5 Marks That Will Make You Ask Some Questions

Imagine a sprinter ran 9.58 seconds at an obscure all-comers meet, then shows up in Rio running 10.10 seconds. You would be an idiot not to ask questions about a performance drop off like that of more than 5%. Perhaps the track was short; maybe the wind gauge was faulty; or even that the athlete was not subject to rigorous out-of-competition drug testing. There could be legitimate reasons for the drop off too: the athlete could now be injured, or just choking more than anyone in history. Either way, such a deviation requires some type of explanation. Unfortunately, these types of performances happen all the time in our sport and no one asks about them. It is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.

But with the sport bumbling from one doping scandal to the next, the frustration with cheating in our sport is reaching a new high and a few people are finally starting to speak up. A Finnish newspaper put together a list of 17 suspicious marks last week. And, earlier this month, Finnish thrower Tuomas Seppänen spoke out about suspicious Iranian results on Facebook after missing out on the Olympics by one centimeter.

In the throwing events, suspicious marks are even more prevalent. That is why it consistently takes several meters less than the Olympic standard to make the Olympic final in the throws. I like to boil down the problem into a simple formula I composed a few years ago:

absurdly high qualifying standards + few mainstream competitive opportunities = more cheating and doping

No matter how high the standard, people will find a way to reach it. And when you push events to the periphery of the sport, cheating becomes easier. While the IAAF would like you to think that Russia is the only problem with track and field now, our issues are not exclusive to Russia and the IAAF is not doing anything about them. In fact, the most suspicious cases do not even come from Russia. Below is a list of the 5 most suspicious marks in my event, the men’s hammer throw, leading into Rio. And trust me, I could make a list like this for nearly every event.

Disclaimer: Before I get into the list, here are a few disclaimers. First, appearing on the list is not an accusation of guilt. I am just saying these marks are suspicious and warrant a closer look due to the entirety of the facts and circumstances. Perhaps there is an explanation, and if the athletes would like to let me know, I would be happy to tell his/her side of the story. I am just presenting the facts. Second, just because marks are not on this list does not mean they are legitimate. I could have easily doubled the number of throwers on this list. Third, as mentioned above, the hammer throw is not the only event affected by this problem. It is just worse as hammer throwers are not allowed in mainstream competitions like the Diamond League and standards are so absurdly high that this encourages athletes to cheat. So, with that being said, here you go.

1. Oleksandr Dryhol (Israel) – 77.70 meters

Four years ago, Dryhol surprised the world with a toss of 79.42 meters. What was surprising was not just the result, but that he threw it at the age of 46. Soon after, the amazing result was shown to be hardly that. At the Olympics, Dryhol threw just 69.57 meters to place nearly dead last. Then the next year he tested positive for steroids.

This year he is back from his suspension and competing now for Israel. At the age of 50 he hit a season’s best of 77.70 meters at the same venue as his big 2012 throw. To put the mark in perspective, it is not only 6 meters beyond Jud Logan’s world record for the 50-year-old age group, but also with a heavier hammer as Logan’s mark was with the 6-kilogram hammer. Not surprisingly, he lost nearly 10 meters at a major championship, managing just 68.10 meters at this month’s European Championships. It appears as though Israel has left him off their Olympic team, and rumors are also floating around that he is among the 45 new positives from retests of doping samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. But if he does make it to Rio, I would definitely bet against him breaking 70 meters there.

2. Sukhrob Khodyayev (Uzbekistan) – 78.22 meters

You might be surprised to browse last year’s world rankings and see Khodyayev tenth on the list. I follow the hammer closely and never heard of him until an IAAF report this month stated that the 10th best hammer thrower in 2015 had not had a doping test in the previous 30 months. This thrower was Khodyayev.

After reading this, I did a bit more research. He had just two competitions outside of Central Asia last year: 72.63 meters at the Asian Championships and an even worse performance of 71.24 meters at the World Championships. This year he has managed just 71.50 meters in one competition. If you look back to 2012 he somehow threw just inches over the Olympic B Standard of 74 meters, nearly as far as his best with the 6-kilogram hammer that year. But when he came to London he hit just 65.88 meters at the Games.

3. Roberto Sawyers (Costa Rica) – 77.15 meters

Falling second place to Dryhol’s 77.70 mark in Jablonec (Czech Republic), Costa Rican Roberto Sawyers added three meters to his season’s best too. The next week Sawyers went even further at nearby Liberec. There must be some magic in the Czech Republic, because a few days before the meet he threw just 69.72 in Halle and 67.24 meters in Forbach. Directly after, he threw 69.44 meters in Cork.

Last year was more of the same story: he also threw his season’s best of 76.37 meters in Jablonec and his next best mark was just 71.63 meters. And he followed up his performance in the Czech Republic with throws of just 70.95 meters at the Pan American Games, 70.42 at the NACAC Championships and just 66.64 meters for near dead last at the World Championships.

4. Hassan Mohamed Mahmoud (Egypt) – 78.39 meters

It’s always a bit strange when an athlete comes back from a doping suspension and throws even further. In 2013 Mahmoud threw 78.21 meters and just three days later tested positive. His ban ended in February, and already in March he threw a personal best of 78.39 meters in South Africa to qualify for the Olympics. His average result in Europe this summer has been just 70.75 meters.

5. Pejman Ghalenoui (Iran) – 77.18 meters

Ghalenoui has not just one, but two outliers this year. Back in April, he started his season with a few competitions over a two-week span: 68.54 meters, 75.96 meters, and 70.59 meters. I’ll let you guess which one raised my eyebrows. He then took stepped away from competitions for nearly three months before appearing again on one of the last days in the Olympic qualification period to throw the Olympic standard of 77.18 meters in Belarus. Belarus has a well-documented history of shady results. In fact, the meet this mark came from is named for Ivan Tikhon, whose personal best of 86.73 meters (just one centimeter short of the world record) was perhaps the most suspicious mark in history due to the distance and his history of doping. It has since been annulled.

The results in Belarus were even more suspicious since Ghalenoui’s teammate Kaveh Mousavido also had a big toss there. Mousavido has been on the scene longer than Ghalenoui, having thrown 73 to 74 meters for the last 8 years. He was even quite consistent at that level at the London Olympics, throwing just a half meter off his season’s best then. But he jumped up to 77.40 meters in Belarus. A big personal best at age 31 is not unheard of, but is also a rarity in our sport. Both athletes were also coached until the end of April by Adrian Annus, although he is no longer associated with them.

9 replies
  1. Don Babbitt
    Don Babbitt says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I really think the Olympic standard should be 76m or 75.50m. It is amazing the high volume of questionable results in this event. I have been very adamant in telling the US federation that out guys that can throw 76m will actually be very competitive given the current state of the event.

    • Paul Evenden
      Paul Evenden says:

      Barry dont be too quick to congratulate Uka as the guys actually had an invite from iaaf as they realise the Q standard was so bad they have had to invite the top throwers as noone would be there . This of course is no way the guys fault they are deserrvedly going as they are top throwerws and the best of luck to them

  2. tb
    tb says:

    You could argue that it is the lack of high-profile meets that accounts for the big drop-offs at high-profile meets. (Not that I believe it, just being a lawyer here)

    Personally, I think the ridiculous standards are to turn the event into a dirty one. Then they’ll “have no choice” but to eliminate it to please the public.

    And Tuomas Seppanen is not out of Rio. It’s now Igors Sokolovs who has missed it by 2cm.

  3. Elias
    Elias says:

    Great article! But I’m unsure lowering the standard would prevent cheating. 70m throwers who pose as 77.50m throwers when Q=77m will simply pose as 75.50m throwers when Q=75m. If anything your “marginal cheater” will probably go from being a 70m guy to being a 68m guy. The obvious benefit to lowering the standards, however, would be that true world class Olympians like Seppänen would not lose their spots to cheaters – they’d simply both get to go.

    The only way to combat cheating would be to improve the anti-doping infrastructure in our institutions and to only count results produced under more rigorously controlled circumstances. How? No idea..

    • Martin Bingisser
      Martin Bingisser says:

      That’s why I think more reasonable standards is only part of the issues. If hammer competitions are more mainstream then that also legitimizes the marks that arise from them. In many countries they set requirements on what level of meet you can throw the standard in. I’m not sure why IAAF does not do the same.

  4. Till
    Till says:

    One caveat, comparing deviating hammer distances to sprint times, is that you can have far more throws per year, and that the intrinsic standard deviation is also higher. If you compare individual’s throws in the final of the Olympics, looking only at the top 8 from London (where every athlete is incentivised to throw as far as possible in every attempt), there’s about a 1.5% std. deviation, which is more than what I would expect for sprinting, if the event were re-run several times (without fatigue). I suspect that’s on of the main reasons why the Olympic medals are decided on a “best of six”, and not just a single attempt.

    Now, if you have, say, 40 in-competition throws in a season, you’d expect your best throw across the season to be a couple of standard deviations above your best mark in a single competition (such as the Olympics). In particular, if you have only three attempts in that competition, such as in the qualifying round in the Olympics, it’s no surprise that some athletes will perform far worse than their season’s best. For example (just picking from the bottom of the list), in 2012, Finn David Söderberg had a SB of 77.53, but only managed 71.76 in the Olympics – yet nobody suspects any foul play. Of course, it’s not going to be 5% for every athlete, but if you are using those outliers to identify potential cheaters, you must be careful not to fall into “prosecutor’s fallacy”.

    You may well have other factors, such as a clustering of outliers in specific meets, or in competitions were doping controls are more relaxed, but to make a purely statistical argument, it’s a bit more complicated.

    • Martin Bingisser
      Martin Bingisser says:

      I completely agree, but as you see in the article I am not pointing out one bad performance. Or even saying that these performances are enough to “convict”, to use a prosecutor’s language. It just is another red flag that means we need to look deeper and ask more questions. If someone has repeatedly bad performances in international meets, but good performances in meets without the same quality standards then I think this is less likely to be a statistical anomoly. Look at Dryhol for example: since he started his comeback 8 years ago he has not thrown over 72 meters outside of Ukraine or Jablonec. His best over this period is 79.42 meters. Add to that his age (another red flag) and his previous doping offense (stronger red flag) and I think you can say that this is not a case of prosecutor’s fallacy.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] certo sospetto. benchè lo stesso autore del pezzo abbia specificato che non vi sia nessuna accusa. Qui l’articolo completo in inglese, come al solito molto […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *