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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Weekly Awards

The performance of the week award goes to Nadzeya Ostapchuk for her 21.70 meter (71’ 2¼”) shot put at the Belarus Indoor Championships. It’s not just the best performance of the week, it’s by far the best performance of the year.

I make these performance of the week choices based on a points table I’ve developed using yearly lists of the last decade as well as all-time lists. It's literally off the chart.
Ostapchuk’s mark puts her at #3 on the official all-time indoor list. The way I look at it, it’s a world record. Not an indoor world record, but a world record, period.

The official world record stands at 22.63 (74’ 2¾”) by the USSR’s Natalya Lisovskaya in 1987. While that’s official, it’s not what I use to judge performances by today’s athletes any more than I’d use Uwe Hohn’s 343’ to judge javelin throwers. The rules to the javelin were rewritten in 1986 with the effect of shortening throws, and the IAAF no longer recognizes Hohn’s mark. In 1992 the rules of competition for all athletes were rewritten, but no one officially recognizes this changeover.

Two near-simultaneous occurrences led to a decrease in performance for many (but not all) events. The adoption of random out-of-competition drug testing and the implosion of east European state-sponsored sports programs led to big changes in throwing events in general and the shot put in particular, and all women’s events save the newly-emerging ones (400 hurdles, long distance, walks, pole vault, triple jump, hammer). The intersection between these sets is the women’s shot put, which has seen a bigger drop in performance than any other event.

Here is the official all-time top ten list:
22.63 Natalya Lisovskaya 1987
22.50i Helena Fibingerová 1977
22.45 Ilona Briesenick 1980
22.19 Claudia Losch 1987
21.89 Ivanka Khristova 1976
21.86 Marianne Adam 1979
21.76 Li Meisu 1988
21.73 Natalya Akhrimenko 1988
21.70i Nadzeya Ostapchuk 2010
21.69 Vita Pavlysh 1998
Note how all of the top eight were made prior to Ben Johnson’s famous episode.

Here’s my all-time top ten list (1992 to date):
21.70i Nadzeya Ostapchuk 2010
21.22 Astrid Kumbernuss 1995
21.07 Valerie Vili 2009
21.06 Svetlana Krivelyova 1992
20.96 Belsy Laza 1992
20.70 Natallia Mikhnevich 2008
20.54 Liuhong Zhang 1994
20.35 Lijiao Gong 2009
20.24 Anna Romanova 1993
20.20 Nadine Kleinert 2009

You may wonder what happened to Pavlysh’s 21.69 from the first list. I struck it from my list, as she received a doping ban in 1999 (along with a second one in 2004, that time for life). Four other athletes would have made my top-ten list but I removed them because of their “doping vacations”:
21.46 Larisa Peleshenko 2000
21.15i Irina Korzhanenko 1999
20.61 Yanina Karolchyk-Pravalinskay 2001
20.32 Irina Khudoroshkina 1996
Of course it’s impossible to say for certain whether or not these athletes were on the juice prior to a positive test. But the reason I maintain these lists is to see how today’s athletes stack up against history, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to compare today’s tightly-controlled athletes to those who at some point got into trouble.

In any case, Ostapchuk’s mark was by far the best by an athlete who has (so far) passed strict doping control. Her second-best mark of the competition, 21.23, also broke Kumbernuss’ fifteen-year-old “record”. It’s possible to argue it’s a better mark than either of Usain Bolt’s records.

In light of that, is it unreasonable to wonder if Ostapchuk’s sudden jump in performance is legitimate? Not really. After the Bernie Madoff scandal came out, all kinds of people said that an investment fund that always increased in value regardless of the larger economy was suspicious and should have been investigated. The same skeptical approach is applicable here. This was Ostapchuk’s first competition of the year, and her two measured throws both broke the “world record”.

This does not mean I’m accusing her of doping, although that’s not an unreasonable thought given the history and nature of the event. It’s also possible that something wasn’t right about the facility or the measurements. Note that in the men’s competition, Andrei Mikhnevich broke his own national indoor record four times in his six attempts. Either one of these is surprising, but both on the same day makes me wonder.

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