SWIMMING’S PHASE OF WOES

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The closure of swimming pools has meant tough times for swimmers, coaches and support staff

While COVID-19 has been a setback for sports at large, it has been particularly harsh on swimming.  And within that the impact has been hardest on competition swimmers.  “ Pools have been shut since around March 19. In competition swimming, there is no real replacement for the swimming pool. Dryland work outs cannot fully substitute training in the pool. It will be difficult for swimmers to get back to earlier performance levels,’’ Zarir Balliwala, President, Greater Mumbai Amateur Aquatics Association (GMAAA) said. The prolonged closure of pools has derailed this year’s district and state level competitions. Question mark graces the nationals too.

According to Zarir, the Swimming Federation of India (SFI) is seized of the matter and it has spoken to the government. But with no response that can be acted upon available yet, the closure continues. With it, elite swimmers training for events like the Olympic Games, endurance swimmers who have crossed channels and straits worldwide as well as recreational swimmers – all have been left high and dry. The tough situation was brought to focus when ace Indian swimmer Virdhawal Khade tweeted mid-June that he may have to consider retiring from the sport if pools stayed shut. Virdhawal is the current national record holder in 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle events and the 50m butterfly. He represented India at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. “ Regaining form will be an uphill task if elite swimmers don’t have access to the pool for long,’’ Sebastian Xavier, former national record holder in swimming who represented the country at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, said. On June 30, 2020, espn.in carried a report by Jonathan Selvaraj on swimmer Sajan Prakash, the only Indian elite swimmer who is currently training, thanks to him being in Thailand. Sajan who is still recovering from injury described his return to the pool after the virus triggered-lockdown. “ Going back to the water, I felt as if my body was made out of stone,” he was quoted as saying in the report.

Most people linked to swimming realize that with the virus sparing little room to argue their case, one has to simply hope for the best amid existing challenges. “ You have to look at the positive side,’’ Kaustubh Radkar, former national level swimmer and now a well-known triathlete and coach, said when asked how swimmers may tackle the predicament. He suggested that the best option would be to treat lockdown with its lack of access to pools, like a period of injury. “ Take it as if you are addressing injury. If I dip into personal experience, I had shoulder surgery in 2009 and was out of action for three months. You have to make the most of what is available. What you can do right now is indulge in shore based exercises and keep a positive attitude,’’ he said. With shoulder injury, Radkar estimates the dip in fitness levels he experienced over those three months at about 50 per cent. Without injury – which would be the apt way to estimate for the current situation – he felt the dip in swimmers’ fitness levels should be 25 per cent.

The above encapsulates only the physical aspect of how swimming is missed. Most people see the pool as a fun environment. That is typical landlubber perspective, one in which swimming is the exception and activity on land is the norm. This isn’t necessarily the perspective when you are a committed swimmer who is very comfortable in water. In that predicament, the way you miss swimming is more visceral. Asked how a dedicated swimmer may miss water, Radkar said that the question cannot be answered generically as the nature and extent of impact varies from person to person. Speaking for himself, he said, “ for me, water is very calming. When I am in the water, it is a perfect state of existence. There is no distraction. It is meditative and positive,’’ he said.  Zarir too recalled tranquility as the essential quality of water. This should give an idea of what exactly those embracing water as preferred medium of sport must be missing in these times of pools shut due to pandemic.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Swimming pools have been studied in the past for how they spread disease. The National Center of Biotechnology Information (NCBI) is part of the United States National Library of Medicine. There is a study titled “ A Review and Update on Waterborne Viral Diseases Associated with Swimming Pools’’ by Lucia Bonadonna and Giuseppina La Rosa, published January 9, 2019, available on its database. The introduction to its abstract says:  Infectious agents, including bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and molds, may threaten the health of swimming pool bathers. Viruses are a major cause of recreationally-associated waterborne diseases linked to pools, lakes, ponds, thermal pools/spas, rivers, and hot springs. They can make their way into waters through the accidental release of fecal matter, body fluids (saliva, mucus), or skin flakes by symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers. In its concluding remarks, the study noted: In light of the health hazards posed by swimming pools, it is essential to constantly monitor water quality in swimming pools and to assess the effectiveness of treatment and disinfection processes and compliance with standards. Specifically, appropriate chemical and microbial evaluation of water quality should be carried out, especially when large numbers of bathers are expected to use the pools. Overcrowding should in any case be prevented. Since the behavior of swimmers may affect water quality, strict rules of behavior in the pool should be followed and enforced, including shower before entering the water, wash hands after using the toilet, take children to bathroom before swimming, and, importantly, avoid swimming while sick. This study provides an overview of the health risks associated with swimming pools. In other words, you can’t pretend risks don’t exist. However the study precedes the COVID-19 pandemic by almost a whole year.

Similar studies specific to our COVID-19 times, were hard to locate. On May 15, 2020, www.covid19facts.com, a website hosted by Reckitt Benckiser (in India, their best-known brand is Dettol) posted an analysis by EIU (Economist Intelligence Unit) Healthcare on the risk of contracting COVID-19 from swimming in the pool or the sea. According to it, the biggest risk with swimming is likely getting too close to other people, for example in enclosed pools, changing rooms or on beaches, rather than infection from the water itself. Citing a report from the Spanish Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Higher Council for Scientific Research), the analysis said that its authors concluded: it was “highly unlikely” that people would be infected from contact with water. However, they warned, leisure swimming tends to involve a loss of social distancing, which is the major risk from using pools or beaches. In swimming pools, the authors say, “the use of disinfecting agents is widely implemented in order to avoid microbial contamination of the waters” by users. They say that “the residual concentration of the disinfecting agent present in the water should be sufficient for virus inactivation.” They admit there is “currently no data” on what happens to SARS-CoV-2 in seawater, but say that “the dilution effect, as well as the presence of salt, are factors that are likely to contribute to a decrease in viral load and its inactivation.” They say this is based on what happens to other, similar viruses. Rivers, lakes, and untreated pools are riskier, they say, and are “ the most inadvisable aquatic environments” for swimming. The report authors stress that the most likely way people could get infected while swimming “ is through respiratory secretions that are generated by coughing, sneezing and person-to-person contact” in busy spaces. The analysis also cited what the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to say on the subject. It quoted CDC: “ There is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, spas or water play areas. Proper operation and maintenance (including disinfection with chlorine and bromine) of these facilities should inactivate the virus in the water.” They also advise that the salt in the sea and dilution effects make it unlikely the virus would survive. CDC’s recommendations in full may be viewed on this link:  https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/parks-rec/aquatic-venues.html

In March, when nationwide lockdown was announced in India, the total number of COVID-19 cases was around 500. By July 6, that had changed to a total count (since the disease appeared in India) of almost 700,000 cases; third highest in the world. The original lockdown had relaxed but with relaxation of norms leading to further spread of infection in some places, stringent lockdowns were happening at local level. Such imagery stacks the cards against adopting a kinder view towards swimming pools. The people this blog spoke to agreed that the reopening of pools would have to be a well thought through decision; one that authorities may take only when they are absolutely sure of allowing it. At least one senior coach this blog spoke to said he was anticipating another couple of months of closure. He explained the reason. “ At the complex where I work, during busy hours, we may have around 100 people in the water and almost double that number on land. You can’t have that in a situation like the present. Only when infection numbers have dropped significantly, can we examine possibilities of return to swimming with new protocols in place,’’ he said. Pools have opened in some countries and the general practice seen there is not allowing use of shower rooms, changing rooms and locker rooms. You come ready to swim and once you finish your session, you put your clothes on top of wet swimsuit and go. Asked if it would be possible to open pools just for elite swimmers (so that their training isn’t damaged beyond repair), they felt it should be possible to do that with above said restrictions and strict lane discipline in place. The report on espn.in provided insight on how Sajan Prakash is training at Phuket’s Thanyapura Aquatic Centre. “ Among the rules we have to follow since the opening of swimming pools has been to train in separate lanes. In the past, because we had to share the pool with other members of the centre, we would all have to swim in a single file in the same lane. Very often you’d find someone’s hands touching your toes. It’s much less distracting to have your own lane,” Sajan, who represented India at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, was quoted as saying, in the report.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Athletes are only one aspect of sport. When sport is an industry, there are many others dependent on it. Their livelihood is hit when pandemic strikes and sports goes for a toss. With pools shut, there are swimming coaches and support staff finding it difficult to make ends meet. As with any industry, vulnerability depends on how secure your employment was. “ Those working for big institutions that run swimming pools and those located in major metros, may not be affected severely. But freelancers and the employment ecosystem around pools in smaller cities and towns would have been affected,’’ the head coach at a school in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, reputed for its strength in swimming, said. Sebastian Xavier is among those trying to raise resources to help. He forwarded to this blog information on the fundraiser Lets Pool In, which seeks to support 100 persons from the affected category with a one-time financial grant of Rs 10,000. “ It is a good move,’’ the earlier mentioned coach also said, adding he wished the amount per capita was more. Resident in the emergent livelihood problem around shut swimming pools is a little remembered detail. India’s lockdown started in March, just as summer vacation was approaching. The warm months of summer are when pools are at their busiest; Lets Pool In estimates that the summer months contribute as much as 60 per cent of annual revenues for this industry. So in 2020, the business of swimming pools and coaching therein has already lost its best earnings season. Not to mention – the coaching camps of summer play a role in scouting the next generation of the talented young.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

SPORT AND THE SHADOW OF RULE 50

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On January 14, 2020, the website of Time magazine carried an article by Melissa Godin listing the instances when athletes brought political protest to the Olympic Games.  The incidents range from support for Irish independence to fists raised in Black Power salute, protest against the erstwhile Soviet Union and declining to compete against Israel as means to highlight the plight of Palestinians. What prompted the compilation was – earlier that month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) disclosed new guidelines regulating protest by athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which guards the political neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games already deals with this subject.  But it was vague about what constitutes protest. Time magazine noted that the new guidelines, which mention examples of what count as protest, coincide with rising activism among athletes, especially those from the US. In August 2019 two US athletes had been placed under probation for a year after one knelt and the other raised a fist during medal ceremonies at the Pan American Games (they were protesting against gun violence, racial injustice and the recent acts of their country’s president). The report cited the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, saying that the Olympic Games must never be a platform to advance political or any other divisive ends. He maintained that the political neutrality of the Games is undermined when the occasion is used by organizations and individuals “ as a stage for their own agendas, as legitimate as they may be.’’

At the same time as the magazine article appeared, COVID-19, which would characterize 2020 in a defining way, was only weeks into being reported. It would be another two months before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic and the question of whether the 2020 Olympic Games would be held or not would haunt the IOC. On March 24, the Games were eventually shifted to 2021. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died as a result of police excess in Minneapolis, USA. It was a horrific incident, one that sparked a wave of protests in the US with reverberations elsewhere. In the mood of protest following Floyd’s death, Bach’s observation from January and Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter attracted attention afresh. Early June, the IOC confirmed to the Daily Telegraph that it stood by Rule 50. Days later, Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics told the Independent, that he wouldn’t discourage athletes from expressing their views as he felt the current generation is more willing to speak out than previous generations were. “ There is nothing in World Athletics’ Integrity Code of Conduct to prevent athletes from protesting as long as it is done in a respectful manner, considers other athletes and does not damage our sport,’’ Coe was quoted as saying in the report by Lawrence Ostlere. For proper perspective, it must be mentioned here that Coe, a former world record holder and Olympic champion, who also anchored the organization of the 2012 London Olympic Games, has been nominated to the IOC. World Athletics hasn’t had a member on the IOC since 2015. To be admitted, Coe needs to first step down from other private business responsibilities he holds which constitute potential conflict of interest.

Over the last decade or so, the factors that contribute to social justice have taken a beating in many parts of the world. Governments have veered to authoritarianism, there is a general feeling that justice is partial to capital, inequality in wealth distribution has grown and those left out feel marginalized. Simply put – topics for protest are many. So are governments with trumped up public image and skeletons in the cupboard, who will be sensitive to protest. Amid this, 2020 will be remembered as the year of the virus. As COVID-19 swept across a planet devoid of vaccine to combat it, the best solution we had was to break the chain of transmission. Hygiene protocols and physical distancing became primary defence. Above all, it demanded that we accept a cardinal truth – the virus exists. If you don’t accept that it exists then all the hygiene protocols, physical distancing; even the frantic search for a vaccine – they lose relevance. The protests over George Floyd’s death happened because people acknowledged that the problem at its core – the virus causing it – exists. Compared to that, Rule 50 sanitizing Olympic venues of protest is the equivalent of pretending that the world’s problems don’t exist in the first place. Athletes may be elite by virtue of being at the Olympics. But they hail from mainstream society and many of them have experienced firsthand, discrimination based on race, gender, economic and social inequality. How can you pretend that society beyond the stadium doesn’t exist? It is what you come from; it is what you go back to.

To its credit, Rule 50 does not altogether ban protest. A document called Rule 50 Guidelines Developed by the IOC Athletes’ Commission, available on the IOC website, explains the details. According to it, Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter provides a framework to protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games. It states that no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas. “ It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference.  Specifically,  the  focus  for  the  field  of  play  and  related  ceremonies  must  be  on  celebrating athletes’ performance and showcasing sport and its values,’’ the document said. For emphasis, it pointed out that even the head of state of the host country gets to utter only a preset sentence declaring the Games open. Neither they nor any government official is allowed any further comment on any occasion during the Games. Besides no government official can appear in a medal ceremony. “ While respecting local laws, athletes have the opportunity to express their opinions, including:

  • During press conferences and interviews, i.e. in the mixed zones, in the International Broadcasting Centre (IBC) or the Main Media Centre (MMC)
  • At team meetings
  • On digital or traditional media, or on other platforms.

It should be noted that expressing views is different from protests and demonstrations. It should be noted, too, that these guidelines are also applicable to any other accredited person (trainers, coaches, officials, etc.)’’ the document said, adding, “ Here are some examples of what would constitute a protest, as opposed to expressing views (non-exhaustive list):

  • Displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands
  • Gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling
  • Refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol.’’

The problem here – it would seem – is one of comparative mileage. Since protests seek public attention, the proverbial valve on the pressure cooker that Rule 50 provides is only worth its weight in visibility and media coverage. At any Olympic Games, the most watched footage probably relates to the opening and closing ceremonies, the competition at various sport venues and the medal ceremonies. Who watches press conferences and interviews? Only journalists go there and reports filed subsequently are allotted due significance by editors depending on the overall news flow from the larger sport event. Consequently, someone could ask this question and it would seem relevant: what matters more in a stadium – the advertisements of sponsors selling this and that or a black band on an athlete’s arm reminding us of social injustice the world is yet to comprehensively address? It goes to the heart of human existence: what are we alive for? Having said that; it must be mentioned, protesters too need to keep a few things in mind. Just as advertisements become irritating through excess, an overdose of protest can progressively leave us indifferent to calls for social justice. That’s the danger in world by trend and perception management, which is what our times have become. So perhaps there is relevance in leaving sport alone?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Although rarely said as such, one strong motive for keeping sport free of controversy is that it helps sport events happen by making available a sanitized platform sponsors can support. To be precise, it isn’t total no-no to controversy; it is opportunistic leverage with partiality to clean slate as best bet for sustaining long term. On the other hand, money’s aversion for conscience and its appetite for opportunism catches the goat of anyone with a conscience. Notwithstanding this tussle, fact is, political neutrality has its benefits. Cast so, sport becomes an avenue for engagement among people when other options more easily lost to politics, are exhausted. Neutral sport is an important instrument in humanity’s tool box. It brings us to the question: what if you have a grievance but don’t protest? What if you let your performance in sport, do the talking instead?

Jesse Owens is among the biggest icons of the Olympic Games. He came up the hard way. Although a successful university athlete, he had to live off campus with other African-American athletes. He enjoyed no scholarship and worked part time jobs to pay for his education. On May 25, 1935, at the Big Ten meet in Michigan, he rewrote three world records and equaled another in a span of 45 minutes. Next year he won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. The world sat up and took note. However on return home, his life continued to be a struggle. He had difficulty finding work given the social environment of that period. He filed for bankruptcy in 1966, hitting rock bottom before his predicament improved. Despite his personal struggles, he didn’t initially support the protest on the podium at the 1968 Olympics (according to Wikipedia’s page on Jesse Owens, he became more sympathetic of the incident, later); he tried to convince President Jimmy Carter that the US shouldn’t boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics as sport is politically neutral. Yet eighty four years after the Berlin Olympics, with more sterling performances by athletes to show and more social fissures and inequalities added worldwide, we are left wondering: will Olympic triumph alone suffice to focus the world’s attention on social justice delayed or do we need to sport a black band on prime time as well? How different is 2020 from 1936? Or is it not different at all? If things haven’t changed significantly, what kept it so? Those are the questions. The answers won’t be easy for IOC or anyone, to handle.

On June 14, 2020, Global Athlete – it calls itself “ an athlete-led movement that will inspire and lead positive change in world sport, and collectively address the balance of power between athletes and administrators” – put out a statement claiming that recent statements of the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) proposing banning of athletes who take a knee in solidarity with the anti-racism movement, constitutes “ a clear breach of human rights.” The statement which said that the “ collective voice” of athletes had “ pressured the IOC to pivot on its position and now consult with athletes on Rule 50,” also called upon the IOC and IPC to abolish the rule.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

CYCLING / VIRTUAL REALITY: IS IT THE PROVERBIAL TIP OF THE ICEBERG?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Within the classic trinity of endurance sports – swimming, cycling and running – cycling has been early candidate for creativity by technology.

As life slipped indoors due to COVID-19 and lockdown, swimming pools shut and running got severely curtailed. But cycling stayed partly afloat thanks to the home trainer.

The concept of trainer is not recent by any yardstick. According to Wikipedia, the “ dandy horse,’’ also called Draisienne or Laufmaschine was the first human means of transport to use only two wheels in tandem. Invented by Baron Karl von Drais, it lacked pedals but is regarded as the first bicycle. He introduced it to the public in 1817-18. In the early 1860s, the Frenchmen Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement, in their design, added a mechanical crank with pedals on an enlarged front wheel – this was the velocipede; the first bicycle to enter mass production. Look up the history of the bicycle trainer and you will usually find a photo of a velocipede trainer from 1884. So it would seem: as of 2020, the bicycle is roughly 203 years old and the trainer, 136 years old at least.

The velocipede trainer resembles an early form of the stationary bike or exercise bike. It makes no effort to hide its immobility. What we today recognize as the home trainer, packages that trait into a piece of specialized equipment or accessory – it is an adjunct converting regular bicycle into a stationary bike.  This home trainer now comes in various finishes, the most advanced of which is the smart trainer. The latter category allows you to experience a ride in virtual reality (akin to gaming environment). Using specialized software you can link a responsive trainer to a digitally mapped cycling route. You see yourself on computer screen as an avatar responding to the physical effort you put on trainer. In high end programs, you can compete with others in the digital ecosystem of a race of your choice. Needless to say, in these months of pandemic, technology platforms promoting virtual cycling have gained popularity while the home trainer has sold well with select models out of stock on some websites.

The best known of cycling’s emergent technology platforms is Zwift; it is described on Wikipedia as “ a massively multiplayer online cycling and running physical training program that enables users to interact, train and compete in a virtual world.’’ It is made by a California-based company called Zwift Inc, cofounded by Jon Mayfield, Eric Min, Scott Barger and Alarik Myrin. As of 2018, Zwift had 550,000 user accounts, that page said. But this number is from before the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown accompanying the pandemic is known to have hugely increased the traction for programs like Zwift (some media reports have estimated user base at a million plus). “ The companies creating these platforms were investing in technology and marketing earlier itself. The pandemic and the lockdown that followed grew their user base exponentially,’’ Nigel Smith, Head Coach, Kanakia Scott Racing Development, a road racing team based in India, said. It wasn’t possible for this blog to get an idea of the scale and value of the relevant potential market. What we do know is that cycling is one of the world’s biggest sports and among humanity’s popular forms of physical activity; there is separately a rising army of gamers and programs like Zwift appeal to both dedicated cyclists and those in the overlapping borderlands of cycling and gaming. According to crunchbase.com, Zwift – it was founded in 2014 – has so far raised $ 164.5 million including a December 2018 instalment of $ 120 million. A podcast by Rouleur magazine also cited similar figures. Additionally, the Crunchbase page said that as per Privco, Zwift had a post-money valuation in the range of $ 500 million to $ 1 billion as of December 19, 2018. A December 2018 report on sportsbusinessdaily.com regarding the $ 120 million raised, mentioned that according to its co-founder and CEO, Eric Min, the startup was “ approaching unicorn status.’’

Screenshot of FulGaz’s version of the UCI 2020 World Championships ITT course in Aigle, Switzerland. The home trainer adjusts resistance based on the actual course elevation profile (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

There is a December 2014 interview with Eric Min by Kelli Samuelson, available on the Zwift website. Two paragraphs therein provide an overview of the company’s inception. Min and his partner Alarik Myrin had co-founded Sakonnet Technology. It worked out well and the duo thought: why don’t they start the next venture together? “ We were looking at different industries, but it seemed all the great ideas were already taken! The turning point was when my older brother Ji, a private equity professional, advised me to stick to what I know best. Alarik had been encouraging me to take a hard look at cycling since I was so passionate about the sport. But whatever we decided to start together, it had to be consumer focused with the technology at the core of it and the business had to scale,’’ Min has been quoted as saying. At this point in time, due to family commitments and work, he was doing most of his cycling indoors. “ It had dawned on me that the indoor cyclist was being underserved and that the indoor experience hadn’t really changed all these years. It still wasn’t fun or social! Then I had a moment of eureka. What if we could take something that was historically mind numbing and turn it into entertainment? What if we could take advantage of video game technology, social networks, and friendly competition, and package that experience for the indoor cyclist?’’ Min explains in the interview.

Late April 2020, as news appeared of the push to host a virtual reality version of Race Across America (RAAM), the program involved was FulGaz. There are differences between the nature and texture of these programs. “ Zwift appears more interested in the blend of cycling and gaming. It is not above creating a make believe gaming world around cycling. There are already elements of equipment upgrade and trade using points earned, built into the format. It is also more social. That seems to be their preferred trajectory. On the other hand, FulGaz – it is an Australian company – appears focused on making their version of virtual reality as close to real life as possible. They offer some iconic cycling routes in digital format, which your avatar cycles through. The first type of product should appeal to the larger crowd combining cycling and gaming; the second should appeal to the more serious cyclist. That is what I would think,’’ Naveen John, among India’s leading bicycle racers, said, when asked about how the market was getting split between the various programs on offer. Are these technology platforms indicative of a whole new world of obsession opening up within cycling?

There are aspects of cycling outdoors that may not be acquired if your interest is restricted to excelling only in virtual reality. Aside from software, the core of this new paradigm is built of home trainer and bicycle. Once a bicycle is mounted on a trainer, its feel and behavior is different from riding outdoors. “ You pick up bike handling skills and bunch riding skills by cycling outdoors,’’ Nigel said. However there are critical variables in the equation – technology and the push of virtual reality to progressively become as close to reality as possible. Already high end trainers exist that can simulate the feel of terrain and permit a degree of flexion for bike mounted on it. But if you push gaming further, then what you wish for in the realm of fantasy may exceed what you normally need in the real world of cycling. Not surprisingly, there have been moves by companies currently in the programming sphere to get into related physical hardware. This is why the simple and tempting question of whether performances in virtual reality will outdo performances returned in the real world (example: which will be faster, RAAM or VRAAM?), doesn’t make complete sense. The two are not exactly comparable; it is not apples to apples.

The two worlds – their nature, their potential and their challenges – are mutually different. However, at some levels, there would be benefits transferable to each other’s distinct universe. Nigel did not think that there could be coaching totally focused on excelling for home trainer-based virtual reality. He feels the general push is still to cycle outdoors and excel there. “ There is a way to race and excel on these technology platforms and it is not necessarily the same as riding outside. I think what a coach would look for is a well-rounded athlete and not merely an efficient cardiovascular system on a pair of strong legs. However, training on the home trainer lets you focus on specifics,’’ he said. Another example of potential synergy was reported by Cycling News – a story from the Zwift Academy program begun in 2016, in partnership with Canyon-SRAM.  The article quoted Eric Min describing Zwift Academy as “ an entirely new means of identifying talent.’’ The 2019 Zwift Academy had nearly 9000 woman participants, a growth of 80 per cent compared to the previous year. Jessica Pratt of Australia who topped the program secured a one year contract and the final spot on Canyon-SRAM’s roster for 2020, the article said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Further, between June 2020 (time of writing) and same time a year ago, there is a palpable difference as regards general interest in cycling’s virtual reality avatar. “ About a year ago, I recall there was a debate comparing cycling in the real world and the same in virtual reality. At that time, sentiment was definitely favorable to the outdoors,’’ Nigel said. The divide isn’t that sharp now. What the pandemic unleashed in home trainer-based cycling, may well be a genre that becomes a world by itself. There are reasons why this line of thought merits attention.

For some time now the Olympic movement has been studying the world of gaming. In 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had said that competitive gaming could be considered as a sporting activity. There have been reports since indicating that the 2024 Paris Olympics may have e-sports in the list of sports for demonstration. The earlier mentioned December 2018 report on sportsbusinessdaily.com quoted Min as saying, “ our goal is to bring Zwift to the Olympics.’’ In September 2019, NBC Sports reported that IOC and Intel have partnered for the Intel World Open, an e-sports competition to be held before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (the 2020 Olympics have since been postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). In December 2019, an article in Business Insider said that in recent clarifications (following the 8th Olympic Summit held earlier that month) the IOC has said its interest is confined to games based on real sports. According to it, “ the committee floated the possibility of embracing video games that make use of virtual or augmented reality to add a physical component to gameplay.’’ In other words, the IOC wants you to move, be physically active; plonked down on a chair and pushing buttons won’t do. In this new matrix, cycling sits pretty. Programs like Zwift and FulGaz require you to be actively pedaling on home trainer. “ From the ranks of established sports, I think cycling has a good chance of making that cut as regards e-sports at the Olympics,’’ Naveen said. That is of course, assuming the Olympic movement is still interested in e-sports and the programs currently fascinating cyclists continue to be partial to physical activity.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

INDIA WATCHES FROM THE SIDELINES AS PANDEMIC FUELS BICYCLE SALES OVERSEAS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

COVID-19 and its accompanying need for physical distancing and maintaining good health, has caused bicycle sales to zoom in some countries. Any chance the trend may offer cycling in India, fresh impetus? Unlikely – that is the feedback from the cycling community. But there is hope.

For those into cycling and reading, a series of recent articles in The Guardian, would have been particularly heart-warming.

On May 15, 2020, Matthew Taylor reported in The Guardian that the city’s mayor proposed to close large areas of London to cars so that people can walk and cycle freely when the COVID-19-induced lockdown is eased. It would be one of the biggest car-free initiatives by any city worldwide. The reasons for encouraging walking and cycling: physical distancing would be tough to observe in public transport while the return of cars could precipitate traffic jams and increase air pollution.

Earlier, on May 10, 2020, Sean Ingle wrote in The Guardian about the growing relevance of cycling as mode of transport in a world where COVID-19 is forecast to linger. The resultant need to maintain physical distancing directs us to measured use of mass transport systems. We also seek avenues to stay healthy. It is in this matrix that cycling merits attention. It is viable non-polluting personal transport for short to medium distances. Further, as done by normal cyclists, it is a mild form of exercise satisfying the type of physical activity recommended by researchers as ideal to stay healthy. Ingle’s article mentioned a study by scientist David C. Nieman which helped establish that regular exercise assists in lowering upper respiratory infection rates while at the same time improving immunosurveillance. Also mentioned was a report by the US Surgeon General in the 1990s, recommending exercise as a vital component of preventive medicine. According to the article, Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary of the UK, has promised two billion pounds “ towards plans to double the number of cyclists and walkers by 2025.’’

The next day, May 11, 2020, Miles Brignall writing in the same publication reported that bicycle sales have been booming in the UK. Shares of listed companies in the segment had risen in value and the country’s biggest bicycle retailer had informed that sale of some equipment was up 500 per cent with bike sales itself prevailing at double the normal level. At smaller shops, stocks were running out and some had a waiting period. The article noted that cities around the world were rushing to improve their cycling infrastructure. In Germany, cycle lanes were being expanded and Paris was installing 650 kilometers of cycleways.

A couple of weeks earlier, on April 22, 2020, Justin Landis-Hanley reported in The Guardian that Australian bike retailers were struggling to keep up with booming sales following imposition of restrictions on general life due to COVID-19. The reasons cited ranged from people wanting to avoid infection and therefore staying off public transport, to regular avenues for exercise like gyms and pools being shut and the bicycle suddenly seeming attractive, to the aptness of the bicycle as a combination of exercise and transport in troubled times to simply having more time on one’s hands and therefore taking up a new hobby. The underlying instincts were visible in the sales mix; a considerable portion of bikes being sold belonged to the entry level segment.  The report said that a major worry among retailers in Australia was about exhausting stocks. Replenishing it would be tough as manufacturing facilities in Taiwan and China haven’t yet recovered from operations ceased due to pandemic. Further both the above mentioned articles pointed out that it wasn’t just sale of new bikes that was picking up; business in a range of services associated with cycling – including servicing of old bikes – had gone up.

When India slid into lockdown on March 24, 2020, all forms of transport – save those used for essential services – ground to a halt. There were even reports of people out for a morning walk, penalized by authorities. Flights and trains ceased to operate and automobile sales declined sharply. Yet even as air quality improved thanks to less vehicles being out, one of the early news reports based on equity analysts’ views cited potential recovery in car sales post lockdown, on the basis that the car offered an insulated cocoon for mobility amid contagion. Bizarre as this reasoning is in times of respiratory diseases growing, it is a fine portrait of the Indian approach to life. Needless to say, while the government has recommended specific protocols for using four-wheelers and two-wheelers (all motorized), there hasn’t been any utterance yet on cycling, forget its emergent virtues. In the absence of that and given how lockdown-rules are interpreted at ground level, you hesitate to take your cycle out for shopping and errands. India is among the world’s biggest producers of bicycles but the manufacturers’ lobby too has been strangely quiet. One can’t recall a single public service advertisement taken out amid COVID-19, reminding people of the bicycle’s ability to contribute to health; health of user through exercise and health of others by not polluting.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

This blog spoke to the country head of a leading international bicycle brand to gauge whether anything similar to what has been reported from UK and Australia, could be expected in India. He confirmed the developments overseas; it featured in business conversations with colleagues abroad. But hoping for the same in India would be premature because the overall matrix governing cycling here remains bicycle-unfriendly. While there was the pet peeve of high duties imposed on imported bicycles, there was also the undeniable fact that India’s crowded, congested ambiance and lack of consideration by motorists for cyclists, continue to make cycling unenjoyable. Sample the following: on May 15, 2020, Times of India reported that despite lockdown (it started on March 24; at the time of writing it was still on) an estimated 321 lives had been lost in 1176 road accidents in India according to data compiled by Save LIFE Foundation, a NGO. When general lack of road safety hits home, it fuels the argument that only cars and similar steel cages on wheels are viable option for transport. Given personal safety trumps concerns for environment and climate change, nobody then has the patience to sample cycling’s virtues. It is a vicious cycle. There is also another angle, which neither the bicycle industry nor cyclists, openly agree to, although in private, they concur. It has to do with the ink of Indian imagination these days – GDP. Viewed through GDP’s prism, the automobile industry’s voice dominates like a foghorn. That of bicycles is a squeak you strain to hear.

According to one senior cyclist, notwithstanding the above mentioned handicaps, the last decade or so has laid the foundation for a cycling movement in India. The choice won’t be driven by supportive cycling infrastructure – that is a role the government may or may not perform. It will be based on informed choice. As paradigm shifts like work from home set in, more of us may consciously choose a healthy, non-polluting form of transport that is light on planet, maintains the physical distancing mandated by COVID-19 and is also more connected to world as compared to the steel cocoon and quick passage of a car. In fact, if life is going to be in and around the house for the near future, why would you congest your neighborhood bringing out your car all the time? So far climate change was a debate. But the days of pandemic, which saw humanity locked up indoors, proved that human activity restrained has the ability to revive nature, restore air quality. There is thus palpable evidence to base your questions to old world on. However the key to promoting cycling – those from this school of thought argue – may not lay in petitioning the central government. “ Local governments will probably understand better,’’ the senior cyclist said emphasizing the need to go local when it comes to promoting cycling. Reportedly, such lobbying has yielded results in the past. Closer to the present, local also makes sense because the relaxation of lockdown will be in line with what zone (based on severity of infection) your area falls into. The seed for change exists in the evidence we experienced due to COVID-19. Question is – will we plant that seed and let it grow?

Update: On April 25, 2020, authorities in Bengaluru formally permitted the use of bicycles during lockdown. In its order dated May 31, 2020, concerning guidelines for easing restrictions and phased opening of lockdown, the Maharashtra government has permitted the return of outdoor physical activities like cycling, jogging and running in non-containment zones from June 3 onward. No group activity is allowed; only open spaces nearby or in the neighborhood may be used and the activity will have to be between 5AM-7PM. “ People are actively encouraged to use cycling as a form of physical exercise as it automatically ensures social distancing,’’ the order said. All physical exercise and activities must be done with social distancing norms in place. The order said that people are advised to walk or use bicycles when going out for shopping. The above is a condensed version; for a complete overview please refer the actual government order. 

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)              

NO COUNTRY FOR CHILDREN?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Global population is currently around 7.8 billion. While that number rises, there is no matching interest in the type of world we are creating. The questions facing our industrial edifice and consumerist lifestyle are enormous. It goes beyond plastic, which is merely tip of the iceberg. Fundamental questions about how we live; perhaps even – why we live, remain to be addressed. Nothing puts these questions in focus as much as imagining back from our children’s future does. Here’s what a commission convened by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and The Lancet said recently about the future we are gifting our children.

No single country is adequately protecting children’s health, their environment and their future, a report released February 19, 2020 by a commission of over 40 child and adolescent health experts from around the world has said. The Commission was convened by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and The Lancet and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The report, ` A Future for the World’s Children?, ‘ finds that the health and future of every child and adolescent worldwide is under immediate threat from ecological degradation, climate change and exploitative marketing practices that push heavily processed fast food, sugary drinks, alcohol and tobacco at children. “ Despite improvements in child and adolescent health over the past 20 years, progress has stalled, and is set to reverse,” former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Co-Chair of the Commission, Helen Clark, was quoting as saying in a press statement on the report available on the website of WHO. “ It has been estimated that around 250 million children under five years old in low- and middle-income countries are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential, based on proxy measures of stunting and poverty. But of even greater concern, every child worldwide now faces existential threats from climate change and commercial pressures. Countries need to overhaul their approach to child and adolescent health, to ensure that we not only look after our children today but protect the world they will inherit in the future,” she added.

According to the statement, the report includes a new global index of 180 countries, comparing performance on child flourishing, including measures of child survival and well-being, such as health, education, and nutrition; sustainability, with a proxy for greenhouse gas emissions, and equity, or income gaps. While the poorest countries need to do more to support their children’s ability to live healthy lives, excessive carbon emissions – disproportionately from wealthier countries – threaten the future of all children. If global warming exceeds 4°C by the year 2100 in line with current projections, this would lead to devastating health consequences for children, due to rising ocean levels, heatwaves, proliferation of diseases like malaria and dengue, and malnutrition, the statement said.

“ More than 2 billion people live in countries where development is hampered by humanitarian crises, conflicts, and natural disasters, problems increasingly linked with climate change. While some of the poorest countries have among the lowest CO2 emissions, many are exposed to the harshest impacts of a rapidly changing climate. Promoting better conditions today for children to survive and thrive nationally does not have to come at the cost of eroding children’s futures globally,’’  Minister Awa Coll-Seck from Senegal, Co-Chair of the Commission, was quoted as saying.

The report also highlights the distinct threat posed to children from harmful marketing. Evidence suggests that children in some countries see as many as 30,000 advertisements on television alone in a single year, while youth exposure to vaping (e-cigarettes) advertisements increased by more than 250% in the USA over two years, reaching more than 24 million young people. Professor Anthony Costello, one of the Commission’s authors, said, “ Industry self-regulation has failed. Studies in Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and the USA – among many others – have shown that self-regulation has not hampered commercial ability to advertise to children. For example, despite industry signing up to self-regulation in Australia, children and adolescent viewers were still exposed to 51 million alcohol ads during just one year of televised football, cricket and rugby. And the reality could be much worse still: we have few facts and figures about the huge expansion of social media advertising and algorithms aimed at our children.’’

Children’s exposure to commercial marketing of junk food and sugary beverages is associated with purchase of unhealthy foods and overweight and obesity, linking predatory marketing to the alarming rise in childhood obesity. To protect children, the independent Commission authors called for a new global movement driven by and for children. Specific recommendations include:

  • Stop CO2 emissions with the utmost urgency, to ensure children have a future on this planet
  • Place children and adolescents at the center of our efforts to achieve sustainable development
  • New policies and investment in all sectors to work towards child health and rights
  • Incorporate children’s voices into policy decisions
  • Tighten national regulation of harmful commercial marketing, supported by a new Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“ This report shows that the world’s decision makers are, too often, failing today’s children and youth: failing to protect their health, failing to protect their rights, and failing to protect their planet. This must be a wakeup call for countries to invest in child health and development, ensure their voices are heard, protect their rights, and build a future that is fit for children.” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

OLYMPIC GAMES IS NOT A BUSINESS MODEL: THOMAS BACH, PRESIDENT, IOC

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

At the recent general assembly of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) held in Doha, Qatar, Thomas Bach, president, International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said that the Olympic Games is not about making money.

In a speech, the text of which is available on IOC’s website, Mr Bach while emphasizing solidarity and political neutrality as vital to the universality of the Games has spoken against those associating the Olympics with business model.

He outlined the IOC’s mission so, “ our mission is to bring the entire world together in a peaceful competition; this is it. And what is the most important thing there, and what makes us so unique, is the entire world, is this universality and to achieve this universality, to show with the Olympic Games, the unity of humankind in all our differences. This is what makes the Olympic Games so unique, so important and so valuable.’’

Having explained the importance of political neutrality as ingredient for the mission, he said, “ another  means  to  achieve  this  universality,  besides  this  unity  and  this  political  neutrality,  is  solidarity. Without  solidarity,  without  caring  for  each  other  among  all  the  NOCs,  among  all  the  sports, there is no universality. And there, and some people, they want to explain to us that the Olympic  Games  have  to  be  considered  as  a  business  model.  It  must  be  about  how  can  we  maximise  profit  and  how  can  we  then  distribute  these  profits  according  to  the  economic contribution of the different stakeholders to this Olympic Games and to the economic success of this Olympic Games? And there to be extremely clear, the Olympic Games are not about making money. The Olympic Games are not about maximising revenues. The Olympic Games are there to  accomplish  our  mission  to  unite  the  world  through  sport  and  to  promote  and  to  defend  our  values− this is our mission.

“ So for the IOC, there I’m sure I can speak on behalf of all of you because you are the guardians of this solidarity. For us, as I said, in this G20 speech, money for us is just a means to achieve our mission because if we consider the Olympic Games to be a business model, we would not have  206  National  Olympic  Committees  and  the  athletes  from  the  entire  world  in the  Olympic  Games. We would not have athletes from 33 or 28 sports in the Olympic Games. It would only be a very select group, a very select group of athletes, not even of National Olympic Committees, but a select group of athletes in a select group of some of the Olympic sports; and the Olympic Games, as we know them, and the Olympic Games as we want them, and the Olympic Games as they were conceived by Pierre de Coubertin 125 years ago, would cease to exist. We would just  have  another  entertainment  product  in  this  world,  competing  with  other  entertainment  products,  but  not  related  to  any  kind  of  values  anymore;  it  would  just  be  show,  entertainment,  without any values, without any contribution to a better society. And  therefore,  we  will  not  consider  the  Olympic Games to be a business model.’’

The speech was available for reference along with related news report (dated October 17, 2019) about the Doha meeting, on the IOC website. The G20 meeting referred to in there happened in June 2019 at Osaka in Japan. At that June meeting in Osaka, Mr Bach had said, “ in a year from now, more than half of the world’s population will follow the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The Olympic Games are the only event that brings the entire world together in peaceful competition. At the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the world will see athletes from all 206 National Olympic Committees and the IOC Refugee Olympic Team united.’’

Apprising the gathered G20 leaders of IOC’s need for solidarity, he had said, “ this is the reason why we reinvest 90 per cent of all our revenues in the athletes and in developing sport around the world. In hard figures, this means five billion US dollars in the four years of an Olympiad. But please do not worry: not a single cent of taxpayers’ money goes to the IOC budget. We generate our revenues exclusively through sponsorship and media rights. But to be clear, for the IOC, money is not an end in itself. Money is just a means to achieve our mission.”

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

MARATHON RECORDS: SPOTLIGHT ON SHOES

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Over October 14-15, when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) disclosed its male and female nominees for the 2019 Athlete of the Year awards, both the world record holders in the marathon – Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei – featured on the list.

Kosgei had just smashed the 16 year-old world record of Paula Radcliffe at the 2019 Chicago Marathon while Kipchoge, world record holder among men since the 2018 Berlin Marathon, had only a day before Kosgei’s feat, become the first human to accomplish a sub two hour-marathon albeit unofficially.

Going by media reports, questions are being posed on the shoes used.

Ineos 1:59 Challenge, the event at which Kipchoge dipped below two hours on October 12 in Vienna, was his second attempt at doing so. In 2017, at a run sponsored by shoe giant Nike and staged in Monza, he had clocked 2:00:25 (the project was called Breaking2). The 2017 attempt had employed a new shoe Nike was working on; it had carbon fiber plates in it and promised to improve running economy marginally. That measure, although small when quantified, matters a great deal when the battle is about shaving seconds over a distance of 42.2 kilometers. In an August 2019 article on shoes with this technology, Outside magazine wrote, “ The Vaporfly’s midsole also included a spatula-shaped carbon-fiber plate that the brand said was meant to help fling the runner forward with every stride—or to at least create a convincing illusion that something like that was happening. “I feel like I’m running downhill,” Nike-sponsored marathoner Galen Rupp purportedly said the first time he tried it.’’  The shoes are totally legal. By the time of Kipchoge’s 2019 attempt, the Nike shoe he used appears to have improved further. Nike’s website provides insight; the following is from a statement dated October 11, 2019 posted under the site’s news section:

“ Kipchoge first tested what was to become the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite in January 2016. He was instantly entranced by the radical tooling and the road feel. A few months later, Kipchoge wore the shoe, still an under-the-radar prototype, in London and again that year in Rio. Shortly after his gold-medal performance in Brazil, he addressed Nike designers with a few sharp questions: “What’s running in your mind after this shoe? Do you have plans for another version with more advanced benefits?” Since then, he’s been leading each iterative advance of Nike’s NEXT% range. Kipchoge first visited the Nike Sports Research Lab (NSRL) in 2016 as part of the journey toward Breaking2. The experience solidified friendships — Kipchoge had been regularly emailing Nike contacts for marathon footwear advice since 2013 — and set in motion a new stage in his competitive career.

“ The symbiosis between Kipchoge and the NSRL manifested itself in his brilliant performance in Monza, then progressed to breaking the marathon world record in Berlin in 2018. It has also stoked Kipchoge’s insatiable appetite for pushing the limits of potential — illustrated in how he cares for his body, prepares for his races and shifts right back into his next challenge. In turn, Kipchoge’s verve spurs the NSRL to continue to pursue science-led innovations that push the limits of performance running. Kipchoge will attempt to break the two-hour barrier on October 12 wearing a future edition of Nike’s Next% marathon shoe. No matter the outcome, what’s clear is that this champion’s singular experience will prompt more feedback, more questions and, ultimately, more advance in the sport as a whole.’’ On October 12, Kipchoge, running at Ineos 1:59 Challenge in Vienna, covered the 42.2 kilometer-distance of the full marathon in 1:59:40, an unofficial timing not considered for record purposes.

On October 14, author Alex Hutchinson writing in Outside magazine, highlighted two points. First, Jonathan Gault of LetsRun had pointed out that the five fastest record-eligible marathons had all happened in the last 13 months and they had been achieved wearing versions of the Nike Vaporfly. Second, Kosgei’s post-race interview – again as appeared on LetsRun – hints that she too may have been using similar shoes although visually (as seen in photos from the race), Hutchinson felt, the shoe seemed closer to the “ commercially available Vaporfly Next%.’’ That last point is important for as he pointed out, in 2018 the IAAF tweaked its rules to say that any type of shoe used must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of universality of athletics. On October 15, The Times reported that IAAF and Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) had received complaints from athletes citing the advantage posed by the new shoes. It was also reported that IAAF issued a statement to The Times informing of a working group set up “ to consider the issues.’’

As trend, technological advancements shaping athletics is not new. The pole of pole vault and the javelin are great examples of new levels reached with the help of technology. In pole vault, the old bamboo pole gave way to poles made of tubular aluminum and later, fiberglass (including carbon fiber in places as required). Needless to say, technology enabled higher vaults. But there were also limits set. The javelin was redesigned when the distances thrown threatened to exceed the length of a stadium infield. In 2008, a new type of full body swimsuit by Speedo, capable of reducing drag in water by 24 per cent, was gear of choice in several world records broken. In 2009, the sport’s apex body enacted rules disallowing full body swimsuits and specifying type of fabric to be used. Against this backdrop, the relevant factors to emphasize in the case of marathons – it would seem – are level playing field in baseline (spirit of universality) and how much of technological advancement works against the essence of the sport. Needless to say, in an ever evolving world, this will be subject of periodic review and debate.

Incidentally as regards running shoes, Nike is not alone in using carbon fiber plate in the sole. In May, at an event to celebrate the launch of Carbon X from Hoka One One, American ultramarathoner Jim Walmsley had set a new 50 mile world-best mark (unofficial) of 4:50:07. A simple Google search for running shoes with carbon fiber plates yielded at least four models – Nike Zoom Vaporfly, Hoka One One Evo Carbon Rocket, Hoka One One Carbon X, Skechers Speed Elite and New Balance Fuel Cell 5280. Going by reviews and articles on these shoes, it would seem that carbon fiber plate combined with right foam cushioning and overall design is what makes the difference.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)   

COMING UP: INEOS 1:59 CHALLENGE

Eliud Kipchoge (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Roughly a week after the action ends at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships, the world record holder in the marathon – Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge – is scheduled to attempt running the 42.2km distance in less than two hours. No human has yet managed to do a sub two-hour marathon.

The event called `INEOS 1:59 Challenge’ is the second such attempt by Kipchoge. The first was a project by Nike called `Breaking 2,’ held at a race track in Italy in May 2017, when Kipchoge managed a time of 2:00:25. It remains unofficially the fastest time so far for a marathon; it didn’t merit official recognition as world record by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for several reasons including the use of a battery of pacers. Same would be the case with INEOS 1:59. Variables have been weeded out for singular pursuit of timing. A suitable course has been selected in Vienna, Austria and a window of select days – originally October 12-20, 2019 and since narrowed to October 12-14 – shortlisted to stage the attempt when conditions are most favorable.

In his diary entries ahead of the challenge (available on the event website) Kipchoge has acknowledged that while his preparation for the event is similar to his preparation for any marathon, he is new to Vienna and will need “ a day or so’’ to get used to the city. He has seen pictures and videos of the course but will need to jog there once or twice to imprint it in his mind. He says that he didn’t sleep a wink before Breaking 2. This time, he hopes to catch some sleep before embarking on the challenge. But a couple of aspects about INEOS 1:59 make it distinct from previous runs. Usually you know the exact date of a run. Here, you don’t. “ I will need to have a flexible mindset, while also preparing as though I am competing on October 12,’’ Kipchoge says on the website. Further, unlike Breaking 2 where he had two runners – Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea and Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia – competing with him, in Vienna, Kipchoge will be competing with himself.

He will have pacers. The list, as available on the event’s website is long: Thomas Ayeko (Uganda), Selemon Barega (Ethiopia), Emmanuel Bett (Kenya), Hillary Bor (USA), Mande Bushendich (Uganda), Matthew Centrowitz (USA), Paul Chelimo (USA), Augustine Choge (Kenya), Victor Chumo (Kenya), the Ingebrigtsen brothers – Filip, Henrik and Jakob (Norway), Philemon Kacheran (Kenya), Stanley Kebenei (USA), Justus Kimutai (Kenya), Shadrack Kichirchir (USA), Noah Kipkemboi (Kenya), Gideon Kipketer (Kenya), Jacob Kiplimo (Uganda), Marius Kipserem (Kenya), Eric Kiptanui (Kenya), Moses Koech (Kenya), Shadrach Koech (Kazakhstan), Micah Kogo (Kenya), Alex Korio (Kenya), Jonathan Korir (Kenya), Ronald Kwemoi (Kenya), Bernard Lagat (USA), Lopez Lomong (USA), Abdallah Mande (Uganda), Stewart Mcsweyn (Australia), Kota Murayama (Japan), Ronald Musagala (Uganda), Kaan Kigen Ozbilen (Turkey), Jack Rayner (Australia), Chala Regasa (Ethiopia), Brett Robinson (Australia), Nicholas Rotich (Kenya), Patrick Tiernan (Australia), Timothy Toroitich (Uganda) and Julien Wanders (Switzerland). Some of these athletes were in action at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha.

During the event, there will be a car in front of Kipchoge setting an accurate pace for the run and maybe (as some reports suggested), providing benefit of draft. Draft or none, the car is critical and its selection provides insight on the battle with variables when a single attribute – in this case 1:59 hours – has to be chased in isolation. The reason the car came in is because the best way to run a fast marathon is to sustain an even pace. Runners including Kipchoge, have the tendency to vary their pace over the duration of a marathon. This must be avoided as far as possible when the quest is sub-two, margin for error is thin and difference by a few seconds can impact final outcome. As they set about looking for the right car, the organizing team discovered that the cruise control systems on cars were not 100 per cent accurate. So specialists were engaged. The eventual choice was an electric vehicle. That was also because it helps the runners run behind without worry of breathing in harmful engine emissions. Finally, for redundancy, a second vehicle will also be on stand-by, the event’s website said.

All this raises the question – if it is so complicated, if so many variables have to be managed, then why have the sub-two attempt at all? Doesn’t it become too synthetic?

The answer to that lay in the sheer magnetic pull of dipping below two hours for a full marathon, something no person has done before. The publicity pitch for the event likens it to man reaching the moon. Not everyone agrees. In August 2019, CNN reported that Professor Ross Tucker of South Africa (he was an expert witness in Caster Semenya’s hearing at the Court of Arbitration of Sports in 2019) found the comparisson contrived. The crux of the argument relates to setting an utterly impartial baseline to decide athletic performance. Within that concern, fingers were pointed at advancements in shoe technology with models like Nike’s Vaporfly four per cent promising a quicker pace to its wearer. They are totally legal. But the shoe featuring carbon fiber plate and special mid-sole foam provides the athlete an element of unnatural advantage.

Eliud Kipchoge (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of INEOS 1:59 Challenge and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

“ According to Tucker, a runner expelling four percent less oxygen for the same energy output is able to improve on his or her performance by 2.5 percent at the elite level. Over the course of a marathon – 26.2 miles (42.2km) – this could translate to as much as two minutes,’’ the CNN article said. However other studies – there was one reported by Runners World in February 2019, involving a team of researchers from University of Colorado Boulder – show that four per cent energy saved with such shoes needn’t necessarily translate into a four per cent faster run. The runner’s height and weight as well the air resistance encountered, matter.

All this technology is construed as altering the baseline for deciding human athletic performance and comparing it. As Tucker argued in the CNN article – to reach the moon, man had an unalterable baseline to surpass; gravity. A controlled run in pursuit of sub-two with technology like the above for company, is akin to claiming a marathon record on Mars.

Notwithstanding such perspective, curiosity for the sub-two marathon will always be there. And along with it, the marketing leverage it provides. As it is, without dipping below two hours and running along with other marathoners at an established event like the Berlin Marathon, the world’s two fastest timings so far in the discipline – 2:01:39 by Kipchoge (Berlin 2018) and 2:01:41 by Ethiopia’s Kenenise Bekele (Berlin 2019) – are in a league by themselves. The pace therein, sustained over 42.2 kilometers, is beyond the reach of most runners.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)   

PSYNYDE BIKES: WEATHERING TOUGH CHEMISTRY

Psynyde Dioxide (Photo: Vinay Menon)

In 2016, when Psynyde Bikes launched the Furan MTB, it was for India, a rare instance of cycling enthusiasts designing bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest numbers in the domestic market. After a promising start, the company is now in a phase of struggle. If it persists, it may be able to look back and say of now: that was a learning experience.

Roughly three years after introducing their first factory built-models capable of selling in modest numbers, brand Psynyde continues to retain the cultish feel that accompanies performance. In that time, it also experienced reversals on the business front not for want of product acceptance but things gone wrong internally in the fledgling company. The core team is back to two – MTB enthusiast turned bicycle designer and builder, Praveen Prabhakaran, and Vinay Menon who still rides hard and oversees marketing for the brand.

On the bright side, the initial 100 units-strong consignment of the trail bike they designed – Psynyde Furan – sold out in a year; as did an initial lot of 100 of the hybrid – Oxygen. Feedback was encouraging. There have been no complaints except for small issues with a plastic cap, Praveen said. However, the Chinese factory, which manufactured the bike frames he designed, fell into hard times. Praveen said he has identified alternative factories, capable of similar quality.

Vinay Menon riding at Flow Show, Canada (Photo: Vinay Menon)

According to Vinay, Psynyde’s bikes as well as the bicycle components it made featured at domestic and international competitions. The Furan was chosen steed for Psynyde sponsored-riders and some of the company’s customers, who took part in these events. There have also been a couple of podium finishes. Brand Psynyde – as component or whole bicycle – was seen at events including the 2012 FLOW Show demos in Canada, the 2013 and 2014 Asia Pacific Downhill Championships, multiple editions of the Himalayan Downhill Mountain Bike Trophy, 2016 and 2017 Bangalore Mountain Festival Downhill Race, TDRY Gui’de International Downhill Cycling Race in China, 2018 Mechuka Downhill Championship, 2018 National BMX Flatland Championship and the 2019 Bangalore Bicycle Championship (downhill race). But there was tragedy too, one that was felt deeply at Psynyde.

In July 2017, Ajay Padval, a talented mountain biker from Pune, died in an accident while biking down from Khardung La near Leh. This downhill ride, done on the road connecting Leh to Nubra valley via Khardung La, is a popular supported trip availed by many visitors to Ladakh. Ajay was no different; he wanted to taste the experience. He was driven up to Khardung La along with others set to ride down from the high pass to Leh. That day, unfortunately for Ajay, something went wrong resulting in serious injury. Found fallen on the road, he was rushed to the local hospital but passed away the next day. “ Ajay was a very important member of the Psynyde team in the little time he spent with us. Right from being a dedicated team athlete – not just mountain biking, he was excellent at slacklining too – to giving important inputs in operations and matters related to product design. Ajay’s unfortunate demise affected us a lot,’’ Vinay said. Ajay had grown up watching older cycling enthusiasts; among them Praveen and Vinay. They were all part of the same MTB ecosystem in Pune. Not long after Psynyde got into bicycle manufacturing, he joined the company. His untimely passing was therefore personal loss for Praveen and Vinay.

Ajay Padval (Photo: Veloscope)

On the product front, both the Furan and Oxygen were perceived in the market as versatile bicycles. The Furan was designed to be a hard tail MTB capable of tackling a variety of terrain and riding styles; the Oxygen known to be light weight and having geometry partial to speed has been used by customers for purposes ranging from regular commute and weekend rides to bicycle touring. In 2018, Pune-based Abhishek Iyer toured across Norway on a Psynyde Oxygen. From a second lot of Oxygen, at the time of writing, about 90 units remained in stock in Pune. The company needed to invest afresh in components if it was to assemble and sell all of them. As of July, Praveen and Vinay were looking for investors who understood Psynyde’s line of business as well as the performance image, brand Psynyde had created for itself.

Psynyde’s capital requirements are of modest dimension. But the challenge is procuring financial support without the associated baggage of altered direction for the company. Having created its narrative to date by aligning with the performance segment, Psynyde does not want to trade that image for recovery plans advising dilution of its profile. “ One potential investor asked us to change the brand name and make it more mainstream. That was unacceptable,’’ Praveen said.  At the same time, he was aware of the fact that a bicycle business can’t be founded wholly on presence in niche, performance segments. “ There is so much I wanted to do. Instead I have all this to sort out now,’’ Praveen said at his house on the outskirts of Pune. It was July 2019; annual season of rain.

Abhishek Iyer with the Psynyde Oxygen (This photo of Abhishek was downloaded from the Facebook page of Psynyde Bikes)

Praveen is happiest discussing bicycle technology and design. He took out his cellphone to show photos of a beautiful road bike with carbon fiber-frame mated to steel joints and wireless, electronic shifters that he had built for a client. It was part of the original custom built-bicycles business that was Psynyde; the seed which eventually spawned a company selling modest volumes of cycles designed by it and factory-built in China. Psynyde’s logo sat prominently on the road bike’s head tube.

Before us in the room, was the prototype of a new Furan. In a major departure from previous models of the Furan and Oxygen, the prototype sported only one chain ring at the front. There was a nine speed-cassette at the rear. The combination changed the traditional MTB gear ratios seen in India but made the bike simpler. It also had front suspension capable of greater travel and a hydraulic seat post that adjusted remotely allowing rider to sit low on downhills and revert to regular height once such sections were tackled. Should this model proceed beyond prototype and witness production, Praveen hoped to have a more aggressive angle for the front suspension. He was also considering steel as metal to build with; potential fallout of that being frame composed of absolutely straight lines unlike the prototype with down tube slightly curved towards its junction with the head tube.

Psynyde Psymptom prototype (Photo: Vinay Menon)

Also available to see as photographs were prototypes of two downhill bikes from Psynyde – the Psymptom and Dioxide. Both sported four bar design for rear suspension set up. The Psymptom had this set up essayed in CNC machine cut-aluminum (rest of the frame was chromoly steel) while the Dioxide was wholly 4130 chromoly steel. As with the Psymptom and Dioxide, a Furan 2 made of steel was not concept, suddenly conceived. Praveen had been toying with the idea of getting back to steel tubing for a while. In the story of bicycles, steel disliked for its weight had given way to aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber.  All these materials have their merits and demerits.  For instance, even as aluminum is lighter, points of welding are usually invitation to lose strength. As lighter materials gained currency in cycling, steel alloys evolved further. Today, very thin steel tubing that does not weigh a lot, is available. The return of steel is particularly visible in the MTB segment overseas, Praveen and Vinay said.

The tubes used are butted steel tubes, which have varying wall thickness. Such fabrication isn’t yet a strong point with Indian manufacturing, particularly at the dimensions (wall thickness) needed for contemporary performance bicycles. Further when it comes to modest volumes of raw materials, like that needed by Psynyde, any Indian supplier capable of making butted tubes in steel finds it unviable scale. Result – the tubes have to be imported from British, Italian, American and Japanese suppliers; often at high import duty for no better reason than that its eventual application is in cycling. The Dioxide was featured on VitalMTB, a major online portal for MTB news. “ There will be downhill riders in India appreciative of the Psymptom and the Dioxide,’’ Vinay said. Problem is – downhill is a smaller world within India’s small world of MTB. That relapse to niche category brings us back to a familiar predicament.

Psynyde Dioxide, rider: Hrishi Mandke (Photo: Vinay Menon)

If its products are meant for niche within niche, where will Psynyde’s main revenues come from to sustain its avatar of company designing own bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest volumes in India? For sustenance, versatile products like the Furan and Oxygen matter. That’s why the current capital crunch has to be somehow overcome, stocks reached to a market, which anyway liked Psynyde’s products and the momentum carried on. An additional option is to create a set of affordable products closer to mainstream interests in cycling. If so, that would probably have to be done at arm’s length making sure brand Psynyde is not diluted in the process. But there is a deeper question lurking in the backdrop.

The talent required to manage a company is very different from the creativity that goes into bicycle designing or the kick one gets from riding and testing bicycles. Praveen’s house used to be Psynyde’s old factory floor; that was when all Psynyde did was design and custom build bicycles and machine specific components. At that size, the business was easier to manage. Praveen could stay creative and Vinay could continue riding. If they can’t get Psynyde’s current avatar moving at least partly on autopilot mode with good managers in place, then at some point, after cleaning up their liabilities, there will be a question awaiting the duo’s attention: is volume manufacturing their cup of tea? Or are they more comfortable with a boutique operation similar to old, designing and custom-building bicycles?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Praveen Prabhakaran and Vinay Menon. For more on Psynyde Bikes, please try the following two links: https://shyamgopan.com/2014/02/06/the-story-of-psynyde/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2016/11/09/psynyde-alert-the-hour-of-the-furan/)

COFFEE, CONVERSATION AND RUNNING

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Few things represent post liberalization India, as the coffee shop culture which sprang up in urban areas.

Coffee shops became places to meet.

People converged to socialize, discuss business and later as wireless internet spread, at least some started using these spaces as surrogate offices.

It isn’t that places to socialize were not available before. Every region had its unique flag bearer in this regard. Mumbai had its Irani cafes and Udupi restaurants, although neither encouraged conversation over commerce. A sense of allotted time hung like Damocles Sword at these outfits. In South India, besides the ubiquitous tea shop, there were the branches of the Indian Coffee House (ICH), an enterprise founded in the 1950s and firmly identified with the working class. They were affordable coffee houses, feet planted on the ground and having no pretense to being café or coffee shop, the latter concept associated in India with upmarket appearance and menu. ICH had branches elsewhere too but its mainstay was the south.

Following the initial flush of entrants in the coffee shop business, some of the players scaled back. It was Café Coffee Day (CCD) that eventually went nationwide in a prominent way, in the segment. V. G. Siddhartha’s business group had a major presence in coffee estates and coffee trading; CCD was in some ways its most visible retail face. The first CCD outlet opened in Bengaluru in July 1996. Notwithstanding costly fare (compared to the cafes and coffee houses of previous decades), CCD’s branch network spread to India’s cities and towns. This new space for coffee and conversation touched many of us, whose careers / adult years coincided with the India brewed afresh by liberalization. As of July 2019, CCD was India’s biggest chain of coffee shops by a significant margin.

On July 30, 2019, twenty three years after the first CCD appeared on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road, the media reported that Siddhartha had gone missing from the bridge over the Netravati River near Mangaluru. The next day his body was recovered from the river. News reports in the wake of the tragedy, pointed to a business under stress. The episode was tracked by many of us. We paused to reflect on Siddhartha’s demise because the number of us who visited a CCD outlet or passed by one in our daily lives, was not small. Quite a few of the conversations with runners and cyclists featured on this blog, happened at one CCD outlet or another for they represented space to sit and talk. Wikipedia’s page on the company says that in 2010 when CCD’s current logo was designed, it was to “ showcase the chain as a place to talk.’’

The coffee estates Siddhartha’s company owns have been location for the annual Malnad Ultra. It is a trail run involving ultramarathon distances. There is a September 2016 report in the Economic Times (available on the Internet) on the subject. The report precedes the event’s first edition. According to it, “ the coffee baron has offered a 10-year access to his plantations, which stretch across 13,000 acres of the Western Ghats.’’  The Malnad Ultra has since become an event with distinct fan following.

 (The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)