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Field Measurements

The “field” in the title of this post refers to field events in track and field — throwing and jumping. “Measurements” refers to how the throws and the jumps are measured — English units versus metric units. I will eventually argue, with regret, that it’s time to let go of English units in this context. Not in general. I’m not a metric fanatic. For scientific use, sure, go metric. But for everyday use, I have no desire to abandon English units. I do, though, in field events.

Let me be more specific. The world already uses the metric system in field events. The problem is that we in the US don’t, and this creates total confusion when an international event is being broadcast on US TV. The equipment on the track lists distances and heights in metric, the graphics on the screen show them in metric, but the announcers speak in English units. It’s nonsensical. More on this later in the post. But first, some context.

Let me remind you that the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics (or, as we say in the US, track and field) took place in Berlin last week. Here in the US, Versus provided coverage on weekdays, with NBC taking over on weekends. This was a godsend for me, as it allowed me to suppress the painful last day of the PGA golf championships. (I’ve already written a bit about the championships here and here.)

On the weekdays, Versus would show live coverage of the last two hours or so of events each day, with the schedule set up so that those last two hours — prime time in Europe but lunch time here — contained all the major running finals. Timing of field events is not so easy to control, so some of each final event would typically occur during the broadcast time but conclude after. Broadcasting a running event is straightforward. The competitors come on the track. They stand around, hop a little, maybe jog a few yards one way or another, prance a bit if that’s their nature, eventually take off their warmup suits, take their marks, get set, and run. Once they start, we pretty much know, give or take seconds or at most half a minute (marathon aside), how long it will take them to complete the event. Easy to schedule, easy to predict, easy to broadcast.

Let me review how a typical field event is run. Let’s take men’s pole vault. On one day there’s a preliminary round to cut the field to a reasonable number, 15 in the case of pole vault. Then, a couple of days later, the final takes place. The bar is set at some reasonable starting height, which in this case was 5.50 meters. Each finalist can choose to attempt this height or pass. You get three chances at the height. If you miss three times, you’re eliminated. Once everyone has cleared the height in three or fewer attempts, missed on all three attempts, or passed, the bar is raised. Let me note that you have the option of attempting it one or two times and missing, then passing, but of course if you do this, you have only two or one chances to pass at the next height you attempt. Put differently, you can attempt or pass whenever you want, but three missed tries in a row — at whatever heights — and you’re out. Also, in case you need to be reminded, 5.50 meters is about 18′ 1/2 “. The current world record for pole vault is 6.14 meters, or 20′ 1 3/4”, set by the great Soviet/Ukrainian pole vaulter Sergey Bubka in 1994.

As the pole vault final progressed last Saturday night in Berlin, the bar height was raised in the following sequence: 5.50, 5.65, 5.75, 5.80, 5.85, 5.90, 5.95. As with any field event in a major championship, the story that unfolded was filled with drama, as a look at the results suggests. However, because of the constraints of TV coverage, one never really gets to see the drama. I am simply inferring it from the data. One sees, for example, that the 13 of the 15 competitors cleared this height, 7 on their first attempt, 5 on their second, and one, the German Malte Mohr, on his third. The lone American in the final, Derek Miles, missed on all three attempts and was eliminated. The Australian Steve Hooker, who got the Olympic gold medal in Beijing last year, passed.

Now, there’s a story here, so let me take a moment to tell it. Hooker had been suffering for a few weeks from a groin injury. He didn’t know if he would be able to compete in Berlin. In the qualifying two nights earlier, vaulting started at 5.25 meters, continuing to heights of 5.40, 5.55, and 5.65. He passed on the first three heights, knowing that if he could clear at 5.65, he would qualify for the final, so he was taking a risk on jumping at the final height, trying to limit himself to a single jump in order to minimize injury. The strategy worked. He cleared 5.65 on his first attempt and was done for the night. In the final, he planned a similar strategy of passing on the lower heights, knowing that he ran the risk of clearing no heights at all, but also knowing he might have no more than two jumps in him.

Let’s get back to the final night. At the second height of 5.65 m, five more vaulters missed on three attempts and were eliminated. Hooker passed. Eight cleared. Those eight and Hooker moved on to 5.75m. Two were eliminated. Four cleared. Hooker passed yet again. And two others, having missed on one or two attempts, passed to the next height, 5.80m. At that height, one of the two who made attempts at 5.75m but then passed was eliminated. The other (Romain Mesnil of France) cleared. Two more were eliminated, one more cleared (Renaud Lavillenie of France), and another passed after an initial miss (Maksym Mazuryk of Ukraine). Hooker passed once more.

Now we’re at 5.85m, with four still vaulting: Mesnil and Lavillenie, both of whom had cleared 5.80m; Mazuryk, who had not cleared 5.80m, and Hooker, who had yet to jump. Mazuryk missed two attempts at 5.85m and was eliminated. Mesnil cleared 5.85m on his first attempt. Lavillenie missed on his first attempt and passed to the next height. Hooker finally jumped. He missed, falling to the cushions in great pain, after which he chose to pass to the next height.

And now we are left with the two Frenchmen and Hooker, jumping at 5.90m. Hooker has yet to clear a height, Mesnil has cleared 5.85m, and Lavillenie cleared 5.80m, but missed once at 5.85m. The two Frenchmen both missed their first attempts. Hooker, attempting only his second vault, cleared it. Unbelievable. (See youtube video above.) The tiebreaker rules now come into play. Hooker has the advantage over the other two if they all clear the same height, so there’s no point in their trying again at 5.90m. They can’t improve their standings that way. The bar goes to 5.95m. Hooker sits this one out. Lavillenie is down to one attempt and misses. Mesnil has two attempts left, and misses both. Hooker has won! He took an enormous gamble and it paid off.

That’s my reconstruction, from the data. On the broadcast, Dwight Stones handled the field events. Stones has been the leading field event analyst on US TV for over two decades, after a career of great distinction in the high jump. (He won the bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics at the age of 18, set the world record three times in the middle of the decade, was bronze medalist again in 1976, and was fourth in 1984.) Typically, during last week’s coverage, he would be brought in after some race, or even in the middle of a longer race*, to update us on the action in one event or another. He would proceed to show three or four jumps or throws with the briefest of summaries of what round of jumping or throwing it was, what the overall setup was, what the significance of each jump was, and maybe do the same 30 or 40 minutes later. He might conclude with the winning jump, or say here’s where things stand with another round to come or another height about to be attempted, but telling us time was up so we would see more tomorrow. The men’s pole vault coverage followed this pattern. Given the constraints, it was handled well. We knew of Hooker’s predicament, we knew the two Frenchmen were the remaining challengers, we saw the attempts at the last two heights. The key moments were seen. But we missed so much, including any continuing sense of the flow of the event.

What does any of this have to do with the issue of whether field events are measured in metric or English units. Well, the problem with the coverage was that whenever Stones tried to update us on the developments in an event, he would speak in English units while we looked at data on the screen in metric, turning an already difficult task of quickly absorbing the mix of aural and visual data into a near impossible one. I have grown up following field events in English units. Certain English thresholds have powerful meaning. The 16 foot barrier in the pole vault for instance. Don Bragg was the best pole vaulter when I started following, setting the world record and winning the Olympic gold medal in 1960. But he never made the transition from an aluminum pole to a fiber glass one, so the glory of breaking that 16 foot barrier went not to him but to John Uelses, in 1962. Who ever thought the 20′ barrier would be broken? But Bubka did it many times. Similarly, in the men’s high jump, 7 foot jumps were still uncommon when I started following, but the great Cuban Javier Sotomayor cleared 8 feet twenty years ago. (As far as I can tell, while he cleared 8 feet several times, no one else has ever done it.)

Switching to metric means losing the significance of these historic milestones. (Or should I say footstones?) 8 feet isn’t a significant meterstone — it’s just under 2.44 meters. But the point is, the switch has already happened. It’s not an issue for debate. Every competitor knows the appropriate meterstones. Fans outside the US know them. And as I’ve noted, the graphics on the broadcast use them. For example, when a pole vaulter was shown preparing to jump, overlaid on the screen would be a table with the heights the bar had passed through up to that point (5.25, 5.40, etc.) and, below each height, X to signify a miss, O to signify a clear, and – to signify a pass. One might see XXO, indicating two misses and a clear, or X-, indicating one miss and a pass to the next height. As we saw this, Dwight Stones would use English measurements to tell us what that vaulter was attempting now — 19′ 1/2″ say, perhaps telling us as well what heights in feet and inches the vaulter had already cleared, what his personal best is, what his best this season is, or what he did last year in the Olympics. It was jarring, and worse than that, utterly useless, because in the time that we saw the graphic on the screen, we couldn’t translate between the set of displayed metric numbers and the set of oral English numbers. As long as the display was in metric, Stones might as well have simply told us whatever he had to say in the same units.

And that, at long last, is the point of this post! I prefer English units for field events. Yet the decision by NBC and Versus to continue using them added not clarity but incoherence. Forget it already. End of story.

*As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, it seems to be a law of US televised track coverage that no race over 1500m is shown in full. It is assumed that we can’t bear it. Not even the 3000m steeplechase, which for men lasts about 8 minutes. And not, alas, for the men’s 5000m, which took place on Sunday afternoon (we had to see it on tape delay on NBC) and was one of the greatest races I’ve ever seen. Kenenisa Bekele, last year’s double Olympic gold medalist in the 5000m and 10000m had already won the world championship 10000m the previous weekend and was aiming to repeat his double. American (and former Kenyan) Bernard Lagat, defending double world champion from 2007 in Osaka in 1500m and 5000m finished a disappointing 3rd in the 1500m in Berlin after being boxed in on the final lap. He finally broke clear after the last turn, getting to the outside and sprinting from 7th or 8th. He vowed, in his interview immediately afterwards, to make up for it in the 5000m. He’s no longer at his peak, at 34, and Bekele is the greatest distance runner of our time. I didn’t expect Lagat to have a chance. But there he was, on Bekele’s shoulder on the final lap of the 5000m when Bekele made his move after what had been, up to that point, a slow race. Coming into the final turn, Lagat, still on Bekele’s outside shoulder, began to pass. On the final straightaway, with less than 100m left, he took the lead for a moment. In a stunning display of speed and endurance, Bekele came back on him, winning in 13:17.09 with Lagat just .24 seconds behind and C’Kurui of Qatar less than a half second farther back. A gem of a race. Too bad it had to be interrupted for ads and a quick look at other action.

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Categories: Measurement, Sports
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