What if Usain Bolt is not the greatest sprinter in history? What if there was someone better than him – someone currently competing and hiding in plain sight, obscured only by a statistical error that conceals their true outlier brilliance?
It is something that Bolt’s Jamaican compatriot Elaine Thompson-Herah might wonder after storming to a phenomenal 10.54-second 100m victory at the Eugene Diamond League on Saturday, a fortnight after completing a second successive Olympic 100/200 metres double.
Her time in Eugene was, officially, the second-fastest in history. Yet to almost everyone in the sport, including the revered Track and Field News, it should be considered the world record.
Rarely is Florence Griffith Joyner’s 10.49sec mark, which officially holds that title, ever mentioned without an asterisk or caveat of some sort.
The primary reason was the wind, or lack of, during Griffith Joyner’s run. While huge gusts buffeted around Indianapolis on the day of the 1988 United States Olympic trials, the wind gauge unexpectedly flashed up a totally still 0.0m/s for her 100m heat, even while competitors in the men’s triple jump were aided by tailwinds in excess of 4m/s at almost exactly the same time.
Subsequent analysis has suggested Griffith Joyner’s run likely took place with a tailwind above 5m/s, far exceeding the legal 2m/s limit, and even the governing body’s own statisticians refer to the record as “probably strongly wind assisted”, yet it stands to this day.
There are other, more suspicious, factors behind Griffith Joyner’s time. Having given up on athletics in 1986, she returned to action far leaner and noticeably more muscular the following year, before taking an alarmingly big chunk off her 10.96sec personal best in the space of a few months in 1988.
She claimed her improvement was down to a new training regime and improved diet, rubbishing multiple unsubstantiated reports from fellow athletes and coaches that she had taken performance-enhancing drugs.
Griffith Joyner never failed a drug test, retired after winning triple gold at the 1988 Olympics and died suddenly after an epileptic seizure in 1998.
That her 100m world record – which was a mind-boggling 0.27sec improvement on the previous mark – still stands is proof enough for the sceptics that Thompson-Herah should be seen as the rightful world-record holder.
Strike a mark through Griffith Joyner’s 10.49sec run and Thompson-Herah is 0.07sec better than any other woman in history. Rule out any other times achieved by Griffith Joyner — during what was essentially a three-month elite 100m career in 1988 — and the gap between Thompson-Herah and the rest is 0.09sec.
That margin is almost the same as the 0.11sec between Bolt’s astonishing 9.58sec world record and the 9.69sec time achieved by Yohan Blake and Tyson Gay.
There is another statistic that sees Thompson-Herah surpass Bolt. Both the men and women’s 100m possess an easily identifiable mark of a world-class sprinter: for men it is 10 seconds and women 11 seconds.
Not only has Thompson-Herah gone 0.04sec further than Bolt below that respective barrier, but worldwide numbers suggest the female mark might in fact be even tougher than that for men: a total of 117 women in history have broken 11 seconds, while 156 men have gone below 10 seconds.
In such a light, Thompson-Herah’s outlier status is perhaps even more stark than Bolt’s.
Does that make her better than her fellow Jamaican? It is a subject for debate with no universal answer, made even more complicated by Griffith Joyner’s presence.
The only tool for direct comparison between Bolt and Thompson-Herah comes courtesy of World Athletics’ official Scoring Tables which assign a points tally to every performance in every athletics event. Yet even this is hugely problematic.
Bolt’s 9.58sec world record is assigned 1,356 points, compared to 1,314 points for Griffith Joyner’s 10.49 world record and 1,302 for Thompson-Herah’s recent personal best. How much should be read into those figures is questionable.
By way of proving the governing body’s assertion that “due to obvious biological differences, it is not proposed to fully compare men’s and women’s performances” Jarmila Kratochvilova’s 800m world record that has been untouchable since 1983 receives a points tally of just 1,286 – a score that seven male 100m runners have achieved in the last 13 years alone. The comparisons simply do not work.
Based on her run last weekend, there is every chance Thompson-Herah will consign Griffith Joyner’s mark to history at the Lausanne or Paris Diamond Leagues this week, surely cementing her status as the greatest female sprinter in history.
Whether that puts her above Bolt is another question. Regardless, it is time the sports world gave her the respect her performances warrant.