Friday, 11 April 2008

Ain’t no mountain high enough

It was 1936, Olympic year and Brutus Hamilton, track coach to the University of California, took it upon himself to record what he thought would be ultimate performances in track and field; times, heights and distances which, he believed, no man or woman would ever exceed.

Most of his projections have, in the 72 years since he made them, been surpassed by very large margins but two of them stand out: he could not conceive of a 4 minute mile, nor could he contemplate anyone putting the shot further than had the current world record holder, Jack Torrance, known as “Elephant Baby” on account of his enormous stature and weight..

Men had dreamed of the 4 minute mile for decades, ever since Walter George ran 4:12¾ in 1886. What was significant about that run was that he reached the halfway mark in 2:02 so already, in the infancy of the modern sporting era, the dream mile seemed a possibility; it was a target with such beautiful symmetry: four laps in 60 seconds.

In 1936 the world record, by American Glenn Cunningham, stood at 4:06.8; Torrance’s best in the shot putt was 17.40 metres. What Hamilton, an Olympic silver medallist in decathlon in 1920, would have made of today’s records, of Bannister’s achievement, of Steve Scott running below 4 minutes 136 times and of two men having put over 23 metres we can only guess. Record breaking has continued inexorably. But for how long?

Records of all kinds, from world best’s to personal bests, represent a challenge. We always believe, sometimes secretly, that we can attain greater heights. The poet Robert Browning put it the most tidily: “…a man’s reach,” he wrote “must exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

But Andrew Berry who teaches evolutionary biology at Harvard has pointed out, for instance, the obvious fact that no one “will run the mile at the same speed that we run the 100 metres. The laws of oxygen exchange will not allow it.” He went on: “Human improvement must eventually bow to the basic constraints of biomechanics.”

So, Brutus Hamilton was right on one thing: record breaking is not infinite; there is a barrier out there in every event. The question is, where is it?

We may surmise (no more than that) that Man will never run a 100 metres in 9 seconds (about 25½ mph) though I instantly remind myself that Bob Hayes ran 8.7-8.9 seconds (times vary) on the sprint relay anchor leg, on cinders, at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. But it is likely that the mile will not be run in 3:30, certainly not in 3 minutes (four laps of 45 seconds); it seems impossible that the high jump record will ever reach 3 metres. So finite performances lie somewhere between current world records and those improbable (I hedge my bets here) performances.

The graph shows the numbers of world records set in the last five decades. In the men’ events there has been a sharp decline in this first decade of the 21st century and unless there is an explosion of record breaking in the next two seasons the total, using a most liberal estimate, will be about a fifth of that of the 1960s.

The women’s events, although they show a similar pattern to the men’s, are distorted by two elements. Firstly, male administrators, once they assumed control of women’s events, took almost eighty years to concede parity, so that for most of the 60s women competed in only half of the events that they do today and the introduction of “new” events in latter decades created distortions. For instance the introduction of women’s pole vault (they had actually been vaulting since 1911) into international programmes in the 90s meant that almost half of the records set in the last two decades have come in vaulting.

Secondly, in the 70s and 80s, women’s athletics was dominated by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) with its institutionalised doping programme. You have to sympathise with today’s German women’s athletes when 13 of their records were set during those two decades.

Nevertheless the pattern of a sharp decline in the rate of world record breaking remains true for both sexes.

There are a number of events that make one wonder if the ultimate performance is near at hand. In the triple jump there have been only three world record holders in 33 years, Joäo Carlos de Oliveira of Brazil, Willie Banks of the USA and Britain’s Jonathan Edwards. The current world record (18.29m) has stood for thirteen years and only two men, Edwards and Kenny Harrison, have ever exceeded 18 metres, though Willie Banks achieved it wind-assisted in 1988. Before we start trying to evaluate the ultimate here, however, we should note that Jonathan leapt 18.43m at Villanueva D’Ascq aided by 2.4 mps wind in 1995.

There is a similar pattern in the long jump. There have been only two world record holders in forty years, Bob Beamon and Mike Powell and the latter’s best (8.95m) has stood for seventeen years. Powell jumped a very windy 8.99m at altitude at Sestriere in 1992 so you have to surmise that 9 metres is a definite possibility; but 10 metres? I don’t think so.

The most likely men’s track event to be nearing the ultimate is the 800 metres and the question is will we ever see 1:39 man? Again only two men have held the world record in the last twenty-nine years, Sebastian Coe and Wilson Kipketer and the latter’s record (1:41.11) was set in 1997. Coe and Kipketer have been the only two record holders to run below 50 seconds for their opening laps and in both cases they were running six seconds slower than the 400m record. Do Berry’s “laws of oxygen exchange” apply here? Is it physically impossible to run, say, a 47/50 two lap race to achieve 1:37?

The distortions caused by doping scandals are more prevalent in women’s events. The top eleven performances in the 100 metres were achieved by Florence Griffiths-Joyner and Marion Jones. Griffiths-Joyner, who many suspected of doping, died at the age of 38 of an epileptic seizure and Jones was sentenced to a prison term last year for committing perjury in denying that she had ever taken drugs. Neither had ever tested positive.

Nine of the top ten all-time world performances in the women’s 400 metres were set in the 1980’s, half of them by the East German world record holder, Marita Koch; in the shot put the top 39 all-time performances were set in the 70’s and 80’s; there is a similar top twenty pattern in all the power events excluding those that have been introduced since 1989.

What is all this to do with ultimate performances? Because it seems likely to me that drug induced performances must quite obviously be closer to the ultimate. In the 400 metres great runners like Marie-José Peréc, Cathy Freeman and Sanya Richards are many metres away from Koch’s running. The latter ran the first 200 of her race in 22.4, a time that would have ranked her seventh at that event in 2007. Such a time would mean 400 metre specialists coming perilously close to their personal bests; could the basic biomechanical restraints in women runners allow them to attach 24 seconds and achieve 46.4?

All of this deeply affects the world of competition, the raison d’etre of our sport. The problem that we have mentioned before is that the basic ingredient of the international programme is the Golden League and Grand Prix events. In the early days the crowds were drawn by world record attempts, with pace-makers, which, to a certain extent, gave the meetings some purpose and some credibility. Unfortunately it also built up a culture of expectation that if a record wasn’t broken the event (and often the meeting) had been disappointing. This culture seems to have persisted and with the tempo of record breaking dramatically slowing the once great meetings at Oslo, Zurich and Brussels et al are fast losing their sheen.


As European standards decline so do the Golden League meetings, a round robin of Americans beating Americans, Africans beating Africans with Europeans mostly in their wake on the track. Where athletes from Europe could shine, in the field events, promoters shun them like the plague. 104 events were staged on the Golden League circus in 2007 and 72% of them were on the track. Of the remainder only just over 7% were throwing events including just one for women. So the great throwers that thrilled spectators (and television viewers) in Osaka were mostly ignored.

The Golden League produced one world record, in the women’s 5000 metres in Oslo. The rest tried hard enough inviting Yelena Isinbaeva to all six meetings. Unfortunately the once prolific (last world record in 2005) Russian record breaker failed the avaricious promoters, though she lucratively won every event.

The best analogy I can think of is with friendly matches in team games. It wasn’t until the once true blue amateur rugby union went professional in 1995 with the formation of professional leagues a year later that the sport started to come alive. Prior to those quite momentous events most club matches were friendlies with little or no purpose, apart from a pint in the bar afterwards. Athletics seems unable to extricate itself from a similar predicament, from its straitjacket of meaningless competition outside of its major championships. Our sport from top to bottom seems afraid of adopting the radical change that is so urgently necessary.

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