Cheating and the IAAF Qualifying Standards


At the end of June I wrote about the absurdity of the IAAF men’s hammer throw standards. Now that the qualification period has closed we can see the extent of the damage done. Last year in London 42 athletes competed. This year, if each country sends the largest possible team and there are no new injuries, an estimated 26 athletes will compete at the World Championships. Only four countries will have more than one athlete: Russia, Belarus, Hungary and Poland.

My first post talked about how unrealistic standards are in comparison to historical results and how these standards exclude potential finalists and medalists from the competition. In addition, the standards discriminate against the hammer because funding and sponsorship decisions are often based upon the IAAF’s standards. Both of these points are equally valid for all field events, it is just that the hammer has been hit particularly hard.

But there is also an elephant in the room when we start talking about standards: illegitimate marks. The standards are so high that many athletes throw qualifying marks at competitions with questionable validity or doping control procedures. This, in turn, helps the IAAF justify higher standards. This is a bold statement for me to make, especially since I have only anecdotal evidence to back it up, but while many other elite athletes allude to the problem on Facebook no one is willing to come out and say it. The reason I want to speak up is because if the Diamond League included the hammer throw I think this problem would nearly disappear.

The Problem

The best way to get a grasp of the problem is to look at the results from past championships. When everyone is slightly off their best at a championship, that is explainable. After all, the athletes receive only three throws in qualifying, the warm up procedures take hours, and there is often a 30 minute wait between qualifying throws. It is also explainable when a few athletes have a terrible meet. That happens. But when nearly half of the throwers choke it is cause for concern. Statistically speaking, such a large portion of the athletes should not have a terrible day on the same day. Of the 42 entrants in the men’s hammer throw, 43% threw more than 5.44 meters under their personal best. An amazing 24% threw more than 7 meters under their best.

The Causes

What is the cause of this? Unless I foul out, I can’t fathom how I could enter the most important competition of the season and throw more than 7 meters under my personal best. And it is not as if these athletes were inexperienced. Of the 42% that were nearly five and a half meters under their season best, two-thirds of them had posted the A standard of 78 meters earlier in the season. With choking at this level I have to believe that at least some of the qualifying marks are illegitimate. This happens in two main ways: blatant cheating and doping.

  • Cheating – The oldest and easiest method to reach a qualifying mark is to find a meet with a downhill field or relaxed implement certification. I know of various competitions in both Western and Eastern Europe where only the weight, and not the length, of the hammer is measured. At other competitions no controls at all are performed. In the absence of better regulation of qualifying meets from the IAAF, national federations can accept questionable marks like this and are in most cases more than happy to do so since it means more Olympians and potentially more funding for their sport without the chance of a doping scandal rearing its head.
  • Doping – As the revelations two weeks ago made clear, doping is not a thing of the past in track and field. Out of competition testing began back in 1989, yet it is a concept that has still not made its way around the world. The reason is that while every country has the same doping rules, they have varying doping procedures. The resources of WADA and the IAAF are quite limited and they must depend on the national anti-doping groups like USADA to carry out tests. The problem is that not every country’s anti-doping agency has the same vigilance. Recent reports showed that the Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission conducted just 59 tests on track and field athletes in 2012, only half of which were random out-of-competition tests. On the other hand German Anti-Doping and the German athletics federation combined for over 1,500 tests on track and field athletes in 2012, the vast majority of which were out of competition. Obviously Jamaica is not a big player in the hammer community, but other countries have worse policies or no national anti-doping agency meaning that many of the elite athletes are not tested or rarely tested out of season. The only tests for these athletes come at competitions, which they have control over by choosing when and where they compete. This can help explain why some athletes throw their season bests at small meets in February only to see their results continuously fall until the World Championships.

The Solution

The standards may be unfair, but that does not justify skirting the rules. When athletes qualify with fake marks, that only helps make future standards higher and higher. But as I said above, both of these issues would start to disappear if the hammer throw were included in the Diamond League.

The IAAF Diamond League continues to exclude the hammer, to the detriment of the sport.

The IAAF Diamond League continues to exclude the hammer, to the detriment of the sport.

Doping is often a problem since many athletes currently have no motivation to leave the safe confines of their country before the world championships. After all, there is almost no money available in the IAAF Hammer Challenge, so athletes can skip the competition and focus on the higher jackpot at the World Championships and eliminate the risk of getting tested. Including the hammer throw in the Diamond League would give all throwers a bigger reason to come out of hiding for the chance to win a few bucks.

It also helps with the other illegitimate marks. Right now if an athlete throws a big qualifying mark and then fails to back it up at the championships they have an easy explanation: they choked. However if they throw a big qualifying mark and then throw 5 meters less at a series of major meets it calls their bluff. For example, a 9.7 sprinter can choke at the championship without anyone questioning the legitimacy of their personal best (see Asafa Powell’s championship record as an example). But if that 9.7 sprinter runs 10.2 at every Diamond League meet, no one will take them seriously any more.

Not only is there no valid excuse for the Diamond League to continue to exclude the hammer throw, but now we have a strong argument for adding it. Before the best argument for inclusion was fairness, but now we can also argue that including the hammer throw will help improve the legitimacy of the sport. When the IAAF stops playing by the rules, it is no wonder some other athletes stop playing by the rules too.

10 replies
  1. HammaJamma
    HammaJamma says:

    This was a hard article to read as I’m sure it was to write. It’s easy to sweep under the table and ignore, especially when your guys are the ones popping random 79m A standards on their home track at some small meet during the chase period. It’s an elephant though, just look at Mac Throw discussions in the past few weeks. Props as usual for calling out the problems.

  2. Robert Evans
    Robert Evans says:

    Genuinely a very well written and enlightening piece. As an American distance runner I, and many of my fellow athletes, know little to nothing about the hammer disipline, much less the intircasies and difficulties of its championship qualifying proceedures. That said, at the end of your article you mention adding Hammer to the Diamond League Schedule but you justify it seemingly as a charity to Hammer athletes rather than as a legitimate buisiness savy decision for DL meet directors. Forgive me if you have already laid out a case for Hammer’s inclusion in the DL, but I think it would be valuble for you to do so publically. Rather than say “there is no excuse” (which I and many other generally agree with), make the case that it should be included. In short, argue for its inclusion instead of lementing its exclusion.

    PS- Simply claiming it should be included because of its status as an event in Olympic and World Championship competition is not sufficient. Remeber the DL is supposed to be a business not a charity. Race walking is also an Olympic “athletics” event, sanctioned by the IAAF, and I think we both know there are good reasons why 20k race walks are not included in DL meets.

    All the best, I look forward to reading any responce.

    • Martin
      Martin says:

      I’ve gotten into this discussion in other posts, but I haven’t focused too much on the reasons it should be included. Those, I think, are fairly obvious. It is a competitive event and the women are constantly threatening the world record with the world lead changing hands every few weeks. The men’s competition has some proven stars like Koji Murofushi that make for some exciting competitions. But, more than anything, it is a fun event to watch. Everyone I have talked to has been impressed the first time they saw it. I don’t think you can say the same about the race walk. Plus their event takes more than an hour and is not included in the stadium, which further hurts the comparisons. I will definitely include this topic in a future post though. Thanks for the idea.

      The reason I have focused on lamenting on its exclusion is because the Diamond League has included all track and field athletes except hammer throwers in the Diamond League. Their one reason for the exclusion was vague and without merit. I understand the event is a business decision, but the Diamond League has never mentioned that as a reason for excluding the hammer. And, let’s be honest, how many extra fans does a shot put competition draw to the stadium? Their stars are also no household names here in Zurich or elsewhere. So why include the shot put and exclude the hammer?

  3. bernardo
    bernardo says:

    Very interesting post you wrote Martin. We all agree about the fact that the A standart in hammer throw are way too high. It is paradoxical that the standart went up but the winning throw at the latest championship went down . Those standart are getting so ridiculous that athletes have to cheat to get in, I guess a good solution would be to decrease the standart so athletes would know that it is doable and would be proud to achieve their performances legally. In fact, I don’t know how they came up with those standart but they have to find a new solution to calculate the standart. A lower standart would have two effects: 1) With lower standart, athletes who are too far from the standart gonna be motivate to train harder if those standart get doable which would create a world emulation which is good for our sport.2) I think that the athletes doesn’t like cheating but they are being pushed by the standart so it would decrease the number of cheaters. I have a metaphore for that. If you want to get in your house but you don’t have the key and you have to wait 6 hours for somebody to open the door . That’s why you decide to brake the window. If someone tells you that you have to wait 3 hours, you take a seat on the step and wait. Same thing with standarts. Everybody is more or less patient but nobody like to brake the window, they just feel pushed by the circumstances. Some break the window. Some give up and leave, others wait their entire life to get in.

  4. Kalle
    Kalle says:

    Very good post again Martin!

    Those qualifying rounds in championships are difficult for throwers. Competion takes hours from warm up to qualifying so its very challenging to stay warm and focused. How often throwers spend more than 2hours in training field for throwing just 6-8 throws?? Take 30 minutes breaks between attempts in practises? Hardly never thats my opinion. That explains a lot too. One reason which explains the result can be also the ring. The best results are usually made in optional circumstances, in slippery rings. How often hammerthrowers can throw in stadiums? Usually they throw in “middle of forests”, far away from other athletes:)

    Anyways, there are no excuses accepted. Qualifying round offers the same changes for every thrower. If you are on good shape, it doesnt matter so much how long you need to hang around between warm up and qualifying round attempts.

    I heard a fun story from one of our retired thrower. Guys were doing warm up in european championships training field. Mr. Juri Sedykh came to field, sat down to bench, smoked a cigarette, put throwing shoes to feet and walked into ring. 2 just “warm up throws” over 82 meters, took shoes of and smoked another cigarette and walked away. Other thowers looked to each others and thought “what the hell WE are doing here..”

    Lets hope that guys are on good shape in Moscow and we see great competions!

  5. Mb
    Mb says:

    Some of the field event standards are simply ludicrous. Is there any posted reasoning given as to the level of these by the iaaf?

  6. Jim Haberkorn
    Jim Haberkorn says:

    Very interesting blog post. In light of the recent T. Gay and A. Powell drug disqualifications, I would be interested to read your opinion about banned drugs. With so many track athletes being banned recently, including nine more just announced from Turkey, you can’t help but get the impression that almost everyone in our sport is cheating. Of course that’s not true, but I’ve wondered if the reason for that perception is that there are too many marginal substances on the prohibited list. It seems to me that if track and field could totally stamp out use of steroids, HGH, blood doping and a few of the other totally proven and dangerous performance enhancers, it would have cleaned up the sport to everyone’s satisfaction. I’m not sure if the sport is well served by banning ingredients found on legally purchased food supplements – the Lashwan Merrit case being a good example. When an athlete can be banned for drinking Ginseng tea or a 16 ounce Starbucks coffee, you have to wonder if the current drug policies are serving our sport well. What’s your opinion?

    Here are two articles that sparked my question:

  7. Nathan Grooms
    Nathan Grooms says:

    I feel Jim brings up an interesting point here. Do we know yet what Tyson Gay tested positive for? I feel like the drug testing in track & field is of vital importance but is no where near where it should be on many levels. Jessica Cosby tested positive for a banned substance and people were ready to throw the book at her. Turned out it was a diuretic, something that would do nothing but hinder her performance, not help her. However the unfortunate reality is the majority of athletes testing positive for banned substances, especially in the throws, are taking legitimate testosterone, HGH, estrogen inhibitors etc. Another sad and scary truth are probably those few athletes that have both fudged marks and taken performance enhancing drugs.
    I feel like throwing is similar to mixed martial arts in the sense that we are in a sport where everyone is always on a mission to be bigger, faster, and stronger. Anytime you have that, you will have those that are willing to take drugs that will give them that very result.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] will find a way to reach a standard if it is not realistic to reach through their own efforts. I wrote about this in 2013 and with the Olympics on the line the stakes are even higher.Promotes […]

  2. […] A fascinating blog on the hammer throw – is the qualifying standard for the World Championships so high that athletes are cheating or doping to reach it? Written by Martin Bissinger, the Swiss national champion when he’s not working as a tax lawyer for UBS. […]

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