Monday, 30 July 2012

Does Swimming Have A Doping Problem? Probably not.

Maybe like a lot of you, I've been watching the Olympics over the past few days. In particular the cycling road races and the early stages of the swimming competitions. The swimming has really caught my attention. For a sport that requires such physical fitness, why is it almost untarnished by doping scandals? The only scandals I'm aware of are the Chinese in the 90s and Ian Thorpe's alleged use of EPO, and that's nothing when compared to the scandals cycling or athletics have suffered. Is it because swimming is free from doping?

It's unlikely, I don't believe any sport is completely free from doping. If there is an opportunity to cheat, a small percentage of athletes will take that opportunity. In my opinion the percentage of athletes who do dope depends on the environment they're in, for example a cyclist in the mid 90s would be far more likely to dope than a cyclist nowadays. Better testing and the blood passport program is a factor but in my opinion the main catalyst for change in professional cycling has been the environment, the 'Omerta'* no longer exists to the extent it once did.

However I really don't believe swimming has these issues that have plagued other sports, mainly because doping seems to be far less beneficial in swimming than say cycling or athletics. To understand this better we need to look at the average age of world records in swimming and athletics and compare the two (for both we will use the close of the Beijing Olympics).

Firstly swimming: The average age of a men's world record is 1 year, 1 month, the average for women is only 8 months, out of 32 combined events only 4 have records older than 3 years.

Secondly athletics: The average age of a men's world record is 8 years, 11 months (Bolt breaking a 12 year old record played a large part in that), the average for women is far longer at 14 years, 9 months (22 times older than the women's swimming records!).

Swimming doesn't follow the same pattern at all and I've no doubt the swimmers of the 80s and pre EPO test era were doping to a similar extent as the track and field athletes. It just means that doping in swimming doesn't increase performance to anywhere near the extent it does in athletics, largely because swimming is such an inefficient activity. The best swimmers are only about 7% efficient, so a drug that improves strength and power would have a far smaller effect because most of the strength and power gained is lost to the inefficiency of the stroke. Swimming only started to see world records tumble with the introduction of the 'speed suits', better technology in pools and an all round better understanding of how to swim efficiently.

When you're swimming fast improving how efficiently you move through the water would be far more beneficial than doping. This can be clearly seen after the farcical 2009 swimming world championships where almost every world record was destroyed. Soon after, the suits were banned and the sport went almost 2 years without a world record.

I'm not saying that doping doesn't exist in swimming, it just seems that doping is far less prevalent than you would expect of a sport in which world records were broken at will. For a sport that is so dependent on efficiency, it may be more beneficial to improve your stroke than improve your red blood cell count.

However that's not to say some athletes don't do both.........

*Omerta - Term used in cycling to describe the wall of silence surrounding doping, you simply do not discuss doping to an outsider.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

How many helium balloons is it safe to buy a child?

Yesterday I was reading a few articles I'd put in my favorites folder over the past few years, one in particular that you might remember was the 'Balloon Boy' hoax. It got me thinking, could you buy enough balloons at say a fair ground to accidentally get a child airborne?

First we need to know that it takes roughly one litre of helium to lift one gram so to lift a child weighting 25kg we would need 25,000 litres of helium, that's quite a lot. If we assume that an average helium filled balloon is 25cm in diameter we can use the equation 4/3 x pi x r x r x r to find the volume.

By taking pi to 2 decimal places and the radius as 12.5cm we get:

4/3 x pi x 12.5 x 12.5 x 12.5 = 8,177.08 cubic centimetres, which is just over 8 litres.

If we assume that the balloon and the string weight 2 grams, each balloon could lift just 6 grams in addition to its own weight. For your child that weights 25kg you'd need 4,167 balloons and roughly £8,500 in cash to lift him or her off the ground, probably not something anyone will do by accident.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Why did Alcatraz close?

Alcatraz was one of the most successful prisons ever built in terms of preventing prisoners from carrying out successful escape attempts. Although the prison itself was at the time one of the most secure facilities in North America it was the icy water of the San Francisco Bay that prevented prisoners from reaching freedom. If the prison was so successful, why was it closed?

During the 29 years Alcatraz was a Federal prison it held claim to an almost 'perfect' record, 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts with two men trying to escape twice. Of those 23 were caught, six were killed from gunfire during their escape attempt, two drowned and five are listed as "missing and presumed drowned". The only reason Alcatraz can't claim a 'perfect' record is because there is a small possibility that the five "missing and presumed drowned" are still alive, although this is unlikely. Alcatraz held many famous prisoners from Al Capone to James Bulger, usually prisoners sent to Alcatraz were ones who presented a serious security risk or who had caused trouble at other prisons. One prisoner held there that I found interesting was Bumpy Johnson who was depicted in the Ridley Scott film, American Gangster.

So why if Alcatraz was so secure and a prison capable of holding the most dangerous inmates was it closed? Ironically salt water forced the closure of Alcatraz, the very ingredient that made the prison so secure in the first place.

Alcatraz used salt water to flush the toilets, salt water contains magnesium chloride, sulfate ions and hydrogen carbonate ions that will attack concrete to a certain degree. Although what really starts to corrode in a concrete structure is any of the steel substructure within, the main line of defence in preventing prisoners from tunneling through concrete walls. Usually the steel inside concrete will react with it's interior alkaline environment, this forms a film that protects the steel. However when salt water soaks into concrete the chloride and sulfate ions weaken the film, once the film is breached the corrosion process begins to work on the steel itself.

Over time the concrete walls of Alcatraz became so weak that it was possible to tunnel through them with only a spoon, three prisoners did just this to escape in June 1962. Their bodies were never found and as a result the US Marshall’s office is still investigating the case, a case which will remain open on all three until their 100th birthday's. After that attempt in 1962 it started to become apparent that Alcatraz's walls were no longer secure enough for a Federal penitentiary, that and it was over three times more expensive to operate than the average US prison ($10 a day compared to $3 a day). As a result Alcatraz was closed on March 21st 1963.

It seems ironic that the very thing that made Alcatraz so secure was what ultimately led to it not being secure enough.