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Dublin: 19 °C Friday 31 October, 2014

The Sunday Papers: some of the week’s best sportswriting

The key to Kenya’s long distance success, Barcelona’s place in football history and an argument for Ronnie O’Sullivan’s consideration alongside Usain Bolt and Tiger Woods.

Kenyan domination has come to define international long distance running.
Kenyan domination has come to define international long distance running.
Image: Tony Marshall/EMPICS Sport

1. “Two hours, 31 minutes, and 51 seconds after the Boston marathon began on Monday, its male and female champions had already finished. A few minutes later, race-watchers noticed something. The first, second, and third-place men were all Kenyan. So were the first, second, and third-place women. It was yet another amazing showing for Kenyan runners, and yet another reason to ask: how?

“For such a popular, straightforward question, there’s less consensus than you might think. Western research on the nature of Kenyan runners, and on successful African athletes in general, is complicated by some particularly thorny racial politics. There’s a nasty history, after all, to white scientists evaluating the physical attributes of Africans. But that hesitancy to really study Kenyan runners’ success has allowed some probably false, and often culturally reductive, theories to persist. The scientific research hits on some of the most sensitive racial anxieties of Western-African relations, but it’s also an amazing story of human biodiversity.”

Shying away from the reassuring stereotypes and partial truths that have for too long characterised our analysis of African athletics, The Atlantic’s Max Fisher turns to sociology and sports science in an attempt to solve the riddle of Kenya’s long distance domination.

2. “Michels led the great revolution of modern football. He bequeathed a legacy that included three consecutive European Cup triumphs for Ajax, from 1971 to 1973, and that took Holland’s ‘clockwork orange’ team, with Johan Cruyff as standard-bearer, to the World Cup final in 1974 and 1978.

“The system was based not on the manner players were distributed on the field – by a clear division between defenders, midfielders and forwards – but by a change in attitude that led the entire team to perform, and think, in a different way. The defender was no longer a mere stopper, he had to be capable of distributing the ball as adeptly as a midfielder. Possession was the indispensable prerequisite.”

The timing may be inauspicious – FC Barcelona is only days removed from its most disappointing performance of the European season – but John Carlin and Michael Robinson‘s feature in the Telegraph underscores the extent to which Pep Guardiola’s side can be considered the apotheosis of a technical and tactical revolution begun in Amsterdam four decades ago.

3. “A professional player’s day will start with fatigue tests and flexibility tests and your training for the day will depend on the results. If your hamstring is tight, if your back is stiff, if you’re losing a bit of power, that will all be taken into account. Every little clue is looked for – you do a questionnaire where you give a number between one and five to rate how you’re feeling, how the body is. Then they tailor your training to that and lo and behold, you get a lot fewer muscle strains…

“The flip-side of that is what Franco Harris sees when he comes across a rugby match on television. Huge players at the peak of their physical fitness colliding into each other with massive force. The bigger they are, the harder they fall and there’s only so much prehab you can do to build up the smaller muscles around the joints to protect them.”

As a war-torn, 17-year veteran of elite rugby union, Alan Quinlan is better positioned than most to explain the changes wrought by professionalism. From his vantage point in the Irish Times, the former flanker explains that recent gains in conditioning have come at an often significant cost.

[caption id="attachment_425004" align="alignnone" width="630" caption="Alan Quinlan lies injured during a Magners League clash against Connacht. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan"][/caption]

4. “The mind reeled. Would the crowd be issued ear muffs? Would he release his pigeons? Would he eat your children?

‘I don’t think so,’ guessed comedian George Lopez. ‘He’s a vegan now.’

“Instead, Tyson surprised them with medical-grade honesty. For two hours, it poured out of him like lava, raw and awful and sweet and funny and disgusting. He mangled words and got hopelessly lost and then found paths you’d hope he wouldn’t. And yet, if you liked comic tragedy, he had you at, ‘I’m Mike Tyson. I used to knock [expletives] OUT.’”

Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson hopes to provoke an epiphany through mass confession, the deliverance of “truth” to a celebrity audience from the centre of a Las Vegas stage. It’s a lot to take in, even for ESPN’s connoisseur of the weird, Rick Reilly.

5. “What follows are the top 20 NFL draft prospects as ranked by Scout’s Inc. Like most “Old Media” scouting services, Scout’s Inc. tends to focus on tangibles and intangibles. I do not. I only consider qualities that are neither intangible nor tangible (which, to be fair, is a pretty short list). By remaining motionless, I somehow go further…

“Every one of them is a mistake. They are all flawed, and the potential reward does not outweigh the overwhelming risk. Every alleged insider is wrong about their true value. It’s a classic paradox: As a pro football executive, your knowledge, research, and experience cause you to overlook the obvious. But this is never a problem for me.”

With the NFL draft fast approaching, Grantland MVP Chuck Klosterman runs the rule over 20 college graduates currently working the American media into a hysterical, frothy mess. Moneyball this is not.

6. “Five minutes and 20 seconds was all it took for O’Sullivan to make his break heard ’round the world in 1997. It was a break made with swagger and crowned with a grin. Hendry worked cloaked in the solemnity of great achievement, O’Sullivan found it impossible not to acknowledge how great he was.

A couple of years back, former world champion Shaun Murphy criticised O’Sullivan for neglecting his ambassadorial duties. Strange, when you consider an awful lot of players since O’Sullivan have wanted to be like him.”

He might appear an incongruous inclusion in a list of world sport’s greatest game-changers, but “The Rocket” Ronnie O’Sullivan is worthy of mention alongside such generational talents as Tiger Woods, Muhammed Ali and Usain Bolt, argues Ben Dirs of the BBC, who appreciated the fine separating provocation from outright trolling.

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