Some Intellectual Honesty, Please

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At Fridays 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 Tribunes 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 racistor 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 Bolts progression as a teenager), and in multiple ways.

First of all, while it is true that Blakes 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.

Heres Blakes progression over a five-year period. I have appended the equivalent points from the IAAF scoring table, and Ill 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 Fridays race result was so unexpected) is that Blakes 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, lets take a look at Blakes 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 Fridays race as being too good to believe. But if you say hes a Johnny-come-lately, you either didnt do your homework, or youre 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 Lets Run to clarify his remarks:

I didnt 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 dont 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)

Lets Run co-founders Robert and Weldon Johnson responded in this manner.

First, let us address Phils 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, youd think from reading what he wrote that Deena isnt 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 didnt perform well immediately after he wrote a profile of her. That doesnt change the fact that shes clearly deserving of the profile. Its not an athletes 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, Hershs tone and mixing and matching of some dates/facts in the sentence quoted above (leaving out many of Deenas 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 its only natural that one concludes that Hersh is upset that she then didnt 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 didnt say it first. But I did remember it, because I have a long memory for track and field.