Sunday, August 26, 2007

WOC 2007: More of the same but faster

And so we have made it to the final day of WOC 2007, and we start as we began with the sprint. By now the routine is familiar: dodgy breakfast in the Hotel Tourist (porridge, muesli or omelette are the three choices for the "sport" menu, plus tea or coffee if you persist long enough, and milk to put in it if you grab a carton from an adjacent table), a steamy trip in a packed metro, and arrival at a sunny event arena to find Per Forsberg on the commentary gantry getting excited about just about everything as only he can. The men are off first in the sprint, and the Botanic Gardens provide quite a nice setting, even if there does seem to be an awful lot of tape around trying to keep spectators away from places they really would like to go.

For the first time we get to see runners starting, and then there are two spectator controls on the edge of the arena plus a long finishing straight that is to prove decisive as it turns out. Sprint ace Emil Wingstedt starts early after his scare in the qualifier and puts in a good time, but it will not be enough. We then concentrate on the three Brits starting at two minute intervals. They all have excellent runs (GG 12th, Jon 16th, Jamie 18th) and Britain finishes top country based on the finishing position of their third runner. GG gets most attention at the finish as he runs into third position with over half the field already finished. Yet another good day in the sprint for the British.

Sirmais comes in near the end to give a Latvian leader, but is narrowly overtaken by Hubmann and then Johansson. At this point there are seven seconds covering the top five runners. Matthias Merz reproduces his form from the long to open up a massive 19 second gap at the top and there is only one person left on the course. The flying Frenchman appears at the final control and no-one can be sure who will win. Thierry gives it everything to take one second off Merz on the run-in and claim the gold by nine tenths of a second. Pure genius.

The women's race wasn't quite as exciting, but the result was again pretty predictable. Niggli first, Kauppi second, and eight Finns, Norwegians and Swedes in the top 10, joined only by new World Champion Niggli and ex World Champion Allston. Is women's orienteering really that boring and predictable in what should be the discipline most open to other countries?

After everything was over I happened to be in the right place at the right time to buy a sprint race map from an enormous scrum of people, so took the chance to have a jog round some of the men's course. The area was a mixture of formal gardens, buildings and thicker wooded areas with quite a dense path network, all set on quite steep hills. There were some significant route choice options, although it may have been more a case of picking one and doing it well rather than finding a killer route choice. Talking to GG afterwards he said he really wasn't sure about some of the routes he took, but clearly the final result was OK.

As I jogged past the arena at the end I heard an announcement that the WOC Tour prize-giving was about to take place, so Helen and I just managed to get back in time to claim our certificates and cuddly toys for hard-earned second and third places overall. Then it was time for some final sight-seeing on the last afternoon. The nearest attraction was the enormous (over 60 metres) "Iron Lady" statue that dominates the Kiev skyline from the east. We led a group of other orienteers down a path that eventually ended up leading us through a cemetry and past an underground church before emerging on a dirt track through what looked like somebody's garden gate. We later found that everybody else had come down this way as well. The dirt road turned out to be up-market Kiev and was lined with enormous houses complete with CCTV and tinted glass in the large cars parked in each driveway. Finally we got to the bottom of the valley and started the climb up to the status and associated war museum complete with tanks, missiles, guns, boats, helicopters and huge statues of a kind only Eastern Europe ever seems to produce. From there we decided to get a taxi to the other end of town to see the final remaining sights: St Andrew's Church and the road leading down from it lined with people selling all sorts of Ukrainian items ranging from the expected postcards and Russian dolls to the slightly less expected deer skins complete with attached deer heads.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

WOC 2007 Relay: No change there

Today was relay day and we were back amongst the windmills in the same event arena as for the long race. If you don't want to know the score look away now... All six relay gold medalists from Denmark in 2006 won again today, with an unchanged Russian men's team and Finnish women's team coming home first. To be honest there were no real surprises at all, with the top 10 in both races looking fairly predictable. But the races themselves did provide some decent head-to head competition.

The women set out first, in temperatures which were at last a bit more bearable than earlier in the week. Pippa Whitehouse had a great run for GB on the first leg coming back in sixth place just ahead of Switzerland. The Finns gradually pulled away on the second leg, but Norway and Sweden were together in a battle for the places, with Simone Niggli setting out in fifth place on the shorter last leg with an outside chance of a medal. In the end the Swedes just beat the Norwegians to take silver, and the Swiss ended fourth.

Graham Gristwood set out on the first lap for the men and was in the leading pack out of the field. He was still in the lead at the first radio control before losing a few places and eventually finishing 15th, but under two minutes down. Things continued pretty tight, and Jon Duncan moved up a few places to send Jamie Stevenson out with Thierry Gueorgiou in a fight for sixth place and the last spot on the podium. Thierry won that battle, whilst at the front the Russians were opening up a small but adequate lead ahead of Finland and Sweden.

And then after what had already been a very long day for spectators it was time to head out on the WOC Tour races and get a chance to sample the terrain at first hand. My start time was 17:34, and which point I had already been in the field for nearly eight hours. Despite this I managed a pretty reasonable run. The complicated valley network turned out to be even steeper and muddier than expected, and my route choice along a marsh in the bottom of a valley was a little on the slow side. There was quite a lot of the course through the cottages and other buildings in the museum itself, and then a final two kilometres through very fast white woodland with excellent visibility, very similar to the Chilterns in places. The museum is enclosed within a three metre high metal railing fence, and World Champs runners had been provided with bridges to get over this. For some reason the organisers decided that mere mortals could do without this luxury, so we were left to climb these fences or find unmapped gaps in them. Helen ran past a pile of wood that turned out to be the dismantled bridge that she was looking for at the time, and I had to help a woman over a fence before I could cross it. Our course was pretty much the same distance as the last lap of the men's race, and the good news is that my time means I would be a safe bet to make the Kazakhstan, Israel, Hong Kong and South Africa teams, and even the Chinese team which is a bit of a surprise.

Helen had already predicted that getting home that night would be a challenge, especially when the organisers announced that the last bus would leave at 19:00, despite the fact that many people would not have finished by then. We finally left the event arena about 19:15 and got to the bus pick-up point at around 19:30. Given the events of previous days we decided it was safer to get the public bus that arrived not long after, so seven of us set off on a mystery tour hoping to find a metro station, at the extortionate price of 15p each. This worked OK, and we finally got back to the hotel at just after 20:30, a mere 12 hours after we had set out. You have to be fit to be a spectator at this WOC.

Friday, August 24, 2007

WOC 2007: Independence Day

Today was Independence Day in the Ukraine and so a public holiday. The good news was this meant that the metro was a little less crowded than normal, at lest going into town in the morning. We had decided to do some quick sightseeing to tick off a few more major sights before heading for the WOC Tour Sprint Race. We started out at what should have been the Great Gate of Kiev, or at least a replica of it. It was a bit difficult to tell what it was at all since everything was covered in scaffolding and blue plastic sheets. Next we headed for St Sophia Cathedral, only to find it swamped by a huge crowd sitting out in the bright sunshine listening to long speeches, complete with marching bands and live TV coverage. Many of the crowd were dressed in full dinner suits or posh dresses, often topped off with what appeared to be paper hats to keep the sun off. Interestingly this turned out to be the only occasion in the week when we saw any giant TV screens: they never made it to any of the events.

A quick stroll down the boulevard led us to St Michael's Cathedral, and then there was just time to get the funicular railway down the hill to the metro station and head south to the bus pick-up point. We got there 10 minutes before the first bus was due to leave, and just managed to get on before it set off early. We were then dropped off in a park not far away, and wandered around watching the various festivities going on. A large stage was set up next to the finish, and at various points through the afternoon had magicians, dancers, bands and various other forms of entertainment. There appeared to be some sort of sporting festival going on as well, with people playing table tennis, football, darts (I kid you not, although they were throwing from about 5 metres away which reduced the skill level somewhat) and an entertaining variation of skittles that involved throwing metre-long sticks at assorted blocks of wood to try to knock them out of a marked area.

There was also a dog training class going on, with some rather large and fierce dogs doing tricks. This somewhat complicated the orienteering when the organisers emerged to set up the spectator control on a tree in the middle of the dogs. Some runners later in the day weren't willing to risk getting too close to the dogs, and decided not to punch the control. Ukrainian SI kit is of the ultra-robust variety. All control units come encased in a metal box that is screwed to two stakes. This is then connected by a wire to the nearest large object. This is so big that it can look like a taped route away from the control at times. It also provides quite a trip hazard, and several times during the week I ran into the wire at speed. For some reason the World Champs competitors have missed out on this technology, and get standard boxes plus back-up punch on their stakes. It then seems that the organisers change every control site before the WOC Tour starts.

The sprint race itself was in very pleasant terrain being mainly very runnable open forest with scattered open areas, although it was quite steep in places. Our planning featured an unfortunate dog leg at the end when we ran all the way to a lake at the bottom of the hill before running back up the same hill to the finish, but overall it was a chance to run at a sensible speed at last. Helen even managed to win her course.

Then it was back to the hotel for the traditional British Team picnic. This took place on the 24th floor of the Hotel Tourist, providing spectacular views over the Dnipro River towards central Kiev. Attendance was a little on the low side, given that so few spectators have been brave enough to make the trip. Later that night we returned to the 24th Floor to watch what was meant to be a spectacular fireworks display at the end of Independence Day. This turned out to consist of individual fireworks going off at quite long intervals, so we soon gave up and went to bed. Apparently the real display started just after that.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

WOC 2007: Phew what a scorcher.

So far the week has been hot. Today it go hotter. The spectators could look forward to four hours in a field with temperatures in the high 30s and no shade. This was probably only marginally less physically tiring than having to run 18 kilometres with over 500m of climb as the men had to do. We got an early lucky break when the organisers suddenly found an extra bus to take people direct from the hotel to the event, rather than having to brave the metro again. The bus dropped us off at the entrance to the Ukrainian Museum of Folk Architecture and Life, a huge open-air museum consisting of cottages and churches spread around semi-wooded countryside. Those of us who stopped to take photos of the two windmills near the entrance found we needn't have bothered, since the event arena was dominated by five windmills on a hill top, with a sixth acting as a spectator control. Somehow the organisers managed to squeeze the spectator control and map exchange into a tiny corner of a huge field, so photo opportunities and spectating were not what they should have been. Helen, James and Peter spent most of the day sheltering under a makeshift tent made of towels over a fence post near the last control.

It was clear from early on that the courses were long and tough. The commentary team hinted that there was one leg of over three kilometres: this later turned out to be predominantly through or round a built-up area. Early starters looked hot and tired as they ran down to the windmill for the map exchange and the final loop, and were significantly down on predicted times. Gradually the times got faster, as they are bound to do given the reverse start order from qualification, but there was seldom any real excitement in the field. It was probably just too hot.

In the women's race it was business as usual, with the top 6 being no surprise at all. What was a surprise was that Kauppi and Jukkola took exactly the same time (80:17) to give Finland two gold medals, and that they both beat Simone by well over a minute. The splits show Jukkola lost 10 seconds running the wrong side of the building at the last control, but they then both did 22 seconds (fastest time for any woman) down the run-in. Helen Winskill ended up 32nd and Pippa Whitehouse 42nd.

In the men's race two big names dropped out before the race (Lauenstein ill and Lakanen injured), and seven more failed to finish or were disqualified. Matthias Merz of Switzerland took his chance to do a Thierry (who had opted not to run the long) and won by a huge 3:38 margin. As with the middle, there was then a large group, with ten runners in the next four minutes. Jamie Stevenson finished 9th and Jon Duncan 18th.

We couldn't face any more time in the heat so left before the prize ceremony and headed for the beach again. It's a day off for the big boys and girls tomorrow, but we get a chance to see what the sprint qualifier area was like. Strangely the whole of the sprint qualifier area is on the long race map, and provides an interesting comparison of a 1:15,000 map and a 1:5,000 sprint race map.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

WOC 2007: Return of the King

At the press conference after his victory Thierry said that at the start of the middle qualification race he looked at the map and immediately knew it was his sort of terrain. Everybody in the crowd knew that it was his sort of terrain. At the radio control in the final he went through a minute clear. By the run-through in the spectator area he had nearly caught Valentin Novikov who had started two minutes ahead of him and was running fast enough for bronze. By the final run-in he had overtaken Novikov and had a winning margin of over two minutes. Tero Fohr in second place was less that two minutes clear of 2006 middle race World Champion Holger Hott, but he finished only 15th. The King is back with a truly amazing victory, but one which everybody expected. It was great to watch.

Simone managed to prove that the Queen is back as well, but for some reason this just didn't feel as much of an achievement or cause for celebration. Elsewhere a number of big names came to grief in another area of low visibility and vague contour detail, perhaps marginally slower than the qualifier had been due to thicker ground cover, at least for early starters before the elephant tracks started forming.

The mortals got a chance for a run later in the afternoon and found out how difficult it was to get one control perfect let alone all of them like the King must have managed. And so another red-hot day in the Ukraine came to an end, or at least it should have done. We joined the bus queue at around 17:30, along with over 100 other runners. A single bus arrived an hour later and took half of the people away. After that the organisers started flagging down taxis and cars on the side of the road to take people the 20 minutes back to the hotels, and we entertained the crowd with a game of cricket. We finally got into a taxi at 19:45, at which time there were still over 30 people left waiting. Not a good end to the day.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

WOC 2007: Open Sesame

So after three days of races we finally get to the Opening Ceremony. For many runners who have failed to qualify for the finals their WOC is already over, which does seem a bit unfortunate. For others we are now at the point where the World Championships starts for real. But first we have a day to spend in hot and sunny Kiev.

We spent the morning visiting various gold-domed churches and monasteries, complete with associated caves and mummified monks. The caves entrance is cunningly concealed as a corridor accessed via a building site, and even the Ukrainians appear totally baffled about where it is or what to do. But eventually we worked out where to buy the candles that were equivalent to an entry fee and also served as a major source of light during the trip. They also provided endless opportunities for setting fire to the person ahead of you in the slowly moving queue as it passed through what turned out to be quite a short tunnel with various small rooms off it, lined with coffins containing embalmed monks. The boys liked it so much we had to do a second trip trough.

Then it was time to head for the beach at the Hydropark. This is a slightly aged fun fair complete with apparently dangerous roller coasters and other rides, plus the chance to ride on a camel, have your picture taken with a large bird of prey, eat all sorts of odd food, but most importantly cool down with a swim in the Dnipro River. There was a reasonable sandy beach, and the water was cool if a little brown.

And then it was yet another squeeze into the hot metro to get into the centre of the city. We emerged into Independence Square and took all the standard photographs of the statues and obelisks, and then followed a trail of orienteers towards the park overlooking the river. If you are ever put in charge of organising a WOC Opening Ceremony you will normally be given a large grassy field and told to get on with it. Kiev comes complete with a purpose-built open-air amphitheatre seating over a thousand, with stage, two enormous statues and an even more enormous metal arch over the whole lot. Add in a marching band, Ukrainian dancers and a surprisingly large crowd of orienteers to spectate and the whole thing was certainly one of the better examples of how these things should be done.

Monday, August 20, 2007

WOC Qualifiers - Hot, hot, hot

So that's the qualifying done, and things can start for real on Wednesday. Kiev is hot, and sitting in the open watching the runners is hotter. Us lucky spectators then get a couple more hours in the hot sun before getting a chance to try out the forests on the WOC Tour races. The long qualifier area was rough and steep, with some significant cliffs and earthbanks to be negotiated. Today's middle qualifier was almost flat, with no more than one or two 2.5m contours needed for any of the features. Visibility was very low, so I have no idea how the mappers could see enough of the area to put in the large number of form lines showing subtle ground detail. Both areas were interesting and quite technical in their own way, but I think everyone is looking forward to some slightly faster running later in the week.

The Brits have had a solid if not spectacular time so far. Most people have made the finals but a few have missed out, mostly quite narrowly. There have certainly been a few surprises, with Moldova and Israel both getting runners to the finals.

For those still pondering on the previous question about the best WOC runner ever, how about a few suggestions. In recent times we clearly have Thierry Guiergiou (three consecutive middle race gold medals, and looking a pretty safe bet this week) and Simone Niggli (10 individual golds and 2 relay golds, including four gold medals at a single WOC twice: there was an entertaining argument today whene Simone was interviewed and corrected Per Forsberg about exactly how many gold medals she already had). Going back a little further Jorgen Martensson (11 long race finals, including two golds and never lower than 15th) or Annichen Kringstad (three long gold, three relay gold, and the second-biggest winning margin in WOC history when she won gold in 1983. A look at the Maprunner WOC ranking list throws up another suggestion. Perhaps I'll go for a definitive answer later in the week.

The Ukraine is turning out to be a game of two halves. Some aspects (hotel rooms with no air conditioning or bath plugs), hotel breakfast (grey omelette: how do they cook it like that?), toilets at events (best not to provide any details), somewhat chaotic transport arrangements) are somewhat behind what you might expect, whilst others (high-tech shopping centre with free wi-fi access) are as good as anywhere you'd find. Tomorrow it's the opening ceremony and a chance to see the centre of Kiev for real. Then the action really starts with the middle final on Wednesday.

Friday, August 17, 2007

WOC 2007: Some follow-up questions

Today's question: Who is the most successful orienteer in World Championships history? It's clearly open to debate but later in the week I'll suggest some ideas once you've had a chance to think about it.

Now for the answers to yesterday’s questions.

1) Which are the only two WOC races where Sweden, Norway and Finland all failed to win a medal? And which country won gold in both these races?

The first occurrence was the unforgettable gold medal for Yvette Baker at the Short Race at WOC 1999 in Scotland. She was followed home by Lucie Bohm (Austria) and Frauke Schmitt Gran (Germany). The second occurrence clearly needs a British gold again so must be the Sprint Race at WOC 2003 in Switzerland. Second was Rudolf Ropek (Czech Republic) and third was Thierry Gueorgiou (France). Remarkably the leading Scandiwegian (SWE-NOR-FIN for those not in the know) was no higher than 9th.

(Having just checked Google it shows only 649 occurrences of Scandiwegian. That is just about to go up.)

2) Name every country that has ever won a medal at WOC.

The full medal table is here. It breaks down into three major groups. First there are the big five: Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic. Then come the a group of countries with regular medals but not in such large numbers: this covers Great Britain, Denmark, Russia/Soviet Union, Hungary and France. Between them this top 10 have won every WOC relay medal ever. And finally there are a few outstanding individuals who have picked up a small number of medals for the Ukraine (Yuri Omelthcenko), Austria (Lucie Bohm), Germany (Frauke Schmitt Gran) and Australia (Hanny Allston).

3) Which country has won a women's relay medal at every WOC?

Sweden. Probably an easy one to guess but still an astonishing run, or streak as the Americans would have it. I'll leave you to ponder on the concept of the Swedish women's relay team streaking.

4) Which of the previous three questions will have new answers after WOC 2007?
Time for some inspired guesswork hiding as detailed analysis. Men's middle and men's sprint look outside candidates for no SWE-NOR-FIN. Even the men's relay could go that way: what about three from Russia, Switzerland, France, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Great Britain grabbing the medals. Difficult to see any new medal countries, but if one does appear it will surely be Eastern European. I suppose Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania or Slovakia could sneak in. Or what about a surprise Italian medal. I don't even know if Mamleev is fit and in the team. Will the Swedes sneak a women's relay medal? Switzerland and Finland look real threats, so could Russia, Norway, the Czech Republic or even Australia help to break the sequence? History of course says no.

Latest news from Kiev is that the heat-wave has arrived, with temperatures expected to be in the 30s. At least that will make a change from Scotland last week.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

WOC 2007: Your starter for 10

1) Which are the only two WOC races where Sweden, Norway and Finland all failed to win a medal? And which country won gold in both these races?

2) Name every country that has ever won a medal at WOC.

3) Which country has won a women's relay medal at every WOC?

4) Which of the previous three questions will have new answers after WOC 2007?

Answers to the first three questions will come in a post later this week. You might want to look around the Maprunner WOC Database to confirm if your guesses are right before then.

The answer to the fourth question will take a little longer...

Having completely failed to write anything interesting about the JK, various British Championships, FROLICS, and a whole host of other races it is suddenly WOC time again. Helen has decided that a week in the Ukraine will be fun so we will set of on Saturday for yet another week of hard spectating and sightseeing. Kiev promises to be a bit more exotic than some of the other WOC locations, but having already survived two separate trips to Russia and a week at WOC 1991 in Czechoslovakia we at least have a vague idea what to expect.

Watch this space for reports throughout the week (assuming I can get internet access) and a few more WOC questions and answers as well.