.
So, some of our old certainties may be going to the wall.’
But not the certainty that experts like Craig Sharp and those he mentions are a boon to everyone in the running community, and many outside.