The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Monday, April 25, 2011

Monday Morning Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

The Boston Marathon discussion won't die down. Last Monday, Geoffrey Mutai won the annual Patriot's Day race in an astounding 2:03:02, followed closely by Moses Mosop in 2:03:06. Both were well under the official World Record of 2:03:59. But, due to Boston's course quirks (point-to-point and overall downhill) it won't be approved by the IAAF as a world record.

This hasn't stopped the Boston Athletic Association from submitting an application, though. It will be rejected. From the perspective of the larger sports media, this all seems very silly. No one has to submit an application for a record in Major League Baseball or the NFL or NBA; when a record is set there, it's just a record. Why does track and field have to have such rigamarole?

The answer lies in history, and the nature of the sport. Baseball, for example, is a bit of a closed system; there are 30 major league teams, each with 25 players. Each game is well-documented, and management doesn't let any funny business happen (see: Eddie Gaedel). If it's in the box score, it's official, and taken at face value.

But track and field is a worldwide sport, with thousands of top-level athletes and competitions scattered all over the globe. You can't just assume that everything is on the level. The challenge can only be compared to FIFA attempting to create a list of records from all the world's professional leagues combined. You can imagine that some things could happen that shouldn't be accepted as records, due to various irregularities that might or might not include corruption.

In this day and age, it's a little harder for something fishy to get by. For example, no one is claiming that the Boston Marathon course isn't the full 26 miles, 385 yards. But that used to be one of the main things involved in the world record application process.

The IAAF was founded in 1912 for a couple of reasons that were becoming increasingly important. International competition in track and field was beginning to become a fairly common occurrence, and there needed to be an agreed-upon set of rules for competition. Prior to that, athletes and teams sometimes spent an awful lot of time arguing about whose rules were going to be used. But also, the IAAF was there to settle arguments about records.

Think back a hundred years ago: tracks had to be lined every time they were used, and errors in measurement of distance happened. There was no guarantee that a track was level, either, and records in the 100 yards or long jump could be rejected for being run downhill (and were). All kinds of things had to be taken into account to make sure that a record was legitimate.

The IAAF never got into the game of certifying world records for road races very late, in 2003. Here's where the issues involved in Boston came up; the limit for how downhill a race can be is 1 in 1000, and the start line can't be more than 50% of the race distance away from the finish line. For various reasons, each of these can affect the legitimacy of a result.

In 2011, we have some records on the books that probably aren't legitimate. Let's ignore for the moment the issue of performance-enhancing drugs and the dozens of records that were almost assuredly assisted by them. Florence Griffith-Joyner's 100 meter record was officially not wind-aided, due to either a measurement error or an oddity in the environment. But it was, and should never have been approved.

The whole thing can best be summed up by a 2006 Onion Sports Network "article"...
If the winds behind me are similar to that of a Category 4 hurricane without the rain and hail; the course we are running on is a steep, flat drop from the apex of a tall mountain; my shoes are three ounces lighter than usual and sport aerodynamic jet propellers; my mother is in the stands cheering, but not loud enough to the point where it is distracting; the other participants in the race are chasing me with weapons; and I neglect to wear my lucky but weighty gold chain, there is no question that I can run it [100 meters] in 3.2 seconds," [Justin]Gatlin said.
U.S. racing officials have said that, though they wouldn't mind watching this race, any record-breaking time recorded under these conditions would lack legitimacy.

Should Mutai's record be considered legitimate or aided? That all depends on what you mean by "aided", and who you ask. Everyone seems to have an agenda.

Noted track writer Pat Butcher earlier this week suggested that Boston's net downhill profile should disqualify it from even being called a marathon. It's too much of an aid, he says. For the moment I'll take his argument at face value, and ignore the fact that he's being a jackass. Is Boston's course aided?

Well, how many times in the past, before the IAAF's stringent rules came into effect, was the Boston Marathon's winning time the best on record? If it happened a lot, then Boston's course is "aided". If it didn't, then maybe not. For a long time, Boston was the world's most prestigious non-championship marathon. It got the world's best runners together with regularity. You'd expect it to produce a lot of fast times.

But it hasn't. The only other time this happened in the men's race was way back in 1947. Boston is a notoriously slow course...with certain exceptions.

There was another time that the best marathon on record was at Boston. In 1983, Joan Benoit ran the women's world best time at the Patriot's Day classic, beating the best on record by more than two minutes. And that was a year much like this year, when there was a distinct tailwind.

So is Boston's course aided? No. Are some of the races run on it aided? Yes. By so much that the times run on it cannot be considered "legitimate"? Aye, there's the rub.

Delving into this argument are Ken Young, the guy who runs the Association of Road Racing Statisticians, and Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas, who write the Science of Sport blog.

One of the things Young does for his organization and website is use some fancy calculations to figure out how much faster or slower than expected the results of a race are. It's very much like Sabrmetricians factoring out the effects of a baseball player whose home games are in a quirky park that favor either hitters or pitchers. Young wrote:
According to the Young's Race Time Bias (RTB) calculation, a measure of how fast athletes run based on their previous performances over all distances, the times at Boston were 1:37 fast for the men and 1:42 seconds fast for the women. That worked out to 2.29 seconds per kilometer for the men and 2.41 seconds per kilometer for the women. Both figures are well within the 5 seconds per kilometer value the ARRS uses to disqualify performances as excessively aided.

Tucker and Dugas respond:
First, the overall conclusion (and heading of the article) is flawed because 1:37 is a big difference to make if that is their estimate. To illustrate, it takes the time from being greatest ever by almost a minute, to making Mutai only 6th fastest performer in history, so I don't know how they arrived at "not excessively aided"'s a huge difference.

The thing about that is they've set what is a very poor (and possibly arbitrary) cut off for "excessively aided" at 5 sec/km. I am not sure why they've chosen this size, but when was the last time we saw the marathon world record bettered by 3:30?

What Tucker and Dugas don't understand is that ALL world records are aided in some way. 100 meter and long jump records don't get set with headwinds. 200 meter and 400 meter records don't get set on tracks with tight turns. Long distance records don't get set without rabbits. And no records get set in horrible weather. Every record is set under favorable conditions, and marathons are no different.

Haile Gebrselassie's official marathon world record was aided by about 11 seconds, as calculated by Young. Geb's previous world record, run at Berlin in 2007, was aided by 2:29. That's far more than what was calculated for Boston this year.

So the issue here is that an arbitrary cutoff line was not exceeded. One person points this out, and the other points out that it's arbitrary and awfully high. OK, points taken.

What Young is saying is that when you factor in Boston's lack of pacemakers and challenging course, the 2011 tailwind wasn't any bigger aid than the flat course and phalanx of pacemakers in Berlin '07. What other people are pointing out is that the latter is within the rules, and the former isn't.

(By the way, Young's calculations say the "best" marathon of all time was the stunning 2:06:32 in the heat and humidity and pollution of the 2008 Beijing Olympics...which is what virtually all observers said at the time.)

So here's the question: Was this year's Boston Marathon wind-aided?

Answer: Yes.

Follow-up question: Was it excessively wind-aided?

Answer: We don't have any way of determining that.

And it's not because of limitations of measuring wind. It's that we don't have any kind of wind-aiding rule in road racing. Instead we say that records can't be set on so-called "point-to-point" courses because of the possibility of wind-aiding. Which is kind of stupid, considering the 100 meters is a point-to-point race.

What do I think? I think the IAAF should never have gotten into the business of certifying road-racing records. I know why they did—because the pace of new records in track and field were slowing down, and records generate headlines, and thus the IAAF could get itself and its sport back in the headlines. But now you see the silliness inherent in the system.

1 comment:

pjm said...

It's worth noting that JBS in her Boston World Best had the same kind of aid that Haile had in Berlin, i.e. a phalanx of men to run with most of the way, because the races were still being run concurrently. It's less obvious "aid" than that which Mutai and Mosop had, but it's aid nonetheless. I'd never accuse Joanie of having it easy, but the challenge facing Kilel, Davila, Smith et al this year was different than it was for Joanie, and for Haile.