Thursday, July 1, 2010

Only Track & Field Can Complicate the Obvious

The Visa Championship awards were given out at the conclusion of the National Championships this past weekend. The women’s winner was Chaunte Howard Lowe with her American Record winning high jump. The winner on the men’s side was David Oliver with his sizzling 12.93 hurdle win – the =7th performance in world history.

No wait a minute. Retract that. Howard did win with her American Record performance. However, the men’s winner was Bershawn Jackson with his 47.32 win in the 400H – the =16th performance in world history.

Yes, that’s right, the =16th best performance ever in the 400 hurdles was deemed to be a better performance than the =7th best ever performance in the 110 hurdles. This after it was announced during the telecast that Oliver needed a 12.97 performance to win the Visa title – a mark he exceeded by .04 seconds! Confused yet?

Well, according to Track and Field News, the fine print of the Visa Championship rules state that even perfectly legal performances can be devalued. What! That’s right. So the interpretation on Oliver’s performance by USATF was that even though the wind read a perfectly “legal” +1.7mps, it was deemed to be “helpful” and therefore “devalued”. Only in track and field can an “official” result become subject to “interpretation”. It’s one of the things about this sport that makes it hard for the new fan to become engaged. We make it difficult for people to understand what it is that they’re seeing even after they’ve seen it with their own eyes.

For example, we have determined that any race run on a straight is considered to be legal if it is run with an aiding wind of 2.0mps or less. Pretty simple right? A nice round number metrically – 4.47 miles per hour English.  And if you’ve ever competed, or been down on the track when races are run, it is a very light wind. So a race is run, the wind reading is given, and we have the time and the race and results are done, right? Wrong. Because someone, for some reason, decided that for sprint races we should evaluate just how much assistance was given.

It started back in the 1970’s. In 1968, at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, athletes ran off the charts in the sprints. The all time lists were severely altered. World records and multiple personal bests were set in every event under 800 meters. Now that’s somewhat expected at the Olympics – especially before the World Championships came along – because athletes spent four years preparing for that one moment in time. But these results were “different” because four years later in Munich, no one had come remotely close to the Mexico City performances. And by the time Montreal started coming into view another four years later the marks still stood out as near anomalies. By then it was decided that those marks were “different” because they had been run at altitude, and that the altitude had “assisted” the times because the air was thinner.

So, Track and Field News started putting an asterisk on their lists by any marks set above 1000 meters altitude – the “official” cut off point, just like 2.0mps is the “official” cut off point for legal sprint marks. However. There was no official ruling making these marks “illegal”. So altitude assisted marks still qualified for all official lists, including world records (and still do). As a matter of fact athletes began to start taking advantage of this by going to altitude to set new records. The first such “attempt” being made by Pietro Mennea who targeted the World  University Games in Mexico City in 1979 to take a shot at the 200 meter record – which he successfully achieved. Carl Lewis took a trip to Sestriere in ‘94 after coming close to the long jump record in ‘91. These and other locations like El Paso Tx, Johannesburg, and Colorado Springs have seen records and huge personal bests being set in the sprints legally – even though we have decided that they’ve had “assistance”. (Of course since then all of those marks have been bettered greatly without altitude.)

But it gets even better, because charts have been developed to “adjust” 100 meter times based on wind and altitude. Not for any other events, just the 100 meters – even though altitude affects ALL events, and we know that wind affects all standard events below 400 meters. As a matter of fact Track and Field News now carries and updates an “All Time List of Adjusted 100 Meter Times”! And its used all the time during telecasts of meets to inform the viewing public that in spite of the modern equipment that was just used to determine the precise time of the race you just watched – down to .001 sec in many cases -  that what the athlete “really” ran was “worth” a different time. We have the most sophisticated timing equipment ever, but now I need someone to “interpret” the data!

And it’s only in the 100 meters, because the races run on the turn are deemed to be too complicated to adjust. After all the wind is not consistent on the turns – there could be cross winds, winds at varying angles, swirling, and affecting each lane differently. Wait a minute. Aren’t there cross winds blowing up the straightaway? Because in reality the “adjustments” that are made in the 100 meters “assume” that the wind is a direct trailing wind that is consistent from start to finish. Otherwise to truly be accurate one would have to know the exact direction that the wind is traveling up the track as well as the speed of the wind per segments of the race. And that’s just for angled winds. Cross winds would require a different calculation, as would swirling winds. So given that the calculations pretend that the races occur in a vacuum just how accurate can they be?

Which begs the question: why do we adjust 100 meter times at all? I mean aside from creating an “All Time Adjusted List” do the adjustments serve any purpose? For example, championship meets run rounds all the time in which “the fastest non winners” are moved on to the next round. One would think that if we are going to “adjust” times at all, that that sort of setting would be the perfect reason to do so. Look at the men’s 100 at the recent NCAA Championships. Luther Ambrose (Louisiana Monroe) made the final with a 10.30w (+2.2). Just missing out on the final was Terrell Wilks (Florida) 10.33 – trailing wind of only +0.2. Now based on both the “adjusted lists” and the logic employed by USATF in the Visa Championships Wilks should have been the one to make the final (between them in another heat was Maurice Mitchell of FlSt with a 10.32w aided by a +2.9 wind). But we don’t use “adjusted” marks to seed athletes. We just use them to create new lists and confuse people.

Ironically, IMHO, if we are going to adjust times for the purpose of speculation – which is about what I think such lists would be useful for – we’re leaving out data that clearly aids the athletes that could indeed be measured. For example, altitude is considered because it has an effect on air density. Yet heat and humidity affect air density and neither is used in these calculations and measurements are readily available. Another factor that may be even more important in the sprints is the track surface itself – because we know that the harder the surface the faster the track. Surface composition, latex bound, polyurethane, Rekortan, Mondo, not to mention what type of cushion lies under the surface, all lead to different types of tracks – hard, soft, distance, sprinting, slow, fast, faster! And if we really wanted to do it right, we would have to take a look at the turn radiuses of the tracks because the “wider” the turns the easier it is for the races run around a turn and the faster the results!

Which means that if we REALLY want to adjust times to determine either just how fast someone “really” ran or to compare one race to another that we are missing a lot of key elements – and I haven’t even gotten into the “human” factors of each individual race! Actually what it really means is that life and competition is much too complicated to use a two factored formula to determine how fast someone ran a race. After all, isn’t that why we have photo finish equipment with sensors in the starting blocks and an electronic pistol hooked up directly to the timer and an electric eye set to stop the clock the moment that it’s touched – to tell us how fast they just ran? I mean if we really want to determine exactly how fast each athlete ran why don’t we subtract the reaction times from the final time to determine the time it took each individual to run the event from first movement to the finish line? Now THAT would be confusing at a meet, as we announce that the athlete that finished in third place actually covered the distance in less running time than the two athletes that finished in front of him!

You know, I have a better idea. Let’s dispense with the extra lists, and charts, and speculation. Let’s stick with the 2.0mps wind rule to determine legality of the race – or determine a new mark if necessary – and let the expensive, new fangled electronic timing systems that we have tell us how fast the athletes run! It’s simple, it’s easy, and it’s understandable for everyone. And if we REALLY want to know who’s the fastest man or woman, let’s get them together on the track and let them go head to head and have it out. After all, times don’t race, people do. And USATF should pay David Oliver his money. He earned it on the track. He ran fast enough. He shouldn’t have had it taken away by a calculator or speculation!

This is track and field. Athletes run, jump and throw things. We measure. We record. We move on to the next competition. If we want to appeal to the masses that’s what we should do. We don’t need all the additional complications. Let’s just focus on the obvious – the competition.


  1. Wait until we start using wind readings for the discus! Then it will be too much.

  2. Well the discus, pole vault and javelin get aid from favorable winds .. Wouldn't it be fun trying to keep track of all those events !!!