Trent Stellingwerff interview: Rio, the good, the bad and the ugly

September 6, 2016 0

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Dr. Trent Stellingwerff is a former track and field athlete who competed in the NCAA for division one Cornell University, where he was selected as co-captain. Stellingwerff also competed in the CIS for the University of Guelph, where he twice earned All-Canadian honours.

Stellingwerff was an academically decorated student who made the Dean’s list at Cornell. In 2006 he took a position in Switzerland for the Nestlé Research Centre (Powerbar) as a Senior Research Scientist in Sport Nutrition, Energy and Performance. Stellingwerff has also served as a Nutrition and Physiology Consultant for Athletics Canada.

He now lives in Victoria, BC and is a the Lead of Innovation and Research and Senior Physiologist working with  the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific.

Currently his focus is to provide his physiology and nutrition expertise primarily to Canada’s national track and field team, as well as leading Canadian Sport Institute’s Innovation and Research division.

Stellingwerff has attended several world championships and Olympic games as part of Team Canada’s Integrated Support Team and consults several Olympic athletes from around the world, including his wife Hilary, who has competed for Canada internationally in the 1500-metre distance event including the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Stellingwerff is active on social media. As posting comments of 140 characters or less does not always provide the full perspective or opinion, we took this opportunity to expand on some of his thoughts.

Christopher Kelsall: On Twitter you wrote 10 posts of the good, the bad and the ugly of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. For number eight you wrote, “We need to get more people in power to spend time living the life of our athletes – staying in the village, eating the food, etc.”

Can you describe the conditions you are referring to and are you aware of the conditions that the people in power enjoyed?

Trent Stellingwerff: First, I want to highlight that all my answers represent my own opinions, and not the athletes, coaches, sports, universities and institutes that I work with and for.

With Twitter, one only has 140 characters, so all of my tweets need to be taken in the right context (hence it is nice to do this interview so I can elaborate). This specific tweet was more general in terms of all of us staying humble and always remembering what it is like for an athlete struggling to have the best performance of their life, and realising that the games are about the athletes.  As I’ve been blessed to rise through the ranks in Canadian sport, I always try to keep this top of mind.  When I collect my paycheque, I remind myself that Canadian athletes receive about $18K/year in funding, which is approximately $12-per-hour, some Olympians aren’t on any carding whatsoever, and many, many more aspiring Olympians constantly struggle to make ends meet.

More specific to the Rio Olympics, the conditions in Rio were no problem whatsoever and not much different than any of the three previous games I’ve had the honour of attending.

Security and transportation were adequate, beds were comfortable, we had air conditioning, most showers featured warm water and generally the food was decent. It isn’t (nor should it be) a 4-star hotel – think more of a youth hostel – which, again, is completely fine.  I just think it would go a long way in showing humility, fiscal responsibility and solidarity if the entire “Olympic family” (all IOC members, and associated sub-committees and their respective families) were to stay in the village, eat at village dining and take general athlete transport rather than stay in a 5-star hotel, have car and catering service and $900 per diems.

CK: Surely.

It seems that in advance of the Olympics, the mass media describes conditions in a negative light, for example transportation in London, going way over budget in security spending in Sochi, protests in Vancouver and of course killer mosquitos, crime and pollution in Rio.

Do you think the half-empty stadiums are the result of people not travelling to Rio out of fear, or is it because the ticket base at international games is primarily localised and therefore Brazilians couldn’t afford tickets – especially tickets that IOC members were apparently scalping?

TS: The media play a very important role in sport. Without them, the general public would have very poor coverage and awareness of athletes and the Olympics. Also, media investigative journalism has been an important truth seeker, such as pushing the entire Russian doping issue out into the open; I’m not sure that would’ve happened otherwise. So kudos to people like Hajo Seppelt and ARD/TV for their work (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iu9B-ty9JCY ).

However, I also feel that in the last several years, in the constant search for website “clicks”, that some journalists seek, journalism has become more and more sensationalised.  This just isn’t around the Olympics – but even research and studies.  An example, which I tweeted about a bunch in 2015, is this Toronto Sun article with the title: “Sports drinks don’t help athletic performance, Canadian study suggests” (http://www.torontosun.com/2015/05/12/sports-drinks-dont-help-athletic-performance-canadian-study-suggests ).

But, if the authors (or individuals that make up the titles for articles) even read the study, they would realise that the study didn’t even give subjects sports drinks (they infused water through a catheter into subjects arms)! The title is completely wrong, inappropriate and generally does science a complete disservice and really pisses me off – but probably generated lots of website “clicks”.

Did Rio have challenges?  Absolutely – no one would deny this.  Were these challenges blown out of proportion by the media? I think so.  If you were to poll every athlete and their family who attended the games, I think you would get very positive replies and they would all say the media fear mongering was overdone.

I’ll leave this reply with two people who can touch on this subject better than I.  One is from a Facebook post by fourth place racewalker Evan Dunfee’s father, Don Dunfee:

I was reading some of the Olympic stories today and I was struck by some of the disparaging comments towards Brazil. Many entitled people seem to think that everything should be consistent with their requirements. We are preparing to leave this beautiful city tonight after 18 full and exciting days. I will write more later, but I want to get a few things on the record. The last ten days we have been staying in Barra de Tejica, a wonderful area with spectacular beaches.

In order to get to the race course, and the beaches, we have to walk through an area that, while not a favela, is close to one. Locals warned us to be careful. On two occasions while walking alone at night and wearing Canada gear I have been stopped by friendly people wanting to talk about Canada. They don’t learn much from me for there is a language barrier, but sharing a few beers and engaging in sign language does wonders for friendship. Two nights ago we mistakenly got on a bus that was an express to the Olympic City. Looking a little dazed while we tried to determine where to go next we were approached by a young lady with impeccable English who happened to be going in the direction we required. One thing led to another and we took her to dinner at our new favourite restaurant. An exchange of email addresses cemented a new friendship. Last night we were standing on the Main Street trying to flag down a cab. A man came over to us to ask if he could help. Help he did. Once he heard our need he whipped out his phone, ordered an uber and refused to let us pay. This is the real Brazil. They have troubles, corrupt government, inequality and crime to name a few, but they are a remarkably resilient people who will one day enjoy the benefits of a good economy. I’m sorry to leave this wonderful city.”

The other is from American rower Megan Kalmoe, who had a great blog titled: “I will row through shit for you, America” see: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/jul/26/rowing-olympics-2016-water-quality.

CK: Issue three of your tweets is almost three thoughts thick. For example you wrote, “…the Olympic movement and brand needs a SERIOUS re-think – top to bottom: from location to professionalism to branding.”

Can you expand on these thoughts?

TS: The Olympics and Paralympics are the absolute pinnacle of performance for most athletes. However, I would argue that this is not the case for all athletes; as most professional athletes, or athletes who earn significant pay, might pick another event like Wimbledon, the Tour de France or The Masters.  For the vast majority of us, the Olympics and Paralympics continue to be the zenith that we all strive for.

I am blessed to be surrounded by so many people who aspire to be the best that they can be – and want to challenge themselves against the best in the world. This motivates me to do the same. That said, over the last several Olympic quads, the Olympic conversation seems to be gravitating more and more towards: Olympic corruption, doping issues, branding issues (e.g. IOC Rule 40), professionalisation (or lack thereof) and sustainability issues. In my humble opinion, these are some of the key issues the IOC needs to hit straight on, in the full face of truth and progress.

I do absolutely believe the Olympic movement is important enough, and powerful enough, to overcome these issues. Much more discussion and thought needs to be considered around these issues.

More recently, Deidra Dionne, who won an Olympic bronze medal in aerials skiing in 2002, has written an open letter to IOC President Thomas Bach regarding these exact issues and I would encourage all to read it here for more information: http://www.cbc.ca/sports/olympics/money-at-play/open-letter-thomas-bach-olympics-1.3744317

CK: What are your thoughts on having a single location for all summer and winter games? The facilities would already be in place and there would be no bid process, so therefore less chance for corruption and none of the apparent white elephants left to grow grass and weeds in.

TS: This is part of what I’m getting at above. On one of our 45-minute drives to the track, Kiwi 1500-metre medallist Nick Willis and I were seat-mates and had a long talk; both about our respective sons and also on this idea of single Olympic host locations – he had some great ideas. Perhaps, it wouldn’t have to be a single location, but a summer or winter location on each continent where the games rotate around and in intervening years it is used as a heavily subsidised and world-class training centre? It would require a serious long-term commitment from all countries involved to continue to pay into these Olympic sites for continued infrastructure upkeep – but imagine the quality of these Olympic “centers of excellence” for each continent that can be used for training and testing and programming in the many intervening years between games?

The fact is, when Norway, one of the winningest Winter Olympic countries of all time pulls out of the bid for the 2022 Winter Games (http://www.bbc.com/sport/winter-olympics/29455789), this has to be a red-flag and cause for concern…

CK: When you wrote, “5). We need to continue to PUSH for more for our athletes, who train in relative obscurity and poverty, minus every 4 years.” What do you think is a solution? What do the National Sport Organizations (NSOs) need to do to better fund the athletes?

TS: This is a tough question, which I believe needs change from top to bottom – not just on a single organisation or population group.  Olympic-based NSO’s have to continue to strive for awareness and impact beyond just the few months around the Olympics/Paralympics.  NSO’s have to try and secure funding outside of primarily government sources. COC and NSO’s need to try and better professionalise each of their respective sports. Athletes/sports need to try and find better ways to ‘connect’ with the general public, and find ways to tell their story and showcase their incredible talent throughout the four years.  Why do some athletes seem to “always” get the press or the sponsorships?  Maybe it’s because they are absolutely beating the streets to get their name out, to do public speaking gigs, volunteering etc etc? To me it primarily comes back to finding enhanced ways for the general public to “connect” with our athletes throughout their journey – to understand their dedication, commitment, challenges and success.

CK: Turning the subject to a positive direction, you mentioned that Canada punched way above its weight in winning 22 medals during the Rio Games. There were several more that could have been won. There were some great stories out of this Olympiad, for example your wife Hilary and the debacle from 2012 and subsequent pregnancy and return to form.

In your opinion what were some of the most inspiring Canadian performances that did not win a medal?

TS: Ha – everything above is also positive for me. I consider respectful discussion about challenges in life as a positive – without them, how do we move forward? Now back to the question at hand.

Although the total medal outcome is amazing, I’m more proud of the Canadian athletes and coaches I had the honour of working with and how they progressed and learned throughout their journey to the Olympics. In other words I’m more proud of ‘how’ the outcomes resulted, rather than the actual outcome.  We have to remember, that if you watch a few four minute running races on TV once every four years, that probably only comprises 0.013% of an athlete’s total time spent running! (three races of four minutes equals 12 minutes or 0.2 hours in the Olympics. Whereas a typical training week is eight to 10 hours of running which works out to 1600 hours of training over four years (0.2h/1600h x 100 = 0.0125%)).

I am very proud in the way all Canadian athletes handled themselves in Rio.  To my knowledge there were zero issues whatsoever with Canadian athletes; they were all respectful, professional and positive and showed so much gratitude to the Olympic movement and Brazil.

I believe that we should focus on things we can control – which for me are primarily things in training and your own personal life and commitment to the sport. It is very difficult to control much during the actual competition. So in my humble opinion, athletes who have mastered being professional day in and day out, controlling their training and environments, constantly seeking optimal performance—are doing all we can ask for. Most competition outcomes are chaotic and poorly predicted. Yes, optimal preparation will increase one’s odds of success and yes the outcome is important, but I’m more interested in helping athletes master their journey, and then the outcome will take care of itself.

Now back to the question. As I work primarily with athletics, I would have to say, for me, three athletes who did not medal, but were especially inspirational to me were:

  • Melissa Bishop with her fourth place in the women’s 800-metres. Over the last six years that I’ve had the pleasure of helping/working with Melissa in areas of physiology and nutrition, I can’t think of many athletes who have been more professional and dedicated to their sport – and I mean in every aspect of performance. Accordingly, she has steadily progressed into one of the best 800-metre runners ever.  Her poise under pressure and a controversial event in Rio, storming to a fourth place finish while taking another Canadian record was nearly running perfection.
  • Evan Dunfee’s fourth place in the 50K Racewalk: Evan is in an event that, in my opinion, doesn’t get enough press exposure and respect. The 50K Racewalk is probably one of the, if not the most, gruelling endurance event at the Olympics. These guys go through the marathon in ~3:10 and keep on trucking. Evan walked lights out, in very hot conditions, which included a small tangle/elbowing with a Japanese walker with ~2km to go that, at one point, had earned him the bronze medal (Due to the Japanese being DQ’d). This was eventually overturned, and in what was a great show of sportsmanship, Evan didn’t re-appeal. His statement on the issue is here: http://athletics.ca/statement-evan-dunfee-todays-50km-race-walk/#sthash.raP106I8.dpbs
  • Hilary Stellingwerff’s comeback to world-class racing, and another Olympic team, only two years after having a baby at age 35. (I guess I should mention my wife, shouldn’t I?) It was not a smooth journey, and featured more challenges and hurdles in two years than her entire running career combined until that point, but she came back to run 4:05 again, and make another Olympic team (BTW, very few people know this, but I think she was in the shape of her life prior to Rio, running a 2:35 for 1000m in a time trial nine days prior to her heat). I know she inspired many people, given the insane amount of Facebook and Twitter messages that came after. I hope she has also inspired many elite athlete moms, or want-to-be moms, to realise that if you take care of your body, and have a good team, you can be a mom and you can be world-class well into your 30’s.

Of course there are many more, but these are especially inspirational to me, partly because I worked so, so close with these athletes over the years.

CK: In regards to the hyperandrogenism issue, what do you think is the best case scenario solution that the IAAF can come up with to make for a fair game situation?

TS:
I haven’t commented on this topic publicly since I’m not an expert in sport ethics/ sport rules/ sport law, human ethics, or the study of human sexuality or culture or endocrinology (study of hormones) – and this controversy features all of this. So now that I’ve highlighted my response with many of my educational weaknesses on this subject, you might not want to read on. I actually worked on this reply for a long, long time – but as I worked on it, it got longer, and longer and longer.  It is just that complex. So I will keep my reply much shorter than my original draft, as this is probably the most complex situation I have ever encountered in sport over my 20-plus year career of competing and working in sport.

First and foremost, I do want to highlight that I feel VERY badly for all involved, as there is no clear path to resolution (at least that I can see right now). Given my wife is an elite female athlete who is not hyperandrogenic with a 15-year international career I can empathise and understand the viewpoint from multiple angles.

Nevertheless, we have to understand that Caster Semenya was born with a version of natural hyperandrogenism, and that is not doping! (and I should stress, “reported” hyperandrogenism, as to my knowledge none of her medical records have been ‘officially’ reported, nor should they be.  This highlights another issue with the entire topic: that so much of it is hearsay and insinuation).  But, if we accept that Caster is hyperandrogenic, in the context of the sport and event she competes in, might be a distinct advantage (although this is almost impossible to ever “prove” in a study). I should also say, that in my career as a sport scientist, I’ve seen a handful of male athletes with endogenous (their own) testosterone values above the male clinical norms, and we don’t talk about them at all – perhaps they have an advantage too? And, all our Olympians and Olympic champions are born as genetic freaks, where do we draw the line?  I have no idea.

Secondly, this issue is much bigger than just the IAAF – it is an issue of sport rules and human rights. But, I feel, at the crux of this issue is what Dr. Ross Tucker has previously highlighted (my words [in brackets]):

“I think the fundamental issue is this: We have a separate category for women because without it, no women would even make the Olympic Games (with the exception of equestrian [and possibly a handful of other events]). [In Athletics], Most of the women’s world records, even doped, lie outside the top 5000 times run by men. Radcliffe’s marathon WR, for instance, is beaten by between 250 and 300 men per year. Without a women’s category, elite sport would be exclusively male.” – Dr. Ross Tucker. 

Or the fact that a male athlete who self-identify as a female can now compete in the female division of US high-school track and field meets:  http://usatodayhss.com/2016/transgender-track-athlete-makes-history-as-controversy-stirs-around-her

I’m not saying this is right or wrong – as I think it is great to be as inclusive as possible, but what will the long-term outcome be for females in sport be?  I have no idea…

Sex is not binary; it isn’t black and white – both physiologically, but also psychologically and emotionally. Yet, we try to have just two distinct divisions in sports. However, I do believe that if we dismiss these facts about sexual dimorphism, and sport progresses towards a completely open and completely inclusive one-sex (or one human race) category, where anyone who identifies as any sex can participate in any division, than I’m afraid that even more female athletes with normal endocrine profiles will be dismissed and lose out on the ability to even closely complete in sports and teams (starting with team selections as young athletes). This will not only occur on the elite level, but every level of sport.

As a trained physiologist it is also difficult for me to dismiss the impact of elevated testosterone on training adaptation and performance, which some experts have used to argue in favour of athletes with hyperandrogenism not having an advantage.  A study example of exogenous testosterone and adaptation and performance is written by Dr. Werner Franke on the East German Doping and androgenisation of athletes, see: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9216474. But, endogenously, there are many other correlative examples of elite females having superior performance with elevated endogenous testosterone as well, here is one study example with female rugby players:  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22915557.

Many argue, just test blood testosterone and set cut-offs and the problem will be solved (or create other divisions in sport for individuals with natural elevated testosterone levels). But, I want to stress that from what I have read (and my naïve understanding) testing is not simple and straight forward and not nearly as binary as most think (e.g. you are under or over, and that’s it). For example, we can’t just do a blood test for testosterone, as there are many examples were elevated testosterone may provide no distinct advantage due to the fact that testosterone transporters/receptors are not functioning or being expressed normally (such as androgen insensitivity syndrome: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Androgen_insensitivity_syndrome). In fact, androgen excess is one of the most common endocrine disorders in females of reproductive age, and to get a sense on just how complex it is, see here: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/273153-overview.

So long story short, one just can’t measure blood testosterone to understand the phenotypical impact that testosterone might have on an individual.

As I said above, I’m not an expert in any of these areas, so I would encourage everyone to read a couple of various viewpoints below.

See Dr. Ross Tucker’s blogs (http://sportsscientists.com/2016/07/caster-semenya-debate/ and http://sportsscientists.com/2016/05/hyperandrogenism-women-vs-women-vs-men-sport-qa-joanna-harper/) and for another viewpoint I would encourage you to read and Listen to Canadian Dr. Janice Forsyth:  http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/sex-testing-and-sports-bassoon-man-heart-surgeon-39-1.3718085/as-athletes-compete-in-rio-one-olympic-expert-says-it-s-time-to-permanently-end-sex-testing-1.3718089

So, I’ll reiterate again that I feel very badly for all those involved with this issue because as you can see by my response, it’s extremely complex and does not come with an easy answer and I fear given the lack of research and knowledge we have on this, one is not close.

See the discussion on the boards, here>>

Read other interviews with Dr. Trent Stellingwerff>>

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