If you follow athletics closely enough you probably already know that most of the women’s world records were achieved more than 20 years ago in the 1980s. I don’t intend to go into reasons for the “whys” or “hows” in this blog; instead, I’ll try to shortly explain why I think women’s 100m world record should probably be erased.
I was born in 1993 and men’s world record has been improved 8 times in a little over two decades since then. But whenever I watch an athletics meet, a major championship or the Olympics, the women’s WR in the corner of the TV screen remains the same – a pretty much unreachable mark of 10.49 set by Florence Griffith-Joyner (USA) in 1988.
Women’s world record before Florence’s 10.49 was 10.76 (+1.7 m/s) set by Evelyn Ashford (USA) in 1984. The closest any other woman has managed to come to 10.49 since 1988 was when Carmelita Jeter (USA) ran 10.64 (+1.2 m/s) in 2009.
Why do I have a problem with 10.49?
Well, I firmly believe that it was a massively wind assisted run. Of course I’m not alone in believing this and I’m not onto something terribly new here either. This has been a controversial debate for almost three decades now, but the IAAF has decided to keep the time in the books despite numerous allegations that the anemometer (a device that measures wind speed) malfunctioned.
Let’s look at FloJo’s fourteen official clockings under 11 seconds (the magical barrier for women’s sprinting, similar to men’s 10 second barrier).
On the left we have an official mark, in the middle we have the official wind reading (a positive number indicates a tailwind and a negative number indicates a headwind) and on the right is an approximation/calculation of what the time would have been in conditions with zero wind (0.0 m/s). The maximum allowable wind for a performance to be recognized and ratified is +2.0 m/s. Performances that have stronger winds are colored in red and aren’t shown in any official lists.
We can immediately see something very peculiar. The very fastest time has zero wind and is substantially quicker than all the other – even the heavily wind assisted – marks. It’s also considerably faster than her 2nd and 3rd fastest runs which had winds above +3.0 m/s.
Times 1, 3, 4 and 6 were all achieved in a span of two days in July of 1988 in Indianapolis at the US Olympic Trials for the Games in Seoul that same year. These Trials are notorious for producing some of the fastest times in history due to some very strong winds*. FloJo set a mark of 10.60 (+3.2 m/s) in the qualifying heat and then ran 10.49 in her quarter-final with what was an official reading of zero wind. She then went on to win her semi-final in 10.70 (+1.6 m/s) and the final in 10.61 (+1.2 m/s). We know from one of her interviews given between the races that she was gunning for a world record in every run of those Trials. You be the judge on whether she was really able to be more than a tenth quicker than all her other wind assisted runs and in a race with supposedly no wind.
*Note: Carl Lewis won the men’s final in a time of 9.78 s with a +5.2 m/s wind behind his back (if we adjust his time using our formula we get 10.04 s). His personal best at the time was 9.93 s (+1.1 m/s) and his lifetime PB is 9.86 s (+1.2 m/s).
Times 2, 5, 7 and 8 are all from the rounds of the 1988 Seoul Olympics and we can see that they again had a lot of wind assistance. We can expect that FloJo was looking to peak with her form at the Olympics and she did give it her all in the final. She won with 10.54 s, but even a massive following wind of +3.0 m/s wasn’t enough to improve on her own world record. She missed it by 0.05 s which is a pretty big margin in sprinting terms.
If we ignore the 10.49 mark, FloJo’s fastest legal time was 10.61 with a +1.2 m/s wind which adjusts to around 10.67 in still conditions (meaning that it’s also the fastest adjusted time). But we are meant to believe that with zero wind she was 0.18 s faster than all of her other times, some of them achieved with a very strong wind assistance.
I’m not buying it. This implies that she was capable of running something like 10.39 or faster with a +2.0 m/s wind. It would make her one of the fastest men in the world at the time (and today). Not to mention that she already was among the fastest men even with 10.49.
When you watch the Olympics this year, ignore the display in the corner of your TV that says WR 10.49 and replace it with a mental image of this:
This means that Florence Griffith-Joyner remains the world record holder, but with a much more believable time and performance.
PS & A bit of trivia: If you’re unsure about the benefits of wind assistance, you can watch Justin Gatlin run 9.45 s on a Japanese game show with an average of +8.9* m/s behind his back (the time would adjust to around 9.90 s). *There are conflicting reports on the exact wind power used.