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 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.
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 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.
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.