The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Friday, November 27, 2009

Who Are The All-Time Greats?

This is something I've pondered on for many years. My long-time goal was to come up with track's version of Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract. But there are multiple problems with this, not the least of which is my having a full-time job and being fairly lazy. But also, track simply does not lend itself to the same kind of statistical analysis that baseball does.

Which is not to say that it cannot be analyzed statistically; it just includes FAR more variables than a man only equipped with an undergraduate math degree could ever deal with. For example...

1) Major championships. We all know the Olympics are a huge deal, but not all Olympic finals are equal. In '76, '80 and '84 they were compromised by boycotts, and some events more than others. In 1992 the decathlon was compromised by the USA's do-or-die team selection system. In 1948 the decathlon was compromised by the absence of the USSR. And literally hundreds more examples can be found among major international championships. Accounting for them all boggles the mind.

2) There are lots of other competitions besides international championships. How do you account for all of those?

3) World records are important in track, but not all world records are equal. There have been spates of records at times (example: introduction of fiberglass poles) and droughts at others. Which is better, Uwe Hohn's massive javelin throw of 343' 10" in '84 under the old specs or Jan Železný's 323'1" under the current ones? And what about the obvious effects of stricter doping control? Yikes.

Fortunately, I don't have to balance all these things. A committee does that for me every year, and has done so since 1947. Track & Field News' annual World Rankings sorts it out for me. I use those rankings.

So here's what I do. I compile a career rankings record for each athlete. I assign points for that ranking (10 for #1 on down to 1 for #10). An athlete's best four-year span gets doubled. The remainder of their best eight-year span gets added in. And any points earned outside that eight-year window go in at half value.

If an athlete ranks in multiple events in one year, as often happens with sprinters and distance runners, only their best ranking counts.

Now, not all #1 seasons are equal. Some are strong (example: Jim Ryun in the mile in '67) and some are not. How is this taken into consideration?

Well, every year T&FN also comes up with an Athlete of the Year. Not just an AOY, but a top ten ranking for them. They also choose a Performance of the Year, and I've kept track of their top five. Athletes can earn additional points from these.

Problem: AOY choices were only made from '59 to the present, and top tens only from '65. POY choices have an even shorter history. In the November 1969 issue of T&FN, co-founder Cordner Nelson made retroactive picks for AOY going back to 1947, but didn't fill out a top ten. So I'm in the process of doing so, a task I'm doing carefully and none too quick.

What about prior to 1947? There's a man out there working on what he calls "retro-rankings" and is darned good at them. But he's in no hurry to release them to the public. I'm working on it.

Next up...a scoring sample.

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