Great Expectations

On Sunday 15th July the 2018 World Cup Final kicked off after a month of sweaty Russian VAR-checked action. France won it beating a resurgent Croatia 4-2 after some highly questionable refereeing decisions.

But you know that.

The real question (i.e. the question we’re going to waste our time on now) is:

Was it what we expected?”

And the answer, should you be too lazy / busy / entirely disinterested to read further is: Mostly.

Netherlands v Northern Ireland, 1978 FIFA World Cup Qualification
Netherlands v Northern Ireland, 1978 FIFA World Cup Qualification. Not relevant, but aesthetically great.

* * * * *

Russia 2018. The FIFA World Cup. 32 teams supplement their training camps with borscht, visits to towering Soviet era monuments and general confusion because “…isn’t Russia meant to be cold? What about those hats?! I bought three!!!”. Fans from 32 nations debate with each other and the rest of the world about how well they will do, have done, could do next time and should be doing year-in-year-out. The media feed on the fatty morsels of ‘expectation’ served with a crusty side of pessimism (or a lovely optimism salad, depending on their agenda and appetite for extended metaphors).

As results billow in the post-mortems are quite clear on whether expectations have been missed, met or exceeded…

Germany, to get slightly ahead of ourselves, spectacularly missed expectations.
But you don’t need two separate tables of data to tell you that. Though we’ll get to that glory soon…

Expectation.

Expectation is riddled with context.

There is, for example, almost no expectation that I will be the President of Tuvalu in the year 2050. This is for many reasons, not least because Tuvalu does not make room for the role of President. However, if we were to find ourselves in 2050, the office of President having now been passed into local law, its election process based on a knock-out Super Mario Kart competition that only I and 73 other people have entered all of whom are known to be rubbish on Rainbow Road… then the expectations are very different (because I OWN Rainbow Road).

Before the World Cup, the expectation that Germany would go out in the Group Stage was lower than an ‘legend level’ limbo bar (a stick on the ground). After losing to Mexico in the opening game there was negligible expectation, but possibility. About 75 minutes into the final round of games with Sweden leading Mexico 3-0, South Korea giving nothing away, a complete lack of energy from the Germans and 15-20 minutes left on the clock… then the expectation became tangible.

Of course it doesn’t always cook so slowly. Expectations for ‘Sbornaya’ (the hosts) rocketed after they beat Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening game. And rightly so. Having looked likely to fumble themselves to a devastating early exit during their last competitive outing at the Confederations Cup, they proved that home advantage means something when it matters. And those expectations, of course, were well surpassed…

Great Expectations.

The expectation pre-World Cup was that Brazil would lift the trophy.

I say this not as my opinion, or as a general feeling from the masses. I say this with certainty. This is because I’m simply stating what the market believed. The market, in this case, being sports betting.

What’s useful about the odds offered by bookmakers on sporting events is that they essentially measure the expectation of what will happen in a given match and give it a quantifiable ‘score’. If something is very likely to happen, then it will have short odds meaning that if you bet money on it, you won’t win very much back. If it’s very unlikely to happen (either statistically, such as there being 50 corners in one football match, or based on cold hard information, such as Patrick Thistle making the Champions League final before the end of the decade), then it will have long odds.

Bookies become very rich because they put a lot of time and effort into determining the odds they offer to ensure that, over the long term, they are right and ‘things-that-aren’t-meant-to-happen’ don’t happen. Because when they do it costs them LOTS OF CASH. And it’s this reliance on data plus the crucial driver of money-at-stake that make the odds for a sporting event very reliable as an indicator of what’s meant to happen. AKA, what the real expectations are for the outcome. Something the partisan press, your mate Barry or ‘a feeling you had in the shower’ are less able to do.

On June 18th, the odds on which country would win the 2018 World Cup looked liked this:

  • 🇧🇷 Brazil: 4/1
  • 🇪🇸 Spain: 9/2
  • 🇫🇷 France: 7/1
  • 🇩🇪Germany: 8/1
  • 🇧🇪Belgium: 10/1
  • 🇦🇷 Argentina: 12/1
  • 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 England: 16/1
  • 🇵🇹 Portugal: 22/1
  • 🇺🇾 Uruguay: 28/1
  • 🇭🇷 Croatia: 30/1

Info taken from The Week article based on Oddschecker data.

Expectations…

But that was the 18th June. And the world was a very different place when, on 15th July nearly a month later, 11 Frenchman took to the field in Moscow to take on Croatia. On that day the odds broke down like this:

🇫🇷 France @ 6/5 | Draw @ 2/1 | 🇭🇷 Croatia @ 3/1

France were *expected* to win.

Odds from Odd Portal’s averaged odds for the World Cup.


A word on odds.

For the rest of this article, despite what I’ve done above, I’m going to use decimal odds (HK style, like the best sweet and sour dishes) simply because it makes it very easy to compare lots of numbers at a glance, not least if you’re not used to looking at these things. Fractional odds, as used above – 4/1 for example, ‘four to one’ – are the usual go to which is why they’re quoted above, but as things get tighter, they become a bit (or a lot) trickier to follow.

When it comes to decimal odds (and to clarify, and for the purist, while we’re using Honk Kong odds, there are slight variations used in the UK, Europe, US and beyond),  then the closer to 0 the odds are (the lowest they can be, 0 would literally just get you your money back) the more likely it is believed that result will happen. So 0.5 is expected to happen more than 1.5. Got it? Good.

I’ve used Odd Portal’s averaged odds for the World Cup to ‘write’ this article. This is a store of the match odds (i.e. for the result after 90 minutes) in the minutes before each game kicked off averaged from a number of bookmakers based around the world.

According to their data the most sure-fire of results came in at 0.21, for 🇪🇸Spain to beat 🇮🇷Iran and 🇧🇷Brazil to beat 🇨🇷Costa Rica. Both did. If you’d put £10 on those games at those odds you’d have found yourself with the princely sum of… £12.10 at the final whistle. A profit of £2.10. Get in the Um Bongos.

Once the odds get out to around 3.0 – and admittedly I’m going to get a bit unscientific here – you’re reaching ‘less likely’ territory. And by the time you hit 6.0 you’re well into ‘unlikely’ territory. But of course it happens.

The longest odds to win in Russia 2018 were the 18.48 odds for 🇰🇷South Korea to beat 🇩🇪Germany in the last round of group games. If you’d foreseen that (or, more likely, your finger had slipped when placing the bet), then you’d have collected £184.80 profit from your £10. Comfortably enough for a flight to Frankfurt to console fans of Die Mannschaft.

To get the most from this article (and I’ll admit, like much Nerdius content, it’s a tough squeeze) that’s all you need to know. That and that life IS NOT too short to engage with this stuff.


Now let’s get back to context. And, because they had nothing to do with the World Cup and won’t sully our data, let’s talk about 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿Scotland. Because a) they never do so this won’t really age and b) they’re the team I was born to lament.

There are, I think, four different contexts when discussing the expectations of a football (or I guess any) team:

HISTORICAL EXPECTATION: What normally happens?

We lose to the minnows and put up a fight against decent teams.

GENERAL EXPECTATION: Where should we be?

In the World Cup final! We have more people than Croatia or Uruguay and the ability to invest in facilities. Plus we managed to produce Kenny Dalglish, Denis Law and many others, so we can again. We just need to get our boys playing competitively abroad and sort out the domestic structure and it will come.

ADVANCE EXPECTATION: What’s likely to happen next week, next month?

We’ll lose and it will be gutting.

IMMEDIATE EXPECTATION: What’s likely to happen later today?

We’ll lose but will still go to the bar.

The self-deprecating Scotland fan chat aside, these four contexts often get muddled when people talk about expectations. Indeed, I’d contend that if we want to have a useful conversation about whether teams have failed to meet or surpassed the expectations set for them, then the only thing that really matters is the ‘immediate’ context.

You can, to use a footballing cliche, only play one game at a time. And you can only beat who’s in front of you. Not only that, but expectations live in the very real here and now, not in some fantasy parallel universe where there’s been more investment in the game, where a world class player turns out to have a Scottish grannie and where Scottish clubs were subsumed into the English system a la Swansea and Cardiff. This is true for the fans of course, but even more so for the players and their support staff who work hard and don’t want to come up short.

Historically, the Netherlands have an excellent team. Best team never to win the World Cup basically. But their current team didn’t even qualify. It’s pointless to base expectations on what Cruyff et al did, just as it is to pine for the team who made the final 8 years ago and finished third at the last outing. They’re old. They’re gone. The new lads may as well be wearing clogs.

In terms of the General expectation based on, say, ‘available players’, the top 10 nations by raw numbers are: China, USA, Germany, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia. This is from FIFA’s ‘Big Count’ a survey of all 207 member nations on the numbers involved in the game. Sure, economics come into it too, but 🇧🇩Bangladesh – who have the 9th biggest football playing population in the world – are currently ranked 194 in the world by FIFA, while 🇨🇲Cameroon (49), 🇨🇮Côte d’Ivoire (68) and 🇸🇳Senegal (27) all have a lower GDP per capita. Just some top line stats of course, but its enough to tell you they tell you nothing.

Advance calls on what might happen are useful and based on the current ‘real’ scheme of things, but things can change quickly: Injuries, a great or terrible performance in the lead-up, a sacked manager, an owl roosting in the ground. It all matters.

It’s therefore only the ‘Immediate’ context, the judgement call made in the final moments before the game with all the info at our disposal that can be said to really represent whether we should be overjoyed, or over-angry at the end result. Of course injuries or strange refereeing decisions happen mid-game to change the course of history too, and so expectation can change mid-game, but we’ve got to draw a line somewhere. Or at least, I’m going to.

And so, after all that, let’s get to the data.

Below is a table with all of the results from the 2018 World (that’s 64 games) and the odds from just before kick-off for a win for either team, or a draw. One caveat, as mentioned above the odds are for the 90 minute result. In the knock-out rounds I have taken any game that went to penalties to be a draw. If a game was won in extra time then I’ve counted it as a win (though this is only relevant for one game).

Note: Actual result highlighted by cell colour. ‘Favourite’ result (if not actual) shown by orange text. See the Expectation Key for a traffic light style totally made up system of my devising for how ‘likely’ each result was. 

Some things of note:

  • 39 games met expectations, 25 games did not
  • Of the 25 games that did not meet expectations 14 still had results that were pretty likely (i.e. it was seen as a close contest)
  • Of the 25 games that did not meet expectations, 6 could be termed disasters / heroic (more accurately were over 4.0 odds wise)
    • 🇦🇷Argentina’s draw with 🇮🇸Iceland
    • 🇲🇽Mexico beating 🇩🇪Germany
    • 🇯🇵Japan beating 🇨🇴Colombia
    • 🇸🇦Saudi Arabia beating 🇪🇬Egypt
    • 🇪🇸Spain’s draw with 🇲🇦Morocco
    • 🇰🇷South Korea beating 🇩🇪Germany
  • From expectations of TOTAL 1.14 Germany games went 25.12 (and was 28.32 until Tony Kroos score his last minute free kick against Sweden). YIKES
  • Almost all upsets occurred in the Group stages. While 8x games were ‘unexpected’ results out of the 16 knock out games, only one – 🇪🇸Spain v 🇷🇺Russia – was a clear upset (3.16 for the draw prior to Spain being eliminated on penalties)
  • You may also note that England were actually favourites to beat Belgium in the group game, which was the only anomaly I found when cleaning through the data. However Belgium were more open about fielding a weakened team and England had been looking nifty. Further research confirms this was the expectation of the masses.

Of course, the real question we want to uncover is which teams at the World Cup over performed and which under performed. And for that, this table is far more useful…

Note: This is a simple traffic light system. Red = didn’t meet expectations, yellow = did, green = exceeded expectations (all based on the data from the previous table, of course).  In the first column I’ve given the teams an overall ‘colour’ rating based on their game-by-game results. In the second column is the ‘Advance’ expectation (unscientific, my view based on general chatter about each team). Under EQ I’ve made up a fancy ‘expectation quotient’ that means NOTHING but looks confusing and thus swanky (it’s just exceeded:met:missed). In the final columns I’ve marked ticks for if teams exceeded or failed to meet expectations on at least one occasion. It’s simpler than I’ve made it sound. 

Some more things of note:

  • 🇪🇸Spain failed the most. But only because they managed to fail twice and still make the KO round, so they could fail again
  • 🇪🇸Spain’s 4x failures comes in just ahead of 4th placed 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿England, who failed 3x times (and never exceeded expectations game-by-game)
  • It’s therefore, as in England’s case, very possible to far exceed advance expectations while actually failing to meet expectations game-by-game.
  • Three teams did just as expected and went out in the Group Stage (🇵🇦Panama, 🇹🇳Tunisia, 🇵🇪Peru)
  • 🇰🇷South Korea, 🇨🇷Costa Rica, 🇦🇺Australia, 🇮🇷Iran and 🇸🇦Saudi Arabia over performed, but still went out in the Group Stage
  • 14x teams met or exceeded expectations in every match (which means 18 teams dropped the ball at least once)
  • Of the finalists, 🇫🇷France ‘met expectations’ throughout (except a dodgy draw with 🇩🇰Denmark), while 🇭🇷Croatia were a right mixed bag
  • As such, any of the top handful of teams (🇫🇷France, 🇧🇷Brazil, 🇪🇸Spain, 🇩🇪Germany) could only ever really meet expectations, or flop
  • 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿England, 🇭🇷 Croatia and a handful of others show that you can underperform on a given day but still go far as long as you can take a decent penalty (or save them), or at least slip up at the ‘right time’.

* * * * *

And breathe…

So them’s the numbers. Have a poke around, berate my colour coding, marvel at 🇲🇦Morocco, 🇮🇸Iceland and 🇸🇳Senegal who managed to miss, meet and exceed expectations in their triplets of games – the holy trinity (for literally this article and no where else).

But what all this faffing about with odds really tells us is that while the media’s colouring of expectations aren’t quite accurate, the bare game-by-game results data is only useful in making the kind of technical-but-tedious point that won’t get you invited to many parties (obviously examining the data and finding weird coincidences (like the fact 🇧🇷Brazil’s results when stated as ‘.’ for didn’t meet and ‘-‘ for met  – no need for ‘*’ for exceeded – paints an appropriately sad face: .—.) is totally normal).

Expectations in football are bigger than that.

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿England (to use an example close to my house) were seen to have had a brilliant World Cup. Which is on balance fair. But when you step back and look at it they actually failed to meet expectations in three matches our of seven, and one of those was in the semi-final. So they really *should* have done better. They really *should* have been in the final (where it would have been expected to all go a bit ‘Taillebourg‘).

But then they won a penalty shoot-out.
And that was HUGE for England and their fans.
And it made a Radio 1 DJ point this out.
Which is wonderful.

Football is the most popular sport in the world precisely because it doesn’t always follow expectations. Whether it’s Denmark ’92, Leicester 2016 or The Miracle of Istanbul; the ‘Hand of God’ (or his second), the Panenka or the Milla wiggle. It’s the moments beyond the results that defy expectation but create their own world where the prize for your commitment is something wonderful you’d never quite see coming.

This World Cup had Ronaldo’s free kick against Spain and Neuer slipping against South Korea. It had ridiculous strikes from right backs, Panama’s first ever World Cup goal and it had the first teenager to score in a final since some lad called Edson Arantes do Nascimento. But it also had Senegal and Japan fans cleaning up the stadium. And it had this Brazilian fan in tears of joy along with the rest of us…

When you take them together it’s all of these intricate, all-encompassing narratives swarming together that fulfil the expectations of fans around the world. Sure, we never bring ourselves to  expect these things from great sport – after all it’s the knowledge that this could be another drab 0-0 that makes the drama possible – but it’s the expectation they can happen that lives in every kick and every chant and every stupid VAR-bothering replay on a pitch-side TV that looks like it should be showing a rotating graphic of what’s on the stadium carvery and an exhortation to ‘book early for Christmas’.

Because while it’s easy to kill an afternoon pondering the black and white reality of ‘success’ with stats and facts and data (and Lord is it easy to complain and goad as required), it’s the expectation that there’s so much more to sport that keeps us coming back.

 

 

You just missed it…

World Records broken moments too late

Tonja Buford-Bailey and Sandra Farmer-Patrick have various things in common.

  • They are both American women.
  • They both have double-barrelled surnames.
  • They both love the musical stylings of Barry Manilow (because, who doesn’t?).

Oh, at one point in their careers they both managed to break the world record for the 400m Hurdles a fraction of a second too late.

At the 1993 World Athletics Championships in Stuttgart Sandra Farmer-Patrick lined up alongside her long time rival – Britain’s Sally Gunnel. At the Barcelona Olympics the year before Gunnell had stolen Gold (not literally, she won it fair and square) and Farmer-Patrick was keen to reverse their fortunes…

As the girls crossed the line just under 53 seconds later they had both put in their all. In fact, they’d put in their all, and topped it up with everybody else’s all, as they ran the first and second fastest times ever recorded (at the time) for the race.

That, of course, meant one heartbreaking thing for the girl in second place: she’d run faster than anyone had ever run before that day, done everything she possibly could, but been beaten by someone who did all that and more.

You’d think this was a rare occurrence. And you’d certainly assume that the EXACT SAME THING wouldn’t happen the next time the race was run.

But it did. EXACTLY THE SAME THING.

Not the next time any 400m Hurdle race was run of course, but the next time a World Championship women’s 400m Hurdle final was run.

That race was in Gothenburg, Sweden two years later.

 

This time the battle was between Kim Batten vs Tonja Buford (pre-marriage to NFL wide receiver Victor Bailey) two American athletes who had in fact featured in the final of 1993.

Again they crossed the line comfortably under 53 seconds.
Again they ran the two fastest 400m Hurdles races of all time.
Again one of the them would give everything, but fall short.

 

* * * * *

 

Lausanne, 11th July 2006. Chinese wunderkid Liu Xiang runs the first ever 110m hurdles in under 12.90 seconds clocking 12.88 to steal the world record away from Britain’s Colin Jackson. Behind him is Dominique Arnold, the American athlete who ran 12.90 that day.

Oslo, 15th June 2007. Ethiopia’s Meseret Defar improves her own 5000m world record to 14m 16.63s while Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot canters in five seconds later, a whole two seconds under Defar’s old world record.

Gothenburg, August 10th 1995. The day before Kim Batten would win the 400m Hurdles in a world record time the triple jump served up an electrifying competition in which all three medallists cleared 15m. Anna Biryukova, the world record holder before the competition, jumped just 1cm short of her best. She finished third. Iva Prandzheva in second would improve that record 9cm, but Inessa Kravets leap of 15.50m (a record that still stands at the time of writing) would topple them both.

Berlin, September 28th 2014. Dennis Kimetto becomes the first man to run a ratified marathon in under 2hrs 03 minutes improving the world record by 26 seconds. 16 seconds behind him Emmanuel Mutai, a fellow Kenyan, runs the second fastest IAAF ratified marathon of all time and finds himself second on the podium too.

This isn’t a new phenomenon however.  The era of hand-timing threw up similar results.

In the 400m at the Pan Am games in March 1955 Louis Jones beat Jim Lea. Both broke the previous WR.

In Dublin in 1958 Merv Lincoln finished second to Herb Elliot in an all-time classic 880 yards. Both broke the previous record held by Derek Ibbotson.

And further back, but still running two laps of the track, Douglas Lowe finished second to Otto Peltzer at the AAA Championships in 1926 both ducking under the previous best mark.

 

* * * * *

 

Some highlights from the ‘nearly did this but didn’t quite do this’ pile that my research threw up.

I know you love the raw scraps…

  • Carl Lewis jumped a wind-assisted 8.91m breaking Bob Beamon’s previous WR during the 1991 World Championship duel with Mike Powell that led to Powell’s humungous leap of 8.95m
  • In the heady period of 2014 where it looked like the men’s high jump record would finally fall Mutaz Essa Barshim jumped 2.42 meters in New York. Nobody other than WR holder Javier Sotomayor had ever jumped higher (though he had done so three times). Yet despite Sotomayor retiring many years earlier Barshim would only finish second that night to Bogdan Bondorenko who also cleared 2.42m with better count-back. Ouch.
  • At the Atlanta Olympics of 1996 Michael Johnson astonished the world with a 200m time many thought would never be beaten. While Johnson took the event to new heights that Bolt and Blake would later hunt down, Namibian legend Frankie Fredericks cruised to an otherwise startling 19.68 to win silver. For 17 years previous the WR had been held by Pietro Mennea at 19.72. Sadly for Fredericks, Michael Johnson had already reduced the WR to 19.66 a month earlier. but still: So close.
  • In 1978 a US 4x200m team broke the world record for the event despite finishing second. The winning team was made up of athletes from four different countries and, as such, could not be ratified by the IAAF. Guyana athlete James Gilkes was one of the athletes to miss out.
  • Carl Lewis (him again) held the 100m WR from September 1989 (though it was officially recognised from 1st Jan 1990) when Ben Johnson’s times were rescinded by the IAAF. He ran his 9.92 best, the new WR, coming second in the 1988 Olympic Final. At the time he had legally equalled Calvin Smith’s 9.93 1983 record twice while the record books were busy faffing about with Johnson’s juiced-up times.

How long could you keep it up?

100m breakdowns for the major world records

It’s only natural: you watch the exploits of the most successful athletes on the planet bombing round the track and think to yourself: “I wonder how long I could keep up with those steeplechasers?

The answer, almost certainly, is ‘not very long’. Although in the case of the steeplechase specifically it’s ‘about 80m’ before you’re left in the dust clambering over a barrier with the elegance of an expired eel.

As for the other races, detailed below is a table that shows the average pace for an average 100m during the world record performance for the core athletics events (i.e. the record time divided by the number of hundreds of meters in the race). The pace most people jog round the local park means they’re covering 100m in around 30 seconds. If you run a 4 hour marathon time, you’re looking at 34 seconds per 100m. A 3 hour 26 miles is around 25.5 seconds per 100m. That should give you some idea of these paces without actually having to get off the sofa.

If of course you’re the kind of person that actually has form running round the track then crack out the spikes, fire up the stopwatch and see if you can match any of these…

 

EVENTMen's TimesWomen's Times
100m9.58010.490
200m9.59510.670
Sprint Hurdles11.63612.200
400m10.75811.900
400m H11.69513.085
800m12.61414.160
1500m13.73316.434
3,000m Steeplechase15.78817.759
5,000m15.14717.023
10,000m15.77517.575
Marathon17.48319.256

The most striking detail seems to be that the time to cover a generic 100m distance in both the 110m and 400m hurdles for men took a very similar amount of time, something not remotely matched in the women’s equivalent or the flat races (obviously). Hurdles are democratising apparently if you’re running fast at them and possess a willy.

Other than that, it’s simply a monument to the incredible feats of our most loved and most accomplished athletes. Except the questionable records from the 80s, obviously, but then the record books are the record books…

You can of course also compare yourself to any of your favourite athletes times using a) Google and b) a calculator. Enjoy!

That’s not on the schedule

The weird and wonderful of the athletics world

If your usual exposure to athletics comes through either a) the 1992 Sega Master System classic ‘Olympic Gold’ or b) the televised major championships, then you’re severely limiting yourself.

The current Olympic programme has 24 events for the men, 23 for the women (they don’t do the 50km walk). The World Championships cover the exact same events and adds the three legged race for men and the egg and spoon race for women.

 

Eggstastic. But not actually an IAAF World Championships official event.

Beyond these classics however lies a rich world of alternative events that even a battle hardened athletic fan may not be aware of. Here’s a run down of some of the most joyous athletic jostling you may hitherto have missed…

 

* * * * *

Multievent Madness

You’re familiar with the Decathlon and the Heptathlon of course, the events that collect the embarrassingly talented together and then punish them for being so darn good. But they’re not the only multi-faceted events on offer for the truly committed athlete/masochist.

For those who are sturdy enough the Throws Pentathlon challenges them to the discus, the shot put, the hammer and the javelin combined with the less well travelled ‘weight throw’. It’s not an event acknowledged by the IAAF sadly, but it IS a core component of the World Masters Athletics Championships for athletes over 35 and pre-death.

For those who find the Decathlon a bit lightweight, let me introduce the Tetradecathlon and the Icosathlon. The former is, sadly, nothing to do with milk packaging but a 14 event slog. The latter is a frankly barbaric 20 events undertaken over just two days. Except when it’s undertaken over just one day (seriously) because, presumably, you can’t locate a local dominatrix.

It might not have escaped your notice that a 14 and 20 event competition are double versions of the Heptathlon and Decathlon. This is no error because that’s exactly what they’re meant to be. They are competed for by women and men respectively as part of the International Association for Ultra Multievents and they’re scored in a similar method to the multievents you’re more used to. You can pore over the whole sweat-inducing outline of each event through the links above.

 

Relays

I love a relay. Always have done. There’s something about the team spirit and the propensity for slap-stick comedy that can’t be matched by any other sporting endeavour. While the most common baton slips are reserved for the 4x100m and 4x400m varieties the increasing popularity of the World Relays held since 2014 in Nassau, Bahamas has thrust various other tasty team treats (I love alliteration nearly as much as I love relays) into the limelight.

Among these are the fairly pedestrian (for the purposes of this article at least) 4x200m and 4x800m along with a 4x1500m race the World Relays latterly replaced with the wonderful Distance Medley RelayThis event invites runners to canter round the track in legs of 1200m, 400m, 800m and 1600m in turn providing a giddy spectacle of speed and endurance usually reserved for a Sonic the Hedgehog marathon. It was rather sadly immediately replaced for the third edition of the World Relays by a mixed-gender 4x400m event — itself none too shabby — but since the IAAF determined the Distance Medley Relay to now be worthy of official world record status hopefully we’ll see a few more run in the future.

Similar to the DMR but rather more spritely is the so-called Swedish Relay (so called because you must use flat-pack batons). This race elongates as it goes offering legs of 100m, 200m, 300m and then 400m and is normally run in youth events including the World Youth Championships (PS. See also Sprint Medley Relays).

For those that prefer tarmac to track, the beautifully named Ekiden may be of interest. Named for a one-time Japanese post-horse service that delivered mail in stages, the Ekiden is a long-distance relay race with a lovely history. The first ‘ekiden’ was run in 1917 to celebrate the moving of Japan’s capital from Kyoto to its anagrammatic cousin Tokyo. The run covered 508km and lasted three days. These days national championships challenge Japanese school teams to cover a half-marathon (for teams of 5 girls) or the full marathon distance (for teams of 7 boys), but broadly there is no official format for what constitutes the race.

 

Yawn and you’ll miss it

If you follow the indoor athletics season as closely as the outdoor (no wind, blue tracks, minimal throwing) then you’ll no doubt enjoy a short sprint. 60m is the general distance, sometimes just 50m if the schedule is running late. But these races are positively drawn out when compared to the 30m world best held by Churandy Martina at a stunning 3.81 seconds. He did it against the clock. While being chased by dominos. As per.

 

Another swift-but-interesting race is the 150m. Often it is laid down as a duel between two athletes coming from 100m and 200m specialisms and seeks to lay to rest some argument about who’s faster or who has the nicest shoes. It hit the headlines in 1997 when the 1996 Olympic champions and recently crowned World Record holders Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson did battle for a $1m prize. Unusually for MJ however, this was something of a let down as he pulled up halfway through the race. More recently the 150m (run on a specially built straight rather on a traditional 400m track)  has been a fixture of the Manchester City Games and it was here that some bloke called Usain Bolt laid down the world best time of 14.35 which, if you do some funky calculator tricks (AKA maths) actually works out as faster than either his 100m or 200m times on an average-time-to-cover-each-meter basis (0.0958s for the 100m, 0.959 for the 200m yet only 0.956 for the 150m). Fancy that.

One more quicky comes not in running but in fact, in not running at all. The Standing Long Jump is well known to Olympic nerds as it was won on three of it’s four outings at the Games by Ray Ewry, the legendary American athlete who has as many Olympic Gold medals as Usain Bolt (that’s 8, after Bolt lost one thanks to Nesta Carter’s wayward ways). Ewry’s other medals were in the Standing Triple Jump and, of course, the Standing High Jump.

The Standing Long Jump has more modern interest however as it is still used as part of the NFL Combine, a series of physical and mental tests undertaken by those wanting to be a Dolphin, Seahawk or Packer (etc). The current world record was set during this event and stands at 3.73m.

 

Good value races

If you prefer your races long and a bit random, then this final section is just for you. First up I offer you the One Hour Run. A run that lasts for exactly one hour. Or an entire episode of Morse. The record for this race has been held over time by Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zatopek (who snuck it over 20km) and currently, by Haile Gerbrselassie. So it’s got some esteem. It’s also worth noting that the current women’s One Hour Record is held by Ethipian Dire Tune, world class marathon runner and owner of one of the most wonderful names in sport whose English translation is ‘Mull of Kintyre’.

If one hour isn’t enough for you, then you might want to turn your sights to the world of ultramarathons (that’s any race longer than a marathon but shorter than the known history of man). There are 100km races, 48 hour races, races across continents, races through deserts and even, among all of that, races that sound quite fun.

To wrap this up, and if you’re not tired out already just reading this stuff, here’s an inspired look at the world of ultramarathons and the power of the human body. It’s a documentary (i.e. fact) about running (i.e. not walking, crawling or using a skidoo) the 222km La Ultra that’s held high in the Himalayas (i.e. where people sometimes die).

*Applause*