February 05, 2005

Many Victor Contes?

Victor Conte, in his infamous interview on 20/20, claimed that there are many more out there like him, making sure that all of the world's best athletes are pumped full of illegal and undetectable drugs. He is not alone in that assertion; even some in the news media are sure that this must be true.

This week, those speculations have been somewhat justified, with the announcement that doping authorities have discovered another designer steroid specifically developed for athletes.

Figure 1

Figure 1 — History of 100 m times

Figure 1 — history of performances in men's 100 m (click to enlarge).

In an earlier post, I commented that I don't buy Conte's self-justification that only doped athletes can be competitive in athletics. I have been wanting to go back and take a look at this issue in some more detail.

Figure 1 (inset right) shows the history of performances in the men's 100 m dash. Of particular interest is the block of green bars on the right-hand side of the plot. These represent the best 10 sprinters in the world for each year since 1975. There's no way to know, of course, which of these performances have been illegally enhanced. But it's "common knowledge" that today, all of the best athletes are on drugs.


  • The "Statistics" section compiled by Rinaldo Zocca has some interesting analysis of trends between 1975 and 2000, including the lists of the top 10 performers in each of those years. (If you want to see something fascinating, take a look at the men's shot put.)
  • The lists of top performers after 2000 were obtained from the IAAF's top lists.
  • The chronology of the world record came from BiblioSports.
  • The times for the Olympic finalists came from The 100 Metre Zone
  • This graph at Athletics By Numbers shows that in 2004 only 26 athletes in the world ran faster than 10.10 seconds, and only 7 ran faster than 10.00 seconds

Happily, I don't think that the numbers support this conclusion, unless steroid use has been going on much longer than we thought. Looking at the graph, we can see that the tenth-best sprinter in the world today is roughly as fast as the world record holder in the mid-1960s.

In 1964, at the Olympics in Tokyo, "Bullet" Bob Hayes set a world record of 10.06. So if all of the top ten sprinters in the world today are cheaters, then that would imply that Hayes and his contemporaries (Jim Hines and Charles Greene, to name two) were also on drugs, wouldn't it? Conte claims that you have to dope to compete today, so therefore this kind of sophisticated doping must stretch back at least to the sixties.

Now, it's possible that the best sprinters from the sixties were cheating. We know that Hayes had his problems, later in life, with narcotics. But I've never seen any accusations about steroids in this era.

I think that the opposite conclusion is far more likely, even if it runs contrary to "common knowledge." I am convinced that at least some of the world's ten best sprinters are actually clean. And that's assuming that forty years of advances in training and technology have counted for nothing.

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