Some Intellectual Honesty, Please

At Friday’s Ivo Van Damme Memorial meet in Brussels, Belgium, there were many fine competitions and outstanding marks. One, however, stood out from the rest. The newly crowned World Champion at 100 meters, Yohan Blake, tried his hand at 200 meters and came away with 19.26, a time Usain Bolt himself has bettered only once. An amazing performance, to be sure, and one that most are calling the best of the year.

The Chicago Tribune’s Olympic writer, Phil Hersh, responded with an article titled Did Yohan Blake just make it seem dopey to watch track? In it, he plainly accuses Yohan Blake of doping. Why?

Because Blake improved his personal best in the 200 by 2.4 percent — and by a startling 6.4 percent in the past two seasons.

So, yes, I am going to raise the could-doping-be-involved specter on Blake, and someone is going to say that is racist…or jingoist (Jamaica vs. USA).

I would answer: look at the numbers.

In the 200, Blake has dropped from 20.60 to 19.78 to 19.26 in two seasons.

Bolt went from a world junior record 19.93 in 2004 (at age 17) to 19.75 in 2007 (after breaking 20 in each of the intervening years) to his first world record of 19.30 in 2008, when his personal best dropped by 2.3 percent.

Hersh is plainly cherry-picking his numbers about Blake in order to make his case (plus ignoring the multiple injuries that slowed Bolt’s progression as a teenager), and in multiple ways.

First of all, while it is true that Blake’s best 200 meter times have dropped as noted over these three seasons, one should look further back in time to get a better picture. Drawing conclusions from a data set of three will get you an F in any statistics class.

Here’s Blake’s progression over a five-year period. I have appended the equivalent points from the IAAF scoring table, and I’ll explain why in a bit.

Year Mark (Points)
2006 20.92 (1079)
2007 20.62 (1124)
2008 21.06 (1059)
2009 20.60 (1127)
2010 19.78 (1255)
2011 19.26 (1339)

To say that Blake made this improvement over just three years is a bit disingenuous. As you can see, four years ago he was essentially at the same level as two years ago, but took a step back in 2008 (when he suffered an injury). The guy was clearly a stud four years ago, when he was just 17 years old (the equivalent of a high school junior in the USA).

However, the real head-scratcher as to why Hersh used this particular data (and why Friday’s race result was so unexpected) is that Blake’s primary event has always been the 100 meters, and he rarely runs the 200. As a result, his best marks in that event are uneven (which was Hersh’ point in the first place).

So, let’s take a look at Blake’s yearly progress in both sprint events, taken side-by-side with IAAF points to compare the relative quality of the marks…

Year 100m (Points) 200m (Points)
2006 10.33 (1095) 20.92 (1079)
2007 10.11 (1169) 20.62 (1124)
2008 10.27 (1115) 21.06 (1059)
2009 9.93 (1231) 20.60 (1127)
2010 9.89 (1245) 19.78 (1255)
2011 9.82 (12.69) 19.26 (1339)

That massive improvement Hersh referred to between 2009 and 2010 now disappears, becoming less than 2% when comparing his best single mark across both events.

In 2007, Blake ran 10.11. Had he been a US high school student, he would have established a new national junior-class record by a full tenth of a second. In 2009, after his setback year of 2008, he became the youngest man in world history to break 10.00. He was the greatest teenager in the history of the event, much as Bolt was to the 200.

Now, you can accuse Blake of many things, not the least of which is that he failed a drug test for a stimulant in 2009 and received a three-month suspension. Others have said more (I will not). You can even point to Friday’s race as being too good to believe. But if you say he’s a Johnny-come-lately, you either didn’t do your homework, or you’re being intellectually dishonest. And Hersh knows how to fact-check.

US distance running fans might recall a similar statement about Hersh a few years back. In February 2004 he was quoted as saying “I have vowed not to write a word about other U.S. distance runners until they at least make top-5 in a major international event.” Understandably, this caused quite an uproar. He wrote to Let’s Run to clarify his remarks:

I didn’t express myself completely to Dave Monti, who, however, quoted what I said EXACTLY as I said it.

I meant to say this: I will no longer write another personality profile about a U.S. distance runner until he or she makes the top five in an international event

This is typical: I profiled Deena Drossin last summer and before the 2002 Chicago Marathon. Then she ran well off the pace in Paris at the worlds 10k, where she was competitive for about three laps, and finished 6th in Chicago with a good but unremarkable 2:26:53.

I am simply tired of hearing over and over that U.S. distance running is on the way back, while the results don’t back it up.

So, for marathon profiles, I will focus on the likes of Tergat, Abera, Takahashi, Ndereba and Radcliffe. They are proving their ability, not talking about how it will show itself soon, which has come to sound like Cho-Cho San in Madame Butterfly, waiting in vain for the “one fine day” when Pinkerton returns.

Newspapers have limited space and budget these days. I choose not to spend it in an area that simply is not worth it by any reasonable measure.

(emphasis added)

Let’s Run co-founders Robert and Weldon Johnson responded in this manner.

First, let us address Phil’s tone. It seems like he goes out of his way to point out the shortcomings of American runners. Notice his tone when he starts off by saying, “this is typical”: “This is typical: I profiled Deena Drossin last summer and before the 2002 Chicago Marathon. Then she ran well off the pace in Paris at the worlds 10k, where she was competitive for about three laps, and finished 6th in Chicago with a good but unremarkable 2:26:53.” Starting with “this is typical” to us shows a negative bias. From the bitter tone, you’d think from reading what he wrote that Deena isn’t one of the best distance runners in the world or worthy of another profile.

Well let us state emphatically first and foremost a fact – Deena Drossin (now Deena Kastor) is one of the top distance runners in the world. Hersh, however, in some ways comes across as upset that Deena didn’t perform well immediately after he wrote a profile of her. That doesn’t change the fact that she’s clearly deserving of the profile. It’s not an athlete’s job to make a journalist look good by performing well after getting some publicity. So let us repeat, Deena Drossin (now Deena Kastor) is one of the top distance runners in the world and thus deserving of a profile in major newspapers across the country.

However, Hersh’s tone and mixing and matching of some dates/facts in the sentence quoted above (leaving out many of Deena’s major accomplishments) portrays her in a more negative light. When he profiled her prior to the 2002 Chicago Marathon, she was already a World Silver Medallist at the World Cross Country Championships (thus worthy of a profile we assume according to his criteria) and a world record holder at 5k on the roads. Thus, she was certainly deserving of a profile. Sure, she then that year ran 2:26:53 at Chicago which was a subpar performance for her, but he conveniently left out the fact that the next spring, she went on to repeat as World Silver Medallist at the World XCs and set the American Record in the Marathon at the Flora London Marathon for 3rd place (top 5), the premier marathon in the world outside of the World Champs and the Olympics.

Thus it’s only natural that one concludes that Hersh is upset that she then didn’t perform really well immediately after he profiled her last summer, as she did great things before the profile. Little did we know it is the job of journalists only to profile people who are certain to get medals right after they are profiled.

We just want a little more intellectual honesty.

(emphasis intact)
So, I didn’t say it first. But I did remember it, because I have a long memory for track and field.

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6 Responses to Some Intellectual Honesty, Please

  1. BAH says:

    I remember Hersh comically tweeting that some who didn’t win the 10k at Worlds had held off Mo Farah for the title. What actually happen was that a relatively unknown Ethiopian chased down Farah and passed him in the final stretch, just meters from the finish. He was factually wrong twice in a single tweet, which was intended to somehow show that he was there and on top of the action. He was instead mailing it in, inaccurately. And lazily. Dishonest is a good word to describe his work.

  2. Steve the stud says:

    Track routinely has competitors that are busted for doping years later. Track stars are also caught years later after having passed every drug test. Take the 100m in 1988. 4 of the top 5 tested positive for banned substances during their careers. Look at the world record in the 100m. Montgomery was busted, Gatlin was busted, Maurice Greene was implicated by the NY Times for purchasing performance enhancing drugs. Those guys didn’t break 9.75. Jamaica has arguably a weaker and underfunded. Blake has already tested positive for similar to a banned stimulant. I can’t say with certainty that Bolt or Blake are doping. But the fact that they are shattering times that even other doping athletes couldn’t attain in a very short time in a sport known for doping means its reasonable to be suspicious.

  3. admin says:

    Certainly there is some reason to be suspicious. Among many is that Victor Conte warned us a few years ago that he was concerned about the Caribbean basin, and it’s been a long time since he said something that didn’t turn out to be true. Others who have a bit more specific knowledge than I are very skeptical as well.

    I needed to say, though, that Yohan Blake didn’t come out of nowhere. Anyone who says that simply hasn’t been paying attention to anything beyond the elite level.

    Another issue that very few people realize is that there have been improvements in both technique and equipment as far as sprinters are concerned. The invention of the modern drive phase has revolutionized sprinting, and the tracks are faster now than they were in the 80s and 90s. I’m not certain that all the athletes who are running times that would have been shocking back then are doping now.

  4. Berto says:

    Nice article. I listened to Hersch on a local radio yesterday and must say he is not a true sports fan but a pessimistic, miserable old man who should probable go watch under water hockey or jacks..I will say that i am Jamaican so there is a bias..However i have been watching track and field from 1980s as a school boy and have attended practically every local boys n girls champs through the 80-2000s…I can say that the talent displayed by our athletes is no surprise as our youngsters have been doing remarkeable times for years..What we didnt do was win major gold medals until our breakout in 2008-2009..Even now winning gold medals is not a guarantee as was seen in Daegu but there is no doubting the talent of the Jamaican sprinter. Now i am not naive and i do believe they are persons Jamaican and others taking PEDs that have not been detected, however do i accuse every person who runs a fast time of taking PEDs or do i enjoy the spectacle and let the testers do their job..
    Hersch article is unfortunate not because he raises an issue that we should all be concerned about, PEDs, but he fails to argue using the proper facts and he subtle muddies the name of great athletes such as Usain Bolt without proper facts..But in some ways i could understand the pessimism, but if Hersch doesnt trust any athlete in any sport who does incredible things then he should stop watching sports on take up crochet..

  5. Joe says:

    I’m of the increasing belief that Hersh is essentially capitalizing on writing for a niche sport where he thinks he’ll be appreciated enough just for giving it attention that his depth of coverage can be excused. And in some ways I’m okay with that, because at least he’s getting some articles published. But his tone is typically condescending and highlights his financial incentive for writing about the sport more so than his genuine love for the sport. He’s a mercenary; quick to think he’s doing us a favor while lining his wallet, but his heart isn’t in it.