Tuesday, October 19
World rankings wouldn't rate well
 
By Jeff Hollobaugh
Special to ESPN.com

 Call it the Holy Grail of track statistics ... an "objective" set of World Rankings for track and field. So many have quested for it, yet not one has succeeded.

It seems so simple on the surface, and that is why so many set out on the quest in the first place. After all, golf, tennis, auto racing, and probably even bocci ball all have world rankings that are, for the most part, agreed upon. Why not track and field?

That's where the big wheels at the IAAF are at right now. Their stat crew is coming up with an experimental set of criteria for athletes to earn points toward world rankings; it is supposed to be presented at the November meeting of the IAAF Council.

They know not what a morass they are blindly stepping into. Mistake No. 1 is the notion that "objective" equals "fair." It does in other contexts, but not here.

The problem with quantifying our sport with a bunch of point values for each meet is that the multitude of variables involved with real-life track make any assignation of points a subjective and capricious process. After all, we have 22 individual events for both men and women, and hundreds of meets each season that feature the sport's top athletes.

Any simple points scheme will produce plenty of victims, and no complex scheme is viable.

Take the men's 400 meters, for instance. What is "worth" more? The USA Olympic Trials or the Weltklasse in Zurich? Or how about the Olympics? Will the points be assigned before the event? Let's get hypothetical: Is it worth more for an athlete to beat a healthy Michael Johnson at the Trials or to win the Olympic gold medal over a field that does not include Johnson?

Is a win in the Weltklasse 100 worth the same amount of points as a win in the Weltklasse 200? What if director Andreas Bruegger has loaded the field in the 100, but only spent half as much money on the 200 field?

Will the points be assigned without conflict of interest? Or will the IAAF put all its emphasis on its own series, such as the Grand Prix, which it has an interest in promoting? In many events, such as the sprints and hurdles, the U.S. Olympic Trials has at times been considered more difficult and challenging than the Olympics. But will other members of the IAAF, say Jamaica or France, demand that the same points be available to athletes who compete in their Olympic Trials?

The IAAF has in recent years given the sport's agents more of a voice. Imagine how that voice will yelp when the first "official" rankings hit the street. And what will the meet directors say? Some of them will surely come out on the short end of the stick, not that that hasn't already happened with the Grand Prix series.

Finally, is the staff at the IAAF capable of such a Herculean numbers-crunching task? Judging from their performance in providing the world with a top-20 list accurately updated throughout the season, and keeping the names of female athletes straight, I think it's a safe guess to say that they might be in over their heads.

Track and Field News has kept world rankings for the sport for more than 50 years, and newcomer Athletics International has recently gotten into the business as well. Both publications have found that the only semblance of fairness comes with subjective debate. Of course, no one will ever agree with all the resulting rankings. That's impossible, and no points system will change that.

A few years ago, rumors floated around that the leadership of USA Track and Field was conspiring with a major shoe company to produce its own rankings. The obvious conflict of interest inherent in the proposal evidently killed it. I suspect that the IAAF plan will end up in the same rubbish heap.

Ranking the century
No. 60 -- U.S. vs. Africa 10,000 meters, Durham 1971: For Miruts Yifter and Frank Shorter, the first visit by an African track team to the United States resulted in a brutal clash. It gained even more drama from the previous day's 5,000-meter race between Ethiopian star Yifter and Steve Prefontaine.

Pre led most of the way in a moderate pace, passing two miles in 9 minutes and 1.2 seconds in 87-degree heat. Then with 700 yards to go, the 5-foot-6 Yifter exploded with a stunning kick. After a few steps, Pre decided to let him go. As it turns out, Yifter had miscounted laps, and after a blistering 57.6, he stopped with his arms raised. A befuddled Pre covered the real last lap in 70 seconds for the win.

The next day, 34,000 fans turned up in 91-degree heat, many of them cheering for Yifter. He stayed with Shorter until a lap to go, and then demonstrated his vicious kick again. This time he produced a 59.6 to win in 28:53.2 over five runners who had rested the previous day. Prefontaine told the TV cameras that Yifter's comeback was "fantastic."

Yifter would go on to win both events at the 1980 Olympics, a performance that another fabled Ethiopian star, Haile Gebrselassie, credits as his inspiration to start running.

No. 59. Olympic Men's 800, Los Angeles 1932: Considered to feature one of the strongest fields of the meet, the men's 800 lined up at a time when no man had yet broken the 1:50 barrier for two laps. NYU star Phil Edwards, a Canadian who had placed fourth in the previous Games, took the race out with a swift 24.4, 52.3 pace for the first lap. American Eddie Genung followed, as did Notre Dame star Alex Wilson, another Canadian.

Running fifth at the 400, British professor Tom Hampson clocked 54.8 and seemed no threat for a medal, let alone to Edwards, who had a lead of eight yards on the final turn. Then Genung narrowed that gap, with Wilson and Hampson also chasing. Wilson passed Genung and had soon moved past Edwards into the lead. Amazingly, Hampson kept coming, past Genung and Edwards. He moved even with Wilson and the two battled for each step.

At the line, Hampson prevailed by a foot. He (1:49.7) and Wilson (1:49.9) became the first men under 1:50. An early proponent of the values of even pacing, Hampson was hailed as one of the greatest middle distance runners of the time. He later added a silver medal in the 4 x 400 relay.

No. 58 -- World Championships Men's High Jump, Rome 1987: Bert Nelson called this "one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- high jumping contests ever." Certainly, the quality of the field promised much: world record holder Patrik Sjoberg faced off against three former record holders, the defending champ, the Olympic gold medalist, as well as seven other men who had cleared 7-foot-8 that season.

At a meet record 7-7.25, seven men cleared, while future great Javier Sotomayor went out on misses to finish ninth. At 7-8.5, Sjoberg and former record holder Dietmar Mogenburg cleared on their first tries; both had perfect records. Soviet Igor Paklin cleared on his second, and his teammate, Gennadiy Avdeyenko, made it on his third. Romanian Sorin Matei passed, leaving five in the quest for medals as the bar raised to 7-9.75.

Sjoberg cleared on his first try, the only man to do so. Mogenburg decided to pass to the next height. The Soviets, however, reasoned that if they made 7-9.75, they would win the remaining medals, should Mogenburg falter at 7-10.75. Good call. Both Soviets cleared on their third attempts.

When the bar moved to 7-10.75, only a half inch below the world record, no one had any luck, least of all Mogenburg. He ended up without any medal at all. Sjoberg, a Swede, came closest to clearing. Celebrating his gold medal, he called himself "lucky" anyway.

No. 57 -- Olympic Women's 10,000, Barcelona 1992: At the Worlds the previous year, Liz McColgan used a brutal pace to burn the competition away and win gold. Here, she tried it again, but a lot had changed in a year. Running even faster than she had in Tokyo, McColgan at 3K had 11 competitors bunched up behind her as if she were slowing down traffic.

Over the next few miles the pack thinned out a bit, but McColgan's fate was sealed when South African Elana Meyer tore into the lead with less than 10 laps to go. Only Ethiopian Derartu Tulu could follow her, refusing to take the lead even when Meyer swung wide to grab wet sponges. When the final bell rang, Tulu blasted past Meyer and built a 5.73-second margin on the final lap, finishing in 31:06.02, a time only four women had ever bettered. McColgan placed fifth.

The two Africans joined in an embrace and a memorable victory lap. Tulu had won the first medal ever by an Ethiopian woman, while Meyer had captured the first medal for the South African team, welcomed back into the Olympics after three decades away.

No. 56 -- Olympic Women's High Jump, Seoul 1988: Amid the glitter of FloJo and her world records, and the controversy over Ben Johnson, one of the biggest stories of the Seoul Olympics has been all but forgotten. Texan Louise Ritter might have had a chance against Bulgaria's Stefka Kostadinova, but not much of one.

Kostadinova, after all, had leaped over 6-8 a total of 29 times. Ritter had done it once; it was her American record. Kostadinova, in the five seasons leading up to their Olympic encounter, had won 72 of her 75 competitions, and owned the world record of 6-10.25. Big, big favorite.

For the Bulgarian, everything went as expected as the bar climbed to 6-7. She never missed, and her competitors dropped away one by one. All except for Ritter, who was also jumping perfectly. When the bar went to 6-8, they were the only ones left. Ritter's fans were probably overjoyed about her getting the silver; it's doubtful that even they anticipated that the unthinkable would happen.

But it did. First Kostadinova missed at 6-8. Then Ritter did. Then Kostadinova missed again, as Ritter did. Then they both missed yet again. The tie had to be broken, so the officials instructed them both to try 6-8 one more time, the first Olympic jump-off since 1936. Kostadinova missed. Ritter cleared.

The Texan went wild in celebration. Later she said, "I still consider her the best high jumper in the world." Ritter could afford to be generous; she had the gold.

No. 55 -- European Champs 10,000, Helsinki 1971: Britain's Dave Bedford had run the second-fastest time in history earlier that season, a 27:47.0 that marked him as the man to beat. He ran from the front, knowing his only hope for gold was to burn off the kickers. Among his pursuers were two Finns, Seppo Tuominen and Juha Vaatainen. That gave the nearly 40,000 Finns in the stadium something to cheer about.

After halfway, reached in a blistering 13:54.4, the two Finns shook up the race with hard surges. Bedford fell back for a while, but worked himself into the lead again a few laps later. The pack of six ran together until the bell. Bedford knew what kind of bad news that was for him. Sprinting as fast as he could, he watched as his five rivals blew past him on the last lap.

The most feared, East German Jurgen Haase, unleashed his stinging kick with 300 to go. However, he couldn't shake Vaatainen, who ran the whole distance with spike wounds in both legs. The Finn, a converted sprinter with a 400 best of 48.9, unleashed a 53.8 last lap, unheard of in 10,000 running. He demolished the East German to win in 27:52.8 as an unprecedented five men broke 28 minutes. Four days later, the expatriate Finn (he lived in Brazil), unleashed a similar kick to win the 5,000 gold.

No. 54 -- World Championships Men's Pole Vault, Tokyo 1991: Over the years, Sergei Bubka has won many competitions, six world titles among them. The Ukrainian, however, would be hard-pressed to come up with a greater victory than his third gold in the Worlds.

Bubka had a bad heel bruise that had been troubling him for a month. Ninety minutes before the competition, he had gotten injections of a pain-killer. His other heel hurt him as well, but he decided not to get shots in both.

The ailing world record holder's strategy was simple: Don't jump unless absolutely necessary. His competitors took their attempts at the lower heights while he watched. He finally stepped on the runway when the bar hit 18-8.25. He cleared easily, but limped away from the pit. "The pain was so severe ... I started to get concerned," he said.

He had a doctor give him another injection. Then he stepped up for his second jump of the day, with the bar at 19-4.25. Favoring his heel, he put too much stress on his left arch, straining a muscle. He crashed into the bar. The next jumper, Hungarian Istvan Bagyula (an NCAA champ from George Mason), cleared the height, moving into the lead.

Bubka decided to save his last two attempts for 19-6.25, a height Bagyula had never reached. Shortening his run-up, he blew his first try. Bagyula did as well, and Russian Maksim Tarasov closed out his day with a miss. Then the Great One stepped up for his final leap. If he made it, he would win. If he missed, he would earn a humbling sixth-place: "I was desperate."

He banished the pain from his mind, and ran down the runway at full speed. He soared far above the bar in one of the greatest leaps of his career, capturing the gold with his second clearance of the day. Said an amazed Bagyula, "We can only dream about first place; he is so much better than us."

No. 53 -- Olympic Women's 3,000, Los Angeles 1984: In the hype-driven L.A. Olympics, few competitions generated as much frenzy beforehand as the eagerly anticipated clash between Mary Slaney and Zola Budd. Slaney, America's dominant distance runner, had captured a stirring 1,500/3,000 double at the previous year's World Championships. Budd, a waif-like South African with a penchant for running dazzling times barefoot, had gotten around the international embargo on athletes from her country by going through the express line to get British citizenship.

Slaney took off at a fast pace, hoping for an 8:30. When the pace slowed, Budd tried to run to the front. Her teammate, Wendy Sly, also moved. Sly came alongside Slaney at the mile, but Budd managed to shoot between them and take the lead. Running hard, she pulled Slaney, Sly, and Romanian Maricica Puica away from the pack.

However, both Slaney and Budd were vastly inexperienced at running in a crowd, and it showed. The two bumped twice, and at 1,720m, Slaney went down. She injured her hip, and could not get up. Budd continued to race, but the booing of the boorish crowd rattled her. The 18-year-old was clearly finished when Puica and Sly went past her with little more than a lap to go.

Puica outkicked Sly for the gold, 8:35.96 to 8:39.47, enshrining herself as the answer to the trivia question, Who won the Slaney-Budd matchup? Slaney, after her bitter post-race outbursts at Budd, never truly returned to top fitness. Budd went back to London to face the same harassment and death threats that had started when she accepted a British passport. Though she had a great campaign the next year, she would retire from the sport long before reaching her potential.

No. 52 -- Olympic Men's Triple Jump, Mexico City 1968: Even if you weren't alive yet in 1968, the event you remember most from the Mexico City Olympics is certainly Bob Beamon's historic long jump. The day before, however, the triple jump served notice that the something was special, and perhaps even askew, about the competition in the Estadio Olimpico.

Giuseppe Gentile of Italy started the fireworks in the qualifying round. A 53-foot jumper at his best, he flew out to 56-1.25 for a new world record. Then, in the finals, Gentile produced another world record, this time a 56-6. Gold medal territory? No way.

In round three, the Soviet Union's Viktor Saneyev tacked a quarter-inch onto the world record, his 56-6.25 taking the lead. Two rounds later, Nelson Prudencio of Brazil broke the world record with a 56-8. On the final round, Saneyev mounted an impressive run and bounced out to 57-0.75 to grab the gold for good. For sheer excitement, no other triple jump contest had ever hit this level.

The world record before the competition was 55-10.5, a mark that would not have finished in the top five in Mexico City. What caused the orgy of great jumping? Thin air had the most to do with it. In 1968, few realized what effect altitude had in allowing greater sprint/jump performances. Others have also pointed to the synthetic track, the first ever used for an Olympics.

Unfortunately, the evidence also points to misuse of the wind gauge by officials perhaps too eager to see world records. All of the world-record marks in Mexico City came with "legal" wind, but a suspicious five of 12 came with the wind exactly at the maximum allowable reading of 2.0 meters per second. None registered beyond that. Venerable track historian Roberto Quercetani was being generous when he called it a "stupendous" coincidence.

No. 51 -- Olympic Trials Men's 400, Eugene 1972: Longtime observer of the sport Bob Hersh sums up the Trials 400 of 1972 with one word: "Wow!" The field was dazzling: Maurice Peoples, Curtis Mills, John Smith, Tommie Turner, Vince Matthews, Lee Evans, Fred Newhouse and Wayne Collett. Newhouse had blazed a 44.2 to win his semi. Collett won the other, in 44.8.

In the final, Newhouse ran like a crazy man. He hit the 200 fast, somewhere in the 20.3-20.7 range. Smith and Collett followed. Evans, the world record holder, trailed in fifth. Newhouse started to tie up on the last turn, and the smooth Smith (now the coach of Maurice Greene, among others), floated past.

On the straight, his former UCLA teammate, Collett moved into the lead. Newhouse held onto third until Evans collared him near the finish. Collett crossed victorious in 44.1, the fastest-ever at low altitude. Smith, recovered from a serious bout of hepatitis seven months earlier, ran 44.3. "This really means something," said Collett of his first major win.

The Mailbag
Karl Kappenman: "I am very much enjoying the Century's Best list. I can't wait for 'the Book' (?). I think the story of the 800 runners of the 1930s would make a great movie. For our generation it takes a story like the one of Rudolf Harbig's to remind us what was lost in WWII."

Jolie Watson: "Keep 'em coming. I can't wait to see what you're saving for the top 10!"

Jeff Hollobaugh, former managing editor of Track and Field News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached by e-mail at michtrack@aol.com.