Saturday, August 30, 2008

Race and track & field revisited

I asked the question why supposed racial groups don't perform the same across the male-female divide. Two different bloggers questioned some of my examples and pointed out that women face more obstacles in participating in sports. Regarding the latter, this is valid even in the United States. Also, countries where female runners have dominated, besides the US and the UK, are China, Russia, and other ex-Soviet or ex-Communist regimes like East Germany and Czechoslovakia. A number of records set by women have been unchallenged for many years as well, pointing to doping questions as well as perhaps suggesting a somewhat uneven playing field for women (although more records might suggest the same).

Two suspicious records are close to being challenged or broken. I'm talking about the 800m, which hasn't been broken since Kratochvilov√°'s 1983 record performance of 1:53.28, and the 10,000 meters, which hasn't even been remotely challenged since Yunxia Qu knocked around 40 seconds off the previous record in 1993 (one blogger mentioned that he read that there were suspicions that this was run on a short track; I found nothing on the internet, which neither supports nor detracts from the question of the record -- it just makes it harder to research for a part-time blogging enthusiast).


Pamela Jelimo just ran 1:54.01 in the 800m and looks poised to challenge the record. The record is certainly suspicious -- East European athlete sets record in the early 1980s when steroids were apparently undetectable. I found no mention of a controversy with her. Compared to the men's 800m record, the women's record is actually simliar: since 1981 the record was tied one, then broken twice -- all three performances by the same man, the same summer (within 5 or 6 weeks of each other). The record hasn't been challenged since. This doesn't mean that Kratochvilov√°'s record isn't suspect, it just means that the women's race has followed a similar patter as the men's -- a plateau has been reached and now (as opposed to 11 years ago) is being challenged.

The women's 10,000 meter has stood since 1993. I suspect that Yunxia Wang was clean, since athletes like Ben Johnson had already been caught (back in 1988). If the track was short, then the record obviously is a farce. The only women under 30:00 (almost 30 seconds slower than the record race) were in this year's Olympics final! The winner, Tirunesh Dibaba holds the world record in the 5,000m and her time, by various calculators, is just under or just above Wang's record time for the 10,000m. According to McMillan's "World famous" calculator, her 14:11.25 (I had to enter 14:11.0 as the site doesn't allow fractions of a second) is equivalent to a 29:28 over 10,000 meters. The different calculators here give the following equivalents: 29:43.77, 29:30.54, 29:33.20, 29:34.80. Only one of those would lower the world record, two are just short, and one is well back. She's closing in but still has plenty of work to do.

Of the track events (100, 200, 400, 800, 1500, mile, 5000, and 10,000), only one record has been set after 1996: Dibaba's 5000m record from this year. On the other side, men's records have been set this year in the 100 and 200, the 400 record is from 1999, the 800 from 97, the 1500 and mile in the late 1990s, while the 5000 and 10000 have been set recently.

Some records have rarely been broken on the men's side:

The 200m record has been broken 4 times since 1968: twice by the same man the same summer.
The 400m record has been broken twice since 1968.
As mentioned earlier, the 800m record has been broken twice since 1983 (both by the same man, the same summer).
The 100m record, on the other hand, has been broken 13 times in the past 20 years.

To summarize: the women's records set by Flo-Jo in the 100 and 200 are suspect (in part given her untimely death, but also due to ties with known dopers; on the other hand, her 200m record is similar to the men's 200m record -- broken few times), the 400 is definitely dope-driven; there are records of Marita Koch participating in studies of steroids for East Germany. Kratochvilov√°'s record is suspicious, but at least follows the trend of the men's 800m). The Chinese records from 1993 may be suspicious (1500 and 10,000). The mile record was set by Masterkova in 1996 -- at a slower pace than the 1500m record.

Back to the question of race: the thinking on racial advantages shows West African men performing well in the springs (100 to 400m, more common among men of West African descent) while the long and middle distances are dominated by East Africans, with some notable north African runners (namely the world record holder in the 1500m and mile). This tendency bears out in the world records and World and Olympic champions in most cases, but there are some notable exceptions: the dominant 400m runner the past few years has been Jeremy Wariner, a white kid from Texas who Michael Johnson thinks will even break his record some day. Alan Webb, while performing poorly in big meets like the Olympics and World Championships had the fastest time in the world last year in both the 1500m and the mile. He's white too. And why was the world's best hurdler the past few years Chinese?

On the women's side, the middle distances have been dominated primarily by Russians and other East Europeans in the middle distances, though several African runners have done really well - Mutola from Mozambique and a couple Kenyans, including this year's find, Pamela Jelimo. In the last Olympics, a Bulgarian sprinter won the 100m as well. One of the top 400m runners was Ana Guevara from Mexico (not sure she won a gold medal; I'll have to check that).

Genetics obviously have plenty to do with athletic performances. It's why I'm not a professional athlete and the genetic tools have made it possible for people like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to be top performers in their fields. One doesn't set world records or win elite-level races on genetics alone (or even make it to the NFL or NBA or MLB, etc.). I wonder how much local competition has in helping athletes reach their full potential. A few years ago, Alan Webb could easily beat pretty much any American miler without a problem. But when he raced in Europe and in the Olympics...a different story. He's improved as a result and I hope it's just a matter of time before we wins a World Championship or an Olympic gold. The US is the only country in the world to have 400m runners under 44 seconds. If someone wants to make the Olympics in that event, they have to be able to run under 45 seconds (better if they can run under 44, obviously, but very few people can at a given time).

It's also hard to see the genes lined up by racial categories, since the three different regions (in Africa) that have produced or are been "held responsible" for the best runners, are categorized by radically different genetic populations -- one that isn't even "black" -- north Africans are often categorized as Caucasian! Also, which genes do these athletes possess that are strictly "African" genes?

Unless studies show that a certain genetic pattern, unrelated to training regimens and geographical advantages, show a clear advantage for those who possess those patterns -- and evidence showing that this pattern is concentrated in certain geographical areas, I'm assuming the difference between runners like Wariner and Merritt are due primarily to their training and their mental focus, and only secondarily on their genetic makeup, which has nothing to do with one being light skinned and the other dark skinned.

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