Monthly Archives: August 2015

The astonishing comebacks at the Athletics World Championships

By Helen Owton


It seems to be the year of the comeback at the Athletics World Championships in Beijing. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, widely tipped to lose out to US runner Justin Gatlin, ran a time of 9:77 in the 100m final to beat his rivals and retain his title as world champion. It has been described as the most important win of an already stellar career.

Bolt had been recovering from an injury and had struggled with his form. It appears to have had a sacroiliac joint block, which was restricting his movement and causing him pain in his leg.

This type of injury can be a common problem for athletes, but it is under-researched so treatment and recovery is complex. The fact that Bolt had to overcome this poorly understood condition will make his victory all the sweeter.

British long-distance runner Mo Farah also fought back in the early days of the competition to win the 10,000m in style, notwithstanding one small stumble.

Farah has been engulfed in controversy in recent months after his trainer, Alberto Salazar, was the subject of doping allegations levelled in a BBC Panorama documentary. There is no suggestion that Farah himself was involved in, or had any knowledge of doping, but the intense media scrutiny to which he was subjected would not have made preparation for Beijing easy.


Jessica Ennis-Hill achieved a comeback of a different kind in Beijing. Ennis-Hill returned to athletics this year after having a child. While in my research I acknowledge that sport is a psychologically empowering force for mothers, it can also lead to conflict between the competing roles of athlete and parenthood. And since the London 2012 Olympics, Ennis-Hill has changed both physically and psychologically. It was fascinating to see her new body and self perform. She is an inspiration, having won a gold medal in the heptathlon.

With Bolt, Farah and Ennis-Hill retaining their titles, will any others follow in their footsteps to make their comeback this week?

Caster Semenya

For me, one of the most unforgettable memories in recent athletics history was the women’s 800m at the World Championships in Berlin in 2009. The women gathered themselves for the final. BANG. They sprint out of the blocks and take the bend. Caster Semenya sits behind the front runner, then at 52 seconds into the race, she overtakes to lead from the front. She speeds ahead, breaks away, glances back but the others have no response. She completely dominates the last half of the race and finishes with a time of 1:55:46.

Since this phenomenal performance, instead of being hailed a star, Semenya has been at the centre of huge controversy over her gender and which prevented her from competing until the following year. This has undoubtedly had an impact on her motivation and her personal best time.

Despite the adversity she experienced, Semenya was back at her best, or near it, at the IAAF World Championships in 2011 when she won silver in the 800m. Here’s hoping she can pull through for another astonishing victory this year.

Christine Ohuruogu

Christine Ohuruogu is making a return to defend her 400m world title in Beijing. Over the years, like many athletes, she has experienced injuries – and she was also suspended for a year after missing three doping tests in a row in 2006.

Often talented athletes are pushed into the limelight without being prepared for media attention and being subjected to public scrutiny. Nonetheless, Ohuruogu has a habit of being unpredictable and can pull out fast times when they’re least expected.

Dina Asher-Smith

Dina Asher-Smith, also part of the Great Britain squad, is one of many of the young athletes to watch in the 200m. She broke Britain’s national 100m record earlier this year.

Smoke gets in their eyes

There are some elements of unpredictability ahead for athletics. In 2008, Beijing went to additional lengths to cut down on the city’s infamous air pollution for the sake of competing athletes, but for the IAAF World Championships 2015, this hasn’t happened.

British athletes have been given “pollution packs” but for athletes with asthma, this high level of pollution can alter the airways’ responsiveness and can cause long-term damage.

In 2008, human rights activists highlighted the fact that child athletes’ civil rights, legal rights and above all, their human rights are ignored in China. Amid the individual performances, there are certainly some more opportunities for new and evolving stories to be developed at this World Championships.

UPDATE: the original version of this piece misstated the name of Justin Gatlin, and claimed Semenya broke the World Record in 2009. She did not.

The Conversation

Helen Owton, Lecturer in Sport & Fitness, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Records to beat and battles to watch at the World Athletics Championships

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss

This year’s World Athletics Championships kicking off in Beijing couldn’t come at a better time for many athletes. It is a chance for athletic performance to take centre stage, a change in focus from the recent doping controversy that has shrouded the sport.

While we know that three medals will be awarded for each event, what is less known is which records may fall. So far this year, 11 world records have been broken in indoor and outdoor events. But some athletics records have stood for decades, and will take some beating.

So which are the events with the most giant-slaying potential? Here’s a quick guide.

Women’s events

Many of the women’s events have long-standing records. The women’s 100m record of 10.49 seconds, set by Florence Griffith-Joyner, remains unbeaten since 1988. In men’s events, Michael Johnson’s 400m world record of 43:18 set in 1999 still stands today.

Poland’s Anita Wlodarczyk is the hammer to beat.
EPA/Piotr Wittman

Poland’s Anita Wlodarczyk has already posted a world-record throw in the women’s hammer this year, so undoubtedly is the favourite in Beijing. She is tipped to better her 81.08m throw set at the Festival of Throwers meeting in Cetniewo, Poland, a monumental distance and the first time the 80m barrier has been broken by a woman. Such a huge improvement suggests that Wlodarczyk has the potential to throw even further in Beijing.

Giant leaps

Like Johnson’s long-standing 400m record, another that has stood for 20 years is Jonathan Edwards’s triple jump record – currently at 18.28m.

Current Olympic champion Christian Taylor is still 23cm short of this, but this record is what he has his sights on, and has been his goal since entering the sport.

Christian Taylor is the current Olympic champion triple jumper.
EPA/Olivier Anrigo

Taylor will have some competition in the shape of Cuba’s Pedro Pablo Pichardo who recently jumped out to 18.06 at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Doha. This competition could be the one to see this long-standing record fall.

Bolt v Gatlin

It will take a record-breaking time to win the 4x100m men’s relay. The event which will see Jamaica’s team (featuring the fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt) take on America (featuring Justin Gatlin).

Bolt vs Gatlin: the high-speed duel everyone’s been talking about.
EPA/Thierry Roge

The Bolt/Gatlin showdown is hotly anticipated and the two athletes will first face each other in the men’s 100m. At 33, Gatlin is five years older than Bolt and has twice been found guilty of doping. Much has been made of this contest and many have suggested that Gatlin will not only take Bolt’s 100m title but will also claim his world record, which was set in 2009.

Long walk to stardom

While the 100m is undoubtedly the most hyped, the 20km walk could also see a new record set. Research has frequently cited the benefits of competing at home and this could well be the case for Liu Hong as she attempts to go faster than her 1.24.38 time set at the Premio Cantones de Marcha – the Spanish leg of the 2015 IAAF Race Walking Challenge in La Coruna.

China’s golden walker, Liu Hong.
Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Briton Mo Farah also has the potential to break records in Beijing. He is in the form of his life, having broken the two mile indoor record earlier this year. While Farah has said the wins are the priority he hasn’t ruled out tackling Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele’s 5,000m (12:37.35) and 10,000m (26:17.53) outdoor records.

What is certain is that the coming nine days of competition guarantee to have their fair share of drama, medals and hopefully some record-breaking performances.

The Conversation

Candice Lingam-Willgoss is Lecturer in Sport & Fitness at The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The other giant leap for mankind: how this athlete set a world record that’s still standing 20 years later

By Ben Oakley

In the late evening Scandinavian sun at the 1995 World Athletics Championship, Jonathan Edwards, a British triple jumper, was the tenth t jump out of of 12 finalists. He took a minute to collect himself, then sped down the runway to jump 18.16m, breaking his own world record by 18 centimetres.

Edwards wandered around in a contented daze, waiting for the distance to be displayed when he heard the crowd roar as they saw the scoreboard before he did. The jump was valid. Then, 25 minutes later Edwards went again; he looked incredibly relaxed before he sprinted for his second celebratory jump, whose rhythm and smoothness produced a further distance of 18.29m. The stadium exploded in a tumult of shared joy of witnessing something very special.

And very special it was – that record has stood for 20 years now. In a world where athletes constantly shave millimetres, seconds and nano-seconds off previous bests, that jump in 1995 is assuming the status of a mythical feat. The closest anyone else has got is 20cm away – Kenny Harrison (USA) at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. More recently, Cuban Pedro Pablo Pichardo’s steady annual improvements have seen him come within 21cm.

How did Edwards do it? He described it as a magic combination of timing and speed, power and touch. And studying his 2001 authorised biography, A Time to Jump, and his subsequent public comments can give us more insight.

Early years

A key ingredient in Edwards’s success was a genetic blueprint that meant he had raw speed on the track (according to his biography, his best 100m time is 10.48 sec). Speed as you approach take-off in triple and long jump is one of the key pre-requisites of success, since it translates into horizontal distance when jumping. But genetic potential is the relatively easy part; the rest is a blend of multiple factors.

Growing up in Ilfracoumbe, a modest town in Devon, South West England, helped. Where you grow up influences the likelihood of sporting success with small towns enabling a more supportive developmental climate. It’s often better to be a big fish in a small pond. West Buckland private school also allowed Edwards to thrive in a diverse range of sports including rugby, basketball, tennis, athletics, cricket and gym.

Participating in a rich mix of different sports in childhood is the optimal preparation for future success in most sports. Learning to move in varied ways is the best foundation, rather than specialising in one sport from an early age which might be called “extreme nurture”. Edwards eventually concentrated on jumping at the age of 21.

At school, his diminutive stature earned the nickname of “Titch” and a birthdate in May magnified his late physical development in comparison with others in his school year. A concerned PE teacher was frightened to select him for inter-school rugby fearing for his safety. Children born in May, June, July and August, the youngest in their school year, are less likely to get selected for squads in adolescence, but are more likely to achieve senior professional status: a reversal of the relative age effect. The additional challenge experienced by these initially disadvantaged younger athletes is thought to build resilience – a key component for success.

18 metre man.
John Giles/PA

Faith and training

To succeed, champions need to learn their craft. After graduating in Physics from Durham University, the 1988 Olympics was his first major event at the start of his elite development. Fortunately his body responded well to training and he mostly stayed injury-free, both of which are starting to be recognised as having genetic components.

An international athlete’s craft involves refining diet, responding to coaching analysis, conditioning in the gym and making wise travel arrangements. While in the arena, optimising the warm-up, saving energy for competition and coping with pressure all need to be incrementally developed through experience.

After six years of full-time training, aged 27, following disappointment at both the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games, Edwards made the World Championships podium (bronze) having leapt 17.44 metres. Jumping a whole metre further seemed impossible at that time.

Athletes need to be fascinated with this process of improving. The paradox is that they need to be able to make sense of this seemingly selfish pursuit; a need to be content with the purpose of their lives. At times Edwards battled with realising his talent and fulfilling his strong Christian obligations which until 1993 meant he would not compete on Sundays. His evangelical faith helped make sense of optimising his jumping talent: it was in service to God. Many years later, in retirement and after losing his faith, he said that looking back “faith gave me more perspective on success or failure, it was my sport psychology in a way”.

A further ingredient of success is rest and recovery. Edwards was forced to recuperate after contracting Epsterin Barr virus in 1994; it meant he was revived as he eased his way back into training. It also gave him time to think deeply about his jumping technique including a new two-arm swing skywards.

The big jump

The final ingredient in the mix is supreme confidence. Edwards’s 1995 season started well. A national record in his first contest, he was on his way. Then in June he achieved the longest leap of all time, 18.43m in Lille. Unfortunately the jump was only a hair’s breath, 0.4m/sec, over the legal wind threshold. But he had re-defined the parameters of the sport.

He first broke the world record properly weeks later in Salamanca with 17.98m. Then came Gothenberg and his place in history. Watching the footage of his second, record-breaking jump, you can see that on the runway he is relishing the moment having just broken the world record again minutes previously. He knows he might do it again and is supremely confident and relaxed.

Later, he admitted that if he could combine the physicality of Gothenberg with the technical perfection of Lille he believed 18.60m was possible. He never achieved such a distance, but five years later he won gold in the 2000 Olympics, aged 34.

Jonathan Edwards’ path from a cherubic vicarage schoolboy to the 20th anniversary of his enduring triple jump world record reveals rich insights about the complex jigsaw of podium success.

Often discussions of elite athletics all too easily fall into a facile nature-nurture debate. Probing athlete’s biographies alongside research can reveal fascinating and varied routes to the top. And there are few higher (or further) athletic achievements than that great leap in 1995.

The Conversation

Ben Oakley is Head of Childhood, Youth and Sport at The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

‘The Silent Voice’ in dance and ballet

By Helen Owton & Helen Clegg

Dance is generally considered to be more accepting of gay men and research (e.g. Risner, 2009) shows that gay and bisexual men comprise 50% of the male population who dance in the US compared to 4-10% in the general population. However, whilst the dance world may acknowledge the presence of a larger proportion of gay men there remains an implicit homophobia in terms of a demand for heternormative performance (Risner, 2007). Ever mindful of the audience male dancers are expected to conform to a narrow concept of the masculine ideal that perpetuates the heterosexual “norm”. For example, in Risner’s (2009) study one participant, when being encouraged to dance with more strength, was told not to dance “like a fag” by his dance teacher.

As Strictly Come Dancing start their rehearsals, we consider ‘the silent voice’ in dance and ballet. Whilst dance is considered more accepting of homosexuality, the majority of this association is regarded towards the acceptance of gay men in dance, not women. Even discussions about inclusions of a same-sex couple in Strictly Come Dancing only involve gay men. Whilst homophobia in dance exists in different ways in dance (compared to sport) with masculinist comparisons and heterosexist approaches means that there seems to be a kind of quiet internal “acceptance” that obscures larger social issues that makes encounter. However, what strikes us is the lack of visible lesbians in professional dance.

Whilst the sexualising of dance and lesbianism for the purpose of the ‘male gaze’ exists in a pornographic sense, there seems to be a silent voice in professional dance about lesbians. Black Swan received the most complaints about the lesbianism portrayed in the film being pornographic and distasteful; an “overtly sexualised ‘hot-but-non-threatening’ feminine lesbian.” (Dixon, 2015, p.45) In Black Swan, a heterosexual woman was represented as experimenting with other women and seemingly “functioned instead as a kind of ‘sexy’ addendum to female heterosexuality.” (Dixon, 2015, p.45) However, when feminine lesbians are portrayed in this way, “Girl-on-girl action is presented as exciting, fun, but, crucially, as entirely unthreatening to heterosexuality.” (Gill, 2009, p.153)

“It may well be tempting to think that lesbians have equality, recognition achieved, on the basis of the supposed tolerance of the kinds of images made visible and perpetuated through the medium and marketing of films like Black Swan, which are then replicated to convey a similar sentiment in the promotion of places like Sitges as ‘cosmopolitan’. What I am arguing, however, is that whenever and wherever this does occur, we have to be completely and utterly certain that inequalities are not simply being reiterated at the exact moment the opposite is being said to have been achieved; to be certain that is, that in perpetuating and celebrating such representations we are not all simply hiding behind the faces of white masks.” (Dixon, 2015, p. 52)

Lesbians have been more connected to sports (Griffin, 1998) and there is a long standing connection between homophobia/heterosexism and women’s participation in sport (Iannotta & Kane, 2002). Women’s team sports are sometimes seen as an environment that promotes the expression of homosexuality. Does being a female dancer/ballerina render sexuality inauthentic because they are more feminine?

Boulila (2011) describes her experience at an LGB salsa class where one of the women believed that the very fact that she was a lesbian meant that she embodied the very “antithesis of elegance in dance”. This may be linked to the intertwining of the stereotype of “butch lesbians” which has been associated with sports and the idea that female dancers are there to embody heterosexual fantasies of the audience. Such binary categorisations of heterosexual and homosexual women in dance, particularly in ballet, encourages the belief that lesbians just don’t dance. Indeed, when asked to estimate the number of lesbians in their dance company across 36 companies only 1 dancer (a participant of the study) was identified as gay (Oberschneider & Bailey, 1997). Whilst this paper is nearly 20 years old more recent work (see Boulila, 2011) and blogs suggest that the idea of lesbian dancers continues to be believed to be a misnomer. We argue that lesbians do dance they just aren’t “coming out”.

So where does this leave us moving forward for women and lesbians in dance? Whilst it is not their sole responsibility to ‘come out’ it does question why there is such a silent voice of lesbians in dance and also an association between femininity, lesbianism and authenticity. Ballet and other forms of disciplined dance appear to be a closet for lesbians which is why it is so important to have ‘queer’ spaces in dance (e.g. Matthew Bourne) that disrupt gender binary frameworks; Firebird (by Katy Pyle), Ineffable (by Lohse) and the Queer Tango Dance Festival 8-12 July 2015 held in (anti-gay) Russia continue to challenge binary frameworks (e.g. male-female, feminine-masculine) for gay women as well.


Boulila, S. C. (2011). You Don’t Move Like a ‘Lesbian’: Negotiating Salsa and Dance Narratives. In 18th Lesbian Lives Conference, University of Leeds.

Dixon, L.J. (2015). Black swans, white masks: Contesting cosmopolitan and double misrecognition in a gay tourist town. Sexualities, 18(1/2), 37-56. Available:

Gill, R. (2009). Beyond the ‘sexualization of culture’ thesis: An intersectional analysis of ‘sixpacks’,‘midriffs’ and ‘hot lesbians’ in advertising. Sexualities, 12(2), 137–160

Oberschneider, M. & Bailey, J.M. (1997). Sexual orientation and professional dance. Archives of Sexual behavior, 26(4), 433-444.

Risner, D. (2007) Rehearsing masculinity: challenging the ‘boy code’ in dance education, Research in Dance Education, 8(2), 139-153

Risner, D. (2009) Stigma and Perseverance in the Lives of Boys who Dance. Lampeter, TheEdwin Mellen Press.