August 16, 2005


An athletics quiz: when is a world record not a personal best?

The answer is: in the pole vault, very often.

At the recently-completed world athletic championships in Helsinki, Russian superstar Yelena Isinbayeva broke the world record in the women's pole vault, jumping 5.01 metres.

Breaking the world record is nothing new to Isinbayeva, of course. Here's a list (source) of her world-record outdoor vaults:

Table 1 — Yelena Isinbayeva's World Record Vaults (Outdoors)
DateRecord VaultPrevious Record
2003 JUL 074.82 m4.81 m
2004 JUN 274.87 m4.83 m
2004 JUL 254.89 m4.88 m
2004 JUL 304.90 m4.89 m
2004 AUG 244.91 m4.90 m
2004 SEP 034.92 m4.91 m
2005 JUL 054.93 m4.92 m
2005 JUL 164.95 m4.93 m
2005 JUL 225.00 m4.95 m
2005 AUG 125.01 m5.00 m

As you would expect from such a dominant performer, Isinbayeva also holds the indoor world record in the pole vault at 4.89 metres. She's been making the same kind of progress there (source):

Table 2 — Yelena Isinbayeva's World Record Vaults (Indoors)
DateRecord VaultPrevious Record
2004 FEB 154.83 m4.81 m
2004 MAR 064.86 m4.85 m
2005 FEB 124.87 m4.86 m
2005 FEB 184.88 m4.87 m
2005 FEB 264.89 m4.88 m
2005 MAR 064.90 m4.89 m

You don't have to be an expert to see that Isinbayeva is only toying with the world record. This past winter she broke the world indoor record four times in as many weekends, each time by exactly one centimetre. She's held the outdoor record for about a year, and has raised the record by 12 cm in eight very small steps. The only way you can break the world record with this kind of regularity is if you are still well below your maximum capacity.

So why would an athlete do that? Since she had already secured the world championship, why didn't Isinbayeva ask for the bar to be set at 5.15 in her final attempt in Helsinki, so that she could have a true test of her ability? The answer is very simple: breaking the world record is worth a lot of money for Yelena Isinbayeva.

In addition to $60,000 for winning the competition, Isinbayeva earned $100,000 from the IAAF and its sponsors for breaking the world record. This BBC story claims that Isinbayeva earns $100K every time she breaks the world record, presumably from Russia. I think that this claim is probably incorrect, but there is no doubt that the incentives are considerable. Many of the top European meets offer cash prizes in the tens of thousands of dollars for world records, to encourage the athletes to give their best efforts and to add to the excitement of the competition.

Olympic champion Tim Mack suggests that "she’s probably jumping 5.20 in practice." If that's a reasonable estimate, then she might have 19 more world outdoor records, and perhaps a similar number of indoor records, even if she doesn't improve at all. That adds up to a lot of money. It's no wonder she chooses to set each new record by the smallest possible margin.

The pole vault and the high jump are both susceptible to this kind of world record manipulation for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, the score is determined not by the height of the jump but by the height of the bar. This gives competitors extremely precise control of their results. Second, the competition proceeds by multiple attempts and a process of elimination. This means that a dominant performer can wait until all of his or her competitors are defeated before attempting the world record; there is then no danger that any other competitor will break the record, and therefore no reason to push it out of reach.

I don't mean to denigrate Isinbayeva in any way. She is clearly the best female pole vaulter the world has ever seen, and her accomplishments are unlikely to be matched any time soon. But I would like to see a world record that truly reflects her abilities, and we aren't seeing that right now.

One way to make the records more "honest" is to have tougher competition. The only reason Isinbayeva (and Sergei Bubka before her) can get away with this strategy is that she is head and shoulders above the rest of the field. If she had a real rival, then both of them would be forced to compete at their limits.

That's not really a solution that the IAAF can implement, though. Another idea would be to change the world record incentives for these events. For example, the incentive could scale according to the margin of the record-breaking attempt (e.g., pay ten times more for a ten-centimetre break than for a one-centimetre break). Another idea would be to offer the bonus only for certain milestones reached (5.10 m, 5.20 m, and so on).


Alan Adamson said...

This is no new thing in the pole vsult world - certainly Sergei Bubka appeared to respond sensibly to incentives in the same way in his heyday.

Amateur said...

Definitely, Bubka elevated this to an art form, and Isinbayeva is just following.

Flash said...

I know absolutely nothing about the international pole vaulting world, so please forgive this question. For 5 years now, whenever pole vaulting comes up, all the media talks about is Stacy Dragila. For that reason, I (foolishly) assumed that she was the world's pre-eminent pole vaulter. Did she used to be and fall off the map or is she built on American media hype?

Amateur said...

Dragila is not just a product of media hype. She was the world record holder as recently as June of last year (4.83 m), but two things have happened. First, she's old (34 - gasp!), and this year that's caught up to her. She is vaulting in the 4.60 range. Second, she's been blown away by Isinbayeva, who is eleven years younger and has elevated the sport to an entirely new level.

However, at the risk of being sexist, Dragila has benefited a lot from the fact that women's pole vault is a relatively new event at the elite level. Part of Dragila's fame is surely due to the fact that she was the world's best pole vaulter when women didn't pole vault. That shouldn't take away from the fact that she was actually very good, though.

John said...

I watched the previous world record she set (when she broke the 5 metre mark in London a couple of weeks before the worlds). Apparently she only went for the mark (despite having presumably the chance to do five intermediate jumps from 4.95) because Bubka was in the crowd and ha said in the past that he'll only take women pole vaulting seriously when they break 5 metres.

I say good luck to her - her and her little wiggly bottom got me into this olympic mess I'm in now, so she can do whatever she likes in my book.

Amateur said...

John, that is a great story, and clears up a bit of a mystery.

Also, thanks for the phrase "little wiggly bottom," which is sure to increase traffic.

EBuz said...

Putting aside my concern that the problem is with the financial incentives themselves (which is suspect is probably as outdated as insisting that paid amateurs are actually professionals), perhaps another way to structure the incentive is to amortize it over the length of time the record is actually held.

Amateur said...

... my concern that the problem is with the financial incentives themselves ...

Let's go there, some day -- but not now, OK?

... amortize it over the length of time the record is actually held ...

That is a fabulous idea. I like it because it does not need to be a 'special' rule for the pole vault, but could legitimately be applied to all the athletics events.

Sean said...

.. amortize it over the length of time the record is actually held ...

Perhaps you could explain exactly what you mean here for me? Do you mean to only pay out a pro-rated portion of the bonus over the lifetime that the record is held? If so, this does not change the Isinbayeva situation: all she has to do is keep breaking the records and collecting the front-end coupons of each amortization schedule -- if I have read you correctly.

The same goes for Amateur's suggestion -- e.g., pay ten times more for a ten-centimetre break than for a one-centimetre break -- without the competition, she just breaks the record 10 times. A little risky, admittedly. For real change along that line, the reward curve needs to be exponential -- e.g., pay 50 times more for a 10-centimetre break.

Amateur said...

I guess I believe that all athletes have an intrinsic motivation to do the very best that they can. Right now, Isinbayeva has an extrinsic motivation (money) to not do her best.

My solution doesn't increase the incentive for doing her PB, but it does remove the conflict. The total amount of money she would earn might be the same, but she would be free to try to earn as much as possible on each single attempt.

EBuz' solution has the same effect. Additionally, she will be motivated to prevent anybody else from breaking her world records, and will therefore want to push it as far out of reach as possible.