Another trip around the sun.

Holidays and rest give you time to reflect on many things. This afternoon, while tidying up my computer, I realised it is almost one year since I wrote something on my blog. It’s been quite a year. No wonder time has not been on my side and I have neglected a bit the blog. Every year I realise how much I could write about, but for some reasons, in the last few years, I only made minimal efforts. As a tradition, I will do the last post of the year, to reflect on 2022.

What a year! Started still in the midst of another wave of the pandemic and finished with an incredible Football World Cup in Qatar. Lots of things have happened professionally and personally, as usual some wins, some losses, some good things some not so good. But such is life and we can only play with the cards we get given.

From a professional standpoint it has been quite a challenging year but also a very successful one. Being the leader of a large department in a changing organisation leading into the World Cup is never an easy task, but I am priviledged to have the opportunity and very proud of what my team achieved this year. From a research standpoint, our institution published again >100 scientific papers in peer reviewed journal. This is incredible considering the relatively small size of the research team and the staff turnover in the last two years. The quality of work and the effort was such that the IOC confirmed Aspetar again for another 4 years as one of the only 11 Research Centers in the World until 2026 (if you want to know more about this, read here). Personally, I published two papers on peer reviewed journals this year.

The following one was part of the Doha 2019 study conducted during the World Championships

Association between thermal responses, medical events, performance, heat acclimation and health status in male and female elite athletes during the 2019 Doha World Athletics Championships.

Racinais S, Havenith G, Aylwin P, Ihsan M, Taylor L, Adami PE, Adamuz MC, Alhammoud M, Alonso JM, Bouscaren N, Buitrago S, Cardinale M, van Dyk N, Esh CJ, Gomez-Ezeiza J, Garrandes F, Holtzhausen L, Labidi M, Lange G, Lloyd A, Moussay S, Mtibaa K, Townsend N, Wilson MG, Bermon S.Br J Sports Med. 2022 Apr;56(8):439-445. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2021-104569. Epub 2022 Feb 14.PMID: 35165084 

This one was with my Italian colleagues continuing the work on understanding talent pathways in swimming

Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater: Talent in Swimming Sprinting Events Might Be Hidden at Early Age.

Brustio PR, Cardinale M, Lupo C, Boccia G.Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2022 Jul 26:1-8. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2021-0530. Online ahead of print.PMID: 35894878

If you want to know more about the papers published by Aspetar, we do (I think) a great job in summarising and making such papers accessible on our website and our youtube channel.

I also co-edited with my colleague and friend Professor Warren Gregson a special issue of the Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal on Sports Science in Football and also wrote an article on technology in Football. I am glad we did it, this is the last project for Warren in Qatar and he will move back to the UK in 2023. Looking forward to more collaborations with him and his new colleagues in the future.

You can access all the content for free here.

Scientific Support services in Aspetar have also developed, and we managed to create a new facility and service for the World Cup and beyond. If you want to know more about Aspetar’s scientific support you can read more here. If you want to know more about our new recovery center you can see a short clip here. We continue supporting athletes in their quest for excellence and/or to make sure they recovery from injuries and get back to performance.

I was priviledged to be invited to speak to a few conferences again in Qatar and internationally as well as organising a Football Symposium. The highlight for me was to return to Budapest 20 years after defending my PhD thesis to give a talk on Sports Science and Research in High Performance Sport. I got the chance to see again my mentor Prof. Tihanyi and friends I had not seen for years. Also, it was an opportunity for me to see the university campus and how it is evolving after so many years. Finally, I had the chance to visit Neka, the Hungarian National Handball Academy on Lake Balaton as part of the conference. What an incredible place, I was glad to see that Handball is finally developing the concept of handball academies creating opportunities for young players to study and develop as sports people.

The last few months of the year were fully dedicated to the World Cup. I had the priviledge to be a member of the Aspetar Task Force leading the planning and delivery of Aspetar’s medical services at the FIFA World Cup. It was hard work, but we managed to provide a comprehensive support as well as a couple of interesting research projects which I hope you will read more about in the next few months. The World Cup in Qatar was an amazing event. From a professional stadpoint, after having been involved for many years providing scientific support to a participating team (e.g. World/Continental championships/Olympic Games), this was the second opportunitity to work on the other side of the fence working to develop and deliver services to colleagues and teams of different nations/teams. Challenges bring opportunities, and knowing what teams and collagues need when travelling to competitions abroad gave me the right platform to help organise and deliver the best possible services. This was made easier by the wonderful colleagues I had the possibility to work with (you know who you are ;-)) and gave me also another chance to learn about different aspects (I love microsoft sharepoint sites integrations now, with microsoft apps/powerbi/calendars etc. :-)).

I had the possibility to see a few matches as a spectator in between work shifts and towards the end of the tournament and I loved every minute of it! The event was incredibly well organised and the atmosphere in the stadiums was amazing and super safe.

Unfortunately, the foreign press run a campaign against Qatar that was an utter disgrace. So many lies and non-factual statements that it would require pages and pages of blogs to discuss this. I will keep the blog clean from any political conversation, what I can say is that the amount of incorrect information was staggering and unfair to a country who has been developing a lot in the last 10 years since I arrived. My plea to the readers is to fact-check the statements about Qatar (you can do it in many places but you can start here, here, here). Argentina lifted the trophy after the most exciting final ever.

And yes, I predicted in some way Argentina’s success in a Facebook message after they beat Italy in Wembley in June 🙂

Sports Science produced some great new papers and new ideas. This will require another blog article. In the last few months I have developed an interest on muscle injuries (also because i have got a few…), and I am involved in a few research projects to understand them better, improve the diagnosis and try to find therapeutic approaches to accelerate recovery and return to play. So whatch this space in the future for some ramblings about it. I am already looking forward to an exciting 2023 in terms of learning and research opportunities.

Sadly, like every year, we lost few friends and family. I don’t want to list them all here, but I would like to pay tribute to a friend and colleague. Dr Louis Passfield passed away recently unexpectedly. Louis was one of the nicest individuals I had the chance to meet and work with not only on research projects but also in preparation for the Beijing Olympics when he was the lead scientist for British Cycling. He was always full of ideas and great insights and a pleasure to spend time with every time we had a chance at a conference or a meet. He left us a great scientific and human legacy. We shared a lot of common interest, one of them being cycling. Rest in peace my friend. It was an honour to get to know you.

New year, still with a pandemic, winter Olympics and more

Here we are in 2022. We were all hoping for many things to change, and it seems we are all still stuck with the same issues we had last year. The pandemic is still affecting our daily lives, travelling is still challenging, and every nation is going through patterns of openings and lockdowns. While science continues to progress and provides even strong evidence that the vaccines are working (for a list of all trials and approved vaccines, you can go here), sport keeps moving. Yesterday Beijing had the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, and competitions have already started. I have to say that it was a bit surreal for me to look at the birds’ nest as the opening venue, since the last time I was in the stadium it was for the Beijing 2008 summer Olympics.

The atmosphere was always electric in the bird’s nest in 2008
Heading to the stadium in 2008 with Team GB

China has managed to be one of the few countries in the World able to organise both ‘versions’ of the Olympic Games: Summer and Winter and I am sure we will see again incredible performances and amazing stories. However, organising an Olympic Games edition during a pandemic is not easy, and sadly I have seen already a number of athletes, coaches and support staff unable to reach China due to a positive COVID test. The usual question before each Olympic edition is: who is going to win the most medals?

Gracenote is predicting another domination of Norway, and a close battle between Canada and USA for the 4th place with Germany and Russia predicted to occupy the 2nd and 3rd place in the medal table. I think this will be a highly unpredictable edition of the Winter Olympics since nobody really knows what is going to happen with COVID despite all restrictions in place. 308 cases have been reported so far in the Olympic bubble, and cases are likely to rise. I will write more about the results in the next few days.

Work-wise, it has been a pretty busy few months following the FIFA Arab cup, we are getting ready to support the World Cup in November this year. So, the next few months will be for sure pretty hard. Unfortunately the wonderful 7th AFC medical conference had to be postponed to 2023 due to che challenges of the Omicron variant. However, we are confident that next year we can resume this great event and welcome the sports medicine community back in Qatar with a fantastic conference.

Research activities, projects and dissemination of scientific findings are progressing well despite all the challenges. Aspetar has published 139 scientific papers this year thanks also to the extensive collaboration network with colleagues around the World. This was recently reported in various media outlets in the region as well as on Al Kass TV and it is great to be part of such an exciting community in Aspire Zone Foundation. If you have not seen any of our events yet, you can access them recorded on our You Tube Channel here. Keep watching this space for more research news as we have many papers under review at the moment on many topics and a special issue of the Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal.

There is unfortunately something very sad to report. Last month a dear colleague and friend passed away. Prof. Kevin Tipton is not with us anymore. Other colleagues have written fantastic tributes to Kevin, so I will avoid doing it here. However, I would like to say that Kevin was not only an incredible scientist but also a very humble and generous human being. He wrote a fantastic chapter for the strength and conditioning book I edited with Rob Newton and Ken Nosaka and he leaves an outstanding legacy. We will all miss you Tipper, thanks for the memories and your outstanding research.

Tokyo Olympics Review: Part 3-Medals and systems, what happened below Top 10.

After the first two posts on general aspects, medals and TOP10 systems, it is now time to have a look at what happened below the TOP 10 nations in the table and try to understand more performance and systems trends.

Canada has been climbing ranks since London 2012 moving from 27th place with 18 medals (2 Golds) to the 11th place in Tokyo with 24 medals (7 Golds). Canada won medals in 10 sports with Athletics and Swimming winning half of the total medals. No medals in Women athletics, but a 4th place in the 4×400. Very good performance in Men’s athletics, with the potential to upgrade the bronze to silver in the 4x100m if Team GB will lose it due to a Doping positive finding in one of their relay member. Andre de Grasse delivering two individual medals with the Gold in the 200m and Evan Dunfee confirming that when the heat is on, he is well prepared, just like he was in Doha 2019. Overall the Canadians take 5th place in the points system in Athletics. Huge Gold medal in Women’s Football (or Soccer like they like to call it in North America). I bet the semifinal win was celebrated as much as the Hockey Gold in Vancouver in 2010. Canadian women winning in track cycling (no boys near the podium). Canada has a good sports infrastructure and great scientific support and has been always performing very well in the Winter Olympics. Looks like the Canadians are cracking the code in summer sports too. In fact, they qualified the largest team in history in Tokyo (also thanks to new sports for sure) but with good investment and talent (also talent transfer) in multi-medal sports I think they can challenge the TOP 10 if the level of investment stays up and maybe they put some effort in cycling, where I am sure they can have the talent and the resources to up the ante. There are great news for the Canadians in terms of sport funding with some specific funding to ensure indigenous women and girls have access to sports activities. In this day and age, 10 Golds take you in the TOP 10…if they can find them in 3 years, taking some away from other nations, they are in! So keep an eye on the Canadian team in Paris!

Brazil managed to improve a bit on their home games (adding two bronze medals to the previous games) and improving one position in the ranking (12th place). Medals came from 12 sports, and a big boost came from 3 medals from skateboarding with some young athletes taking a lot of attention thanks to their impressive skills and stories. Almost an even split of medals distribution between male and female athletes. Performance seems stable despite the rollercoaster ride of Olympic Sports in Brazil after the Rio Olympics. If you are not familiar with the ‘Operation car wash‘ you can read more here. I believe Brazil and India are the two sleeping giants of World Sport. Large populations, enormous potential when you see the amazing athletes they have. The impressive performances of Rebeca Andrade in Gymnastics and Ana Marcela Cunha in the 10K open water swim and the women’s volleyball silver also show the potential for female athletes in Brazil. Resources and support structures are what Brazil needs to reach TOP 10. If they can make the planned legacy centres work and staff them with qualified and motivated individuals with good quality coaches, they can be a World power in sport (more details on the national training network are here).

Hungary and New Zealand won more than Rio 2016 and confirmed their places just below the Top 10. Hungary won medals in 9 sports with 1/3rd of the medals coming from female athletes. Big disappointment was the Women’s handball team (but their future is bright with a lot of up and coming talent), and maybe they were expecting the women’s water polo team to be in the Final against the US. Canoeing always producing the goods for Hungary with solid history in the sport and continuous talent. They always have a good return for investment thanks to high quality athletes and a coaching system linked to sports science development mostly in the University of Physical Education and Sports Science TF which is the main hub of coaching education in the country (I am an alumnus, so I am biased, but this place is really special).

New Zealand is one of the few countries consistently increasing the number of medals won since Athens 2004. The progression has been immense.

EditionAthletes EnteredGoldSilverBronzeTotalRank
 2000 Sydney151103446
 2004 Athens148320524
 2008 Beijing182324925
 2012 London1846251315
2016 Rio de Janeiro1994951819
 2020 Tokyo2137672013
New Zealand in recent editions of the Summer Olympics

For such a small country winning medals in 11 sports is phenomenal and 8 medals between rowing and canoeing come at a fraction of the cost of the respective Team GB programmes. Almost an even distribution of male/female medals (9/11). I always look at HPSNZ as good reference system where resources are maximised and innovative approaches are used tos develop sport in the country. If you want to know more about it, you can access the information here. The new investment strategy looks promising with the potential to support more athletes and sport achieve international success. The sad story for NZ sport was the tragedy of the cyclist Olivia Podmore. An independente inquiry has been announced to look into the environment of cycling NZ and what can be done to improve health and wellbeing of athletes.

What else has been happening in the second and third tier nations?

Spain is stable with 17 medals (albeit a lot less gold) than previous editions which puts them after the TOP 20. 3 medals from Team Sports for the Spanish team, not much coming from Athletics or Cycling, nothing in Swimming but Gold medals in the new events Karate and Sport Climbing. For a country of 46M people, I think they underperform, they should be in the top 20. I echo what Fernando Carreño wrote on La Marca, there is a need to adopt some sort of system in Spain. Which one is the question. He suggests the Dutch one due to the links with the former head coach of Spanish Hockey Maurit Hendricks who was leading the Dutch NOC in this Olympic cycle. Can the massive debt reported from their two major football Clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid sway the interest and funding opportunities for Olympic Sports? In the meantime, Los Hispanos (the handball men’s team) brought home another Bronze medal closing a cycle with the legendary captain Raúl Entrerrios bringing closure to an incredible career with the national team. Also, the women’s water polo team tried to upset the US team in the final, however, at the moment, the Americans are totally out of reach for anybody.

Kenya is on the way down (-3 medals from Rio 2016). This is due to the diaspora of athletes moving to compete for other nations (I think I could identify around 20 Kenyans competing for other flags with some winning medals) as well as stricter antidoping/eligibility rules imposed by some international federations. Time will tell if the Kenyan dominance n running events will fade due to the current challenges.

Other major things to note in the medal table: the massive drop in medal count for Azerbaijan (7 medals in Tokyo vs 18 in Rio, all medals coming from combat sports) and Uzbekistan (5 medals in Tokyo vs 13 in Rio with Boxing producing only 1 medal vs 7 in the previous edition). Those two nations were the big losers in the medal table.

Arab nations

Qatar was the top-ranked Arab country in the games, with three medals, including two golds and one bronze. They were the first two Olympic gold medals in Qatar’s history. Athlete Fares Ibrahim El-Bakh won gold in men’s 96kg weightlifting and Mutaz Essa Barshim in the high jump (sharing the gold with Marco Tamberi of Italy). Qatar’s bronze medal came from men’s beach volleyball.

Qatar's Barshim, Italy's Tamberi share Olympic high jump gold | Olympics  News | Al Jazeera
One of the iconic moments of the Tokyo Olympics. Shared Gold medal in High Jump.

The second best-placed Arab country in Tokyo was Egypt, with six medals, one gold, one silver, and four bronze. The Egyptian gold came from women’s Karate Kumite, with athlete Feryal Abdelaziz in the over 61 kg category. Ahmed Elgendy won silver in the modern pentathlon. Giana Lotfy won bronze in women’s under 61kg Kumite, Seif Eissa in men’s 80 kg taekwondo, Hedaya Malak in women’s 67 kg taekwondo, and Mohamed Ibrahim Elsayed in men’s 67 kg wrestling. The Handball Pharaohs lost the bronze medal match against a much experienced Spanish team. But they had a fantastic tournament, played a very attractive style of handball thanks to influence of Spanish coach Parrondo and have high quality players in their team (keep an eye on the young talent Hassan Walid Kaddah in the future). They are the team to watch in Paris.

Tunisia was the third best-ranked Arab country in Tokyo, in 58th place. The country earned two medals, one gold, and one silver. The gold came from the incredible performance of Ahmed Hafnaoui, in the men’s 400 m freestyle swimming. Mohamed Khalil Jendoubi earned silver for Tunisia in the men’s 58 kg taekwondo.

Tunisia's Ahmed Hafnaoui wins men's 400m freestyle gold

Morocco came 63rd with a gold medal in men’s 3,000 m hurdles in athletics by Soufiane El Bakkali. Jordan took 74th place with one silver by Saleh Elsharabaty in men’s 80 kg taekwondo and a bronze by Abdel Rahman Almasatfa in men’s 67 kg Kumite.

Bahrain finished 77th with one silver by Kalkidan Gezahegne in the women’s 10,000 m athletics. Saudi Arabia reached the same position as Bahrain, with a silver medal from Tareq Hamedi in men’s over 75kg Kumite.

Kuwait came 86th, with a bronze from Abdullah Alrashidi in men’s shooting. Syria, also in 86th place, earned a bronze medal with athlete Man Asaad in men’s over 109kg weightlifting.

Continental Trends

Asian sport is on the up, thanks to the investment in infrastructure and expertise in the continent. For the first time in history, Asia has won more than a quarter of the medals awarded in the Olympic Games.

Asian Medals at the Summer Olympics

This result was boosted by Japan’s performances as well as the usual strong performance from China, but more nations are now achieving incredible results, and the first gold medal also arrived for India thanks to India’s young javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra who won his country’s first Olympic gold medal in track and field.

Neeraj Chopra wins Olympic gold medal in javelin throw at Tokyo 2020

First Gold medal also for the Philippines, thanks to the outstanding performance of Hidilyn Diaz beating the World record for the 55kg weighlifting women’s division of 127 Kg in the Clean and Jerk (total 224 kgs).

Hidilyn Diaz wins Philippines' first Olympic gold medal with weightlifting  - CNN

There are a lot of analyses available online looking at alternative medal tables taking into consideration GDP, Population, etc. I suggest you look at the excellent visualisations from the Sky News data journalist Ganesh Rao as well as the example below from Bloomberg.

FiveThirtyEight‘s interactive medal count provides an overview of the number of medals won by the NOCs in the context of the initial analytic expectations. The projections were generated based on the competing countries’ achievements in each sport over the past three Summer Olympics (you can read more about the methodology used by this FiveThirtyEight here)