World Records, Jim Thome and the Steroid Era

August 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Track & Field 

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 23, 2011 – When Chicago White Sox slugger Jim Thome hit his 600th career home run on August 15, he became only the eighth player in Major League history to reach that plateau, making him a sure Hall of Famer. Right?

Maybe not, as sportswriters – who are the ones who decide who is selected for the Hall – debate Thome’s career achievements in what is known in baseball as the “Steroid Era.” It’s a term all too familiar to track & field fans.

With the IAAF World Championships getting ready to start in Daegu, South Korea this weekend, this should be the time to look forward to amazing performances and even new world records. But how many of the current records are out of reach thanks to performances in track’s “steroid era”?

In order to determine this, we have to define our time frame. In view of the continuing suspensions of athletes for performance-enhancing drugs – Jamaican sprinter and potential 100 m medalist Steve Mullings is only the latest – one could say that we’re still in it. But it seems to me that we have a dividing line around the end of 1990, after Ben Johnson’s infamous positive test at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul and the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (with its state-supported drug use program) and reunification with the Federal Republic of Germany in October 1990.

So what do we find in looking at track & field’s world records set after December 31, 1990? An enormous difference between the sexes:

• Among the men, only three world records in the 21 primary events (including relays) are from the Steroid Era, all in the throws: shot put, discus and hammer.

• But, among the women, a staggering 12 marks out of 21 events – from the 100 meters to the Heptathlon – were set during the Steroid Era and two more were made by Chinese distance runners who were part of a later-discredited training group of which multiple members were suspended for drug use.

That’s an astonishing 14 of 21 women’s records – two-thirds – which can be looked at with some concern, from a time when athletes were well ahead of the testers and when doping was institutionalized in the GDR and other Eastern European countries.

So what are the “clean world records” in these events?

On the men’s side, the three weight throws are the only events at issue, so let’s take a closer look:

Shot Put:
• IAAF World Record: 75-10 1/4 (23.12 m) by Randy Barnes (USA), 1990.
• Post-1990 World Record: 74-4 1/2 (22.67 m) by Kevin Toth (USA), 2003.

Barnes’s world-record mark was made at the Pepsi Invitational in Los Angeles in May of 1990, but he tested positive for drugs later that same year after a meet in Malmo, Sweden on August 7. That brings us to Toth, who set a Kansas Relays record with his 74-4 1/2 throw in April of 2003, but he was then nabbed for drugs after tests at the USATF Championships in June and then again at a meet in July.

If that gives you enough doubts about either, then how about a post-1990 world record of 73-11 1/2 (22.54 m) by American Christian Cantwell in 2004? Is Cantwell the de facto world-record holder?

Discus:
• IAAF World Record: 243-0 (74.08 m) by Jurgen Schult (GDR), 1986.
• Post-1990 World Record: 242-5 (73.88 m) by Virgilijus Alekna (Lithuania), 2000.

Interestingly, four of the top five performances in history have been authored by Alekna and Estonian Gerd Kanter between 2000-2008, leading one to think that Schult might have been legit. He never tested positive for drugs during his career, and after the fall of the GDR, he won three medals at World Championships in the 1990s (bronze in 1993 and 1997, silver in 1999).

Hammer:
• IAAF World Record: 284-7 (86.74 m) by Yuriy Syedikh (URS), 1986.
• Post-1990 World Record: 284-6 (86.73 m) by Ivan Tikhon (Belarus), 2005.

Syedikh dominated the hammer during his career and although Tikhon got within a centimeter six years ago, Syedikh and fellow Soviet Sergey Litvinov still own 13 of the top 14 throws in history. Syedikh also never tested positive, and he may just have been ahead of his time.

It’s also instructive to note how close the post-1990 marks are to Schult and Syedikh’s accepted world records – both within 0.25%. On the other hand, no post-1990 mark has come within 2.0% of Barnes’s world shot record and if we accept Cantwell as the post-1990 record holder, the gap is 2.6%!

Looking at the women’s events will take a lot longer; we’ll start with the running event situation – and some of the iconic names in the sport – tomorrow.

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)