Regarding the rubric I presented for assessing how I personally rank athletes, one reader brought up a very good point / issue. That being, how do we determine outstanding performance for athletes where the “bar” was previously set by an enhanced, or thought to have been enhanced athlete? A question that in some ways goes to the very heart of the sport, because the issue of drug use permeated the news for much of the 2000’s.
After watching this sport for some four decades however, I’m beginning to think that the question regarding drugs is really a two pronged question. One being the question of how much assistance is really gained through drug use? The other a more subtle question that doesn’t seem to ever teach the table – just what are the boundaries of human performance?
While they seem to be two completely unrelated questions,I think they are linked at the hip. Because in my humble opinion, I think that the use of drugs merely accelerates an individual’s “arrival” to a certain level of performance. In other words, I don’t think drugs enable your body to do something that it innately isn’t capable of doing. The determining factors being how hard you’re willing to work, and how long are you willing to wait? So for me the “cheating” aspect of drug use is the bypassing of the work and time necessary to go from point A to point B – in much the same way one would use a wormhole to more quickly travel between two distant points in space.
I say this because regardless of how outstanding a performance seems to be, the sport always catches up to itself. For example, the 1996 Olympic 200 final produced a race that many thought may never be duplicated:
19.32 – Michael Johnson
19.68 – Frank Fredericks
19.80 – Ato Boldon
20.14 – Obadele Thompson
20.17 – Jeff Williams
20.21 – Ivan Garcia
20.27 – Patrick Stevens
20.48 – Michael Marsh
Yet, this year in London we had:
19.32 – Usain Bolt
19.44 – Yohan Blake
19.84 – Warren Wier
19.90 – Wallace Spearmon
20.00 – Churandy Martina
20.19 – Christophe Lemaitre
20.57 – Alex Quinonez
20.69 – Anaso Jobodwana
What was once impossible, is now simply an elite performance. It just took us a little time to get there. Today we have several individuals that have run faster than the 19.72 that was the WR at the start of 1996.
In contrast, when Bob Beamon leapt 29′ 2.5″ in the long jump in 1968 it took some 23 years before the mark was eclipsed (29′ 4.5″) in the most epic competition ever in the event. However, after another 21 years competitors are jumping shorter distances than were regularly being produced in 1991. In this case, the impossible is still seemingly “near impossible”.
One final example. In 2006, Justin Gatlin was deemed to have had assistance during the spring when he tied the then WR of 9.77. Yet after serving a full four year ban, Gatlin won bronze in London at 9.79. This coming six years after the 9.77, during a season that also saw him run 9.80, 9.81w,9.82, and 9.87. In six short years, what had been an extraordinary performance in the event just barely – by .01 – garnered a bronze medal!
Three examples of extraordinary performances. One where the sport caught up after a decade and a half. Another where the record has been eclipsed but the sport as a whole is no closer than it was forty years ago. And yet another where the sport surpassed it in half a decade! The third being extremely important to this conversation because the performance surpassed by the sport in such a short time is one deemed at the time to have been enhanced. While the other two unenhanced performances have had much greater longevity.
Given all that information, how do we judge exceptional performances, and where do those that are enhanced fall in the overall scheme of things?
Before you answer, let me throw two additional factors into the mix. First I will say that “enhancement” seems to have a greater effect on women than men. My “assumption” is that most PED’s are variations on male hormones. A “boost” perhaps to males, but a completely foreign “addition” for females – and therefore giving a larger gain in performance. The other factor, is the technical aspect of the field events. It’s not simply enough to be physically superior, one must also be technically superior, as superlative field performances require near flawless execution. Take note that a majority of seemingly unbeatable records fall into one of these two categories.
So, which athletes should be expected to achieve “outstanding” performances and which should not? Should we expect “more” from sprinters and hurdlers than say jumpers and throwers? Or should we assume that each athlete trains effectively to achieve outstanding performances regardless of his/her event? How about men v women – should men be expected to achieve “better” performances than women?
When I look at successful athletes at every level, there is one common denominator across the board – unparalleled work ethic! From athletes like Walker Payton, Jerry Rice, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. To track and field’s Edwin Moses, Renaldo Nehemiah, Gwen Torrence, and Jackie Joyner Kersee. The tales of early morning workouts; fierce hills; last man to leave the gym; and Rocky-like unconventional training methods abound. Payton and Rice ran hills that left others gasping for breath. Bird and Jordan seemingly never left the gym, always working to perfect that which already had been perfected. Moses turned his training and workouts into science. Nehemiah was training like an elite athlete over elite hurdles while still in high school. Torrence had pre dawn workouts running with her husband. All set standards that few athletes still have yet to reach.
My point? That with the possible exception of some women’s events, I believe that the difference between elite and exceptional performances is the amount of work that an athlete is willing to put in. Athletes that use PEDs circumvent the natural time and effort that he/she would otherwise have to put in to achieve those performances – and therefore should be punished. However, it is my belief that the same performances would be possible given the athlete put in the natural time and effort necessary – which could mean in some cases those performances would never occur because it would take more effort than the athlete could put forth and possibly never enough time! So,I don’t look at enhanced performances as something “otherworldly” or unachievable. Especially in light of the fact that the seemingly most unachievable performances were set by unenhanced athletes!
That said, I hold athletes to the standards set by their predecessors. After all, to date there have been no aliens competing in our sport. Just as Ashton Easton, David Rudisha, and Aries Merritt established outstanding new standards in their events this year, I believe that other athletes can get to the levels set by Sergei Bubka, Kevin Young, and Javier Sotomayor. Edwin Moses figured out how to run under 48 seconds in the hurdles regularly, as did Harald Schmid, Andre Phillips, and Samuel Matete – it’s possible.
Even on the women’s side things are possible given the right athlete and training. Sally Pearson has reached levels once thought impossible in the women’s hurdles – and suddenly Dawn Harper is also in reach. Allyson Felix is on the edge of running 47 in the relay – showing the potential to perhaps do the same in the open event. I watch Brittney Reese and I just know that 25 feet “could” be within her reach. And I just know that if Carmelita Jeter could learn to start like Shelley Ann Fraser Pryce that 10.5x is reality. And just how close has Blanka Vlasic been to Stefka Kostadinova?
Humans set the standards for the sport, and other humans will improve on them. Humans that figure out what they need to do and execute their plan. The next Evelyn Ashford, Edwin Moses, Mike Powell, Sergei Bubka, and Michael Johnson are out there. But until they show up, the standards still exist and athletes should be held to those standards. That’s why some athletes become legendary, and most don’t. But I think we should always judge performances by those that set the standards. Everyone else is a cut below. And sometimes events get mired in athletes that are a cut below. That doesn’t mean that we lower the standards by which they are judged. It simply means that a void exists for a star to be born!