Brigid Kosgei, Eliud Kipchoge herald new era of fast marathons

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Eliud Kipchoge‘s success in breaking the two-hour mark (final time: 1:59:40) for the marathon on Saturday was expected. He had come close before, and like Alex Honnold‘s unprecedented climb of El Capitan documented in the film Free Solo, the feat required meticulous planning — the ideal mix of pace-setters, course conditions and weather — to steer a once-in-a-lifetime talent to a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment.

Brigid Kosgei‘s world record at the Chicago Marathon on Sunday was a far greater surprise. Kosgei had run fast times before, but her time of 2:14:04 took more than four minutes off her personal best earlier this year in London, which is typically a faster race than Chicago.

MORE: Chicago Marathon results

The two feats had some common threads. Both runners are Kenyan, no surprise in an event in which the top 100 men’s performances of all time are almost exclusively Kenyan and Ethiopian and the top of the women’s all-time list is similarly homogeneous aside from the presence of British runner Paula Radcliffe, whose time of 2:15:25 had stood as the world record for 16 1/2 years until Sunday. Radcliffe was present in Chicago to greet Kosgei when her record fell.

Kipchoge and Kosgei also wore the same shoes, Nike’s ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT%, thanks to Kosgei’s last-minute decision to switch. Earlier versions of those shoes, like the high-tech swimsuits that were eventually banned from competition or golf equipment whose advertising revels in their alleged illegality,

Both marathoners also had pace-setters running with them. Kipchoge’s effort took the concept to an extreme, with an all-star cast running pieces of the course in front of him, and will not be considered an official world record because it didn’t happen under race conditions. (The Atlantic ran a piece on the Kipchoge run with the headline “The Greatest, Fakest World Record,” though the piece itself was more inquisitive than judgmental.)

MORE: Kipchoge shakes off nerves to break barrier

Kosgei was running in an actual race and has already had her time touted as a world record by the international organizer IAAF, but because she was running in a mixed-gender race, she was able to run behind two hired guns, Geoffrey Pyego and Daniel Limo. They were easily distinguished from men’s race contenders by the singlets with the word “PACE” written in the space where a number or name would usually go.

But in general, marathoners are simply getting faster and faster. Perhaps it’s scientific, with specifically engineered shoes, pace-setters and refined training methods, or perhaps all the tinkering and lab experiments are simply a sign of increased focus on the race that traces its history to the myth of the Greek soldier Pheidippides running such a great distance to herald a momentous military victory before falling over dead.

Of the top 20 women’s times on the IAAF list, only five were run before 2012 — one by Catherine Ndereba, four by Radcliffe. Three were run in 2017, then six in 2018 (three in Berlin) and four this year. All 20 of the fastest men’s times have been posted this decade, eight of them in 2019 alone. Kipchoge, in addition to his unofficial best from this weekend, has the official record of 2:01:39 from the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

The all-time list also reminds us that, for all the controversy over the context of Kipchoge’s run, marathons aren’t really standard, anyway. Some courses are more difficult than others. Some races, like the Boston Marathon, aren’t eligible for record consideration for a variety of technical reasons. (Boston’s hilly course doesn’t lend itself to fast times, anyway — the men’s course record of 2:03:02, set by Geoffrey Mutai in 2011, would rank seventh all-time, but no other time would crack the top 100. The women’s course record is nowhere near the best ever.) London, Berlin and Dubai are the places to go for assaults on the record book.

No matter where the race takes place or how it was run, fast times in the marathon capture the imagination.

Purists may cling to romantic notions of long-haired, bearded runners pounding the Boston or New York pavement in shoes that didn’t even have a basic level of air cushioning. But the modern marathon era is built for speed.

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Hanyu, Zagitova control their Grand Prix Final destiny at NHK Trophy; TV, live stream schedule

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In order to qualify for the Grand Prix Final — after missing the event the past two seasons for varying reasons — two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu needs to finish inside the top four at NHK Trophy, the sixth and last remaining Grand Prix series event. Hanyu competes on home ice in Japan this weekend, and the event is streaming live for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.

A full breakdown of Grand Prix Final-clinching scenarios can be found here.

Hanyu won the Grand Prix Final four straight times (2013-16). The prestigious December event would be the first time this season Hanyu and two-time Grand Prix Final champion Nathan Chen would compete head-to-head, outside the world championships in March.

Hanyu trains in Toronto alongside American Jason Brown, who will also be competing in Japan. Brown clinches a spot in the Grand Prix Final if he earns a silver or better, but is also very likely in if he earns a bronze medal.

Reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia is in a similar situation this weekend at NHK Trophy, needing to finish on the podium to clinch a berth in the Final. She faces Moscow-based training partner Alena Kostornaia (who needs to finish fifth or better to make the Final) and Japan’s Rika Kihira (must earn a medal of any color), among others such as 2019 European champion Sofia Samodurova of Russia and 2017 U.S. national champion Karen Chen.

MORE: Alina Zagitova focused on artistry, while other Russians push technical boundaries

Three teams in the pairs’ field at NHK Trophy can earn spots in the Grand Prix Final. Two-time world pair champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China and Russia’s Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov need a medal of any color to clinch, while Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro need silver to clinch, but could win with a bronze and a high score. See the breakdown here for details.

In ice dance, four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are favorites at NHK Trophy. They have appeared in three Grand Prix Finals and own a medal of each color, including a win at their most recent appearance in 2017. (The duo withdrew from a regular-series Grand Prix event last season and were unable to qualify for the Final.)

The most likely NHK Trophy scenario is that Papadakis and Cizeron win NHK Trophy, and Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin finish second – and if that happens, Papadakis and Cizeron, Stepanova and Bukin and Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates (currently on the cusp of an entry) all make the Final.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

NHK Trophy Broadcast Schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Thursday 10:30 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Friday 12 a.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
10 p.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Saturday 12:30 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Sunday 4 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Curling kerfuffle opens up debate on self-officiating

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Curling has long had an ethos of sportsmanship in which players call infractions on themselves and work out the resulting response — perhaps “burning” a rock by taking it out of play, perhaps restoring a rock to where it was or would have gone. 

“Curlers never knowingly break a rule of the game, nor disrespect any of its traditions,” reads the second paragraph of the World Curling Federation’s rule book. “Should they become aware that this has been done inadvertently, they will be the first to divulge the breach.”

Sunday at the European Curling Championship, a pivotal breach was divulged not by the players but by match officials, and a debate has erupted over social media in the usually uncontroversial curling community.

The rule itself is clear. When a substitute enters a game, a rare occurrence, that substitute must use the same brush head (for sweeping) as the player being replaced. The penalty is a forfeit. See page 33 of the rule book.

The Norwegian team, in which rival skips Thomas Ulsrud and Steffen Walstad have united to form a dream team, neglected to do that in a game the perennial powers were controlling against England, which was only promoted to the top division of the annual championship this year.

Norway left the ice thinking it had taken a routine win, only to be informed by officials that they would forfeit.

Walstad took to Facebook to complain about officials’ overreach.

“Even though all parties acted in good intent, thinking they were following the rules as best we could, a small misunderstanding that happened after the game in all regards was already decided was enough for the umpires to put on their star of authority and point to a subparagraph,” Walstad wrote.

Though Norway clearly broke a rule, many top-level curlers agree with Walstad. The Twitter account of U.S. curler Rich Ruohenen‘s team, which has advanced to the semifinals of the Red Deer Curling Classic over the weekend, called the decision “Ridiculous and embarrassing to the sport!” Canadian curlers Ben Hebert and Casey Scheidegger agreed, as did Scottish curling veteran Tom Brewster.

One counterpoint came from curling official and coach Keith Wendorf: “Don’t ask the officials to ignore rules, learn the rules.” Wendorf also sarcastically suggested curlers should ignore the red light on a stone indicating an illegal delivery and just write it off as unintentional.

The World Curling Federation issued a statement saying little other than restating the rule.

Self-officiating also came to the fore in an incident involving future Olympic gold medalist John Shuster at the 2016 world championships in a playoff against Japan. Yusuki Morozumi‘s last shot of the eighth end sent a U.S. stone in motion, and it made a Japanese stone go out of play. But before anyone could stop the Japanese stone, it rebounded off the side bumper and hit the moving U.S. stone, stopping its momentum. In that situation, the curlers are expected to figure out where the in-play stone would’ve stopped if it hadn’t hit the out-of-play stone. The Japanese team thought it would have continued moving and gone out of play. Shuster disagreed, saying it would have stayed in play and in the house, where it would count toward Shuster’s score. Shuster wound up keeping the rock in play and then delivered his last shot to score three for the U.S.

Shuster’s team went on to win the game 5-4. They lost the semifinal 9-3 and then faced Japan once more for the bronze medal, winning 8-6 to give Shuster his only world championship medal in eight appearances. (He also has a bronze medal from the 2019 mixed doubles championship and, of course, the 2018 Olympic gold.)

The video is a little easier to understand (the controversy starts at the 1:40 mark):

Shuster had every right to make the call according to curling rules: “If a moving stone is touched by a stone deflecting off the sheet dividers, the non-delivering team shall place the stone where it reasonably considers the stone would have come to rest had the moving stone not been touched.”

Shuster was clearly uncomfortable in that position, and columnist Don Landry wondered if he would have avoided controversy if an official had made the call instead: “Perhaps John Shuster might rather not even have to make that call. Because he’d be better off moaning about the officials and a determination he disagreed with instead of being the target of the torches and pitchforks set.”

In recreational curling, leaving decisions in the hands of the curlers can literally force them to make a choice between winning or losing on a technicality. Every now and then, curlers end up with a negotiated settlement of sorts.

In high-level competition, curlers have already handed over one decision whether the thrower has made a clean release before the “hog line,” the thick blue line that is one of the sport’s most important boundaries. A light on the stone turns red if the thrower didn’t let go of the rock in time or touched it again after releasing it The system seems straightforward but proved controversial in the 2018 Olympics on a costly infraction against British skip Eve Muirhead where TV replays didn’t seem to back up what the light reported.

The debate over self-officiating has also come up in Ultimate (formerly Ultimate frisbee), as the game has grown in stature from a college pastime to a semi-professional sport. Many competitions now use “observers,” whose job is somewhere between that of a referee and that of a mediator. The semi-professional American Ultimate Disc League has gone a step farther, using actual referees akin to those in almost any other sport. The league still allows players overturn a referee’s call in their favor (basically, a “no no, I actually fouled him” call), but the referee has more authority than has been common in the sport.

Norway’s curlers might not object to officials in general, but the rigid enforcement of the broom rule has left them in difficulty in the European championships. They’re currently tied for fifth place, one spot out of the playoff berths, with a 3-3 record. England is in last place at 1-5, though they’ve been close in a couple of games.

The Olympic Channel has coverage of the European championships for the rest of the week (all times ET):

  • Wednesday, 8 a.m.: Switzerland vs. Scotland (men)
  • Thursday, 3 a.m.: Scotland vs. Sweden (men)
  • Thursday, 8 a.m.: Sweden vs. Russia (women)
  • Thursday, 1 p.m.: Men’s semifinal
  • Friday, 8 a.m.: Women’s semifinal
  • Friday, 1 p.m.: Women’s bronze medal game
  • Saturday, 4 a.m.: Men’s bronze medal game
  • Saturday, 9 a.m.: Women’s gold medal game

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