Analyzing doping at the Summer Games with data visualization

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The Olympics represents and demonstrates many indisputably positive ideals, through fair, captivating sportsmanship. And we’ve focused on those attributes in past data blogs, including the emergence of global role models, as well as diversity and equality in terms of nationality and gender. And so in keeping with that mentality, we never intended to create a post about doping at the Summer Games – but our analysis of the data took us there…

We began with the fairly obvious hypothesis that, with the continuing professionalization of sport as a global phenomenon, Olympic data would demonstrate that athletes have been getting faster, better and stronger over time. Just think back to our prior blog – Analyzing Track and Field at the Olympics with data visualization – in which we marveled at Usain Bolt’s amazing back-to-back Olympic 100-meter sprint titles, in which American Tyson Gay finished fourth in a time of 9.80 seconds – a time that would have seen him win Gold in every other Olympic 100-meter final aside from Beijing (2008) and London.

In the wake of Bolt’s stunning performance, physicists predicted that with the unremitting physical development of athletes, in conjunction with better training regimes and increased financial backing, the current 100-meter World Record (9.58 seconds) could theoretically be lowered to 9.39 seconds before reaching the limits of human performance.

Swimming and Track & Field: Performances over time at the Summer Games (1948 – 2008)

This theory of continued improvement, met with an eventual plateau, certainly seems to hold true when analyzing men’s 100-meter Freestyle – and other – Olympic swimming performances over time (1948 – 2008).

Again, this theory is validated when assessing the performance of both male and female athletes (as separate metrics) over time across all time-based Swimming and Track & Field events.

The consistency of this notion explains why Ye Shiwen’s awe-inspiring swim – which contrasted strongly with the plateau theory – was met with such trepidation by Olympic officials and was described as “disturbing” by highly respected US swim coach and executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, John Leonard. (By the way, did you notice the marked dip in the female line at the 1988 Games? We’ll get to this outlier a little later…)

Not only did Ye win the women’s 400-meter Individual Medley in a world-record time, she swam the 100-meter freestyle portion of the race in 58.68 – a faster time than American Ryan Lochte who won the men’s 400-meter Individual Medley with the second fastest time in history. Simply put, Ye’s swim didn’t seem humanly possible, arousing the first doping controversy of London 2012.
And, when we delved a little deeper into historical Track & Field results at the Olympic Games, some very interesting anomalies began to raise their potentially ugly heads.

Women’s 100-meter Gold medal winning times at the Summer Games (1948 – 2008)

In particular, the Gold medal winning performances of female athletes in time-based Track & Field events at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

The winning time in the women’s 100-metre dash dramatically decreased in 1988, sharply rising thereafter. The same trend can be found across the 1988 Gold medal performances in the women’s 200-meter and multiple relay teams – most notably the 4 x 400.

These inconsistencies – in terms of the general trend identified – got us thinking. How many Olympic Records were set a significant number of moons ago?

Swimming and Track & Field Olympic Records for Gold medal speed-related performances by year at the Summer Games (1980 – 2008)

While Olympic Records are being bettered by narrower and narrower margins, across most event categories at the Summer Games, the overwhelming majority of data suggests that the performance of athletes is still continuing to improve. For example, 31 new swimming records were set at the last completed Olympic Games – Beijing 2008.

By contrast, a noteworthy number of Track & Field speed-related records were made prior to, and remained after, the conclusion of the Beijing Games.

Track & Field Olympic Records for Gold medal distance-related performances by year at the Summer Games (1976 – 2008)

Again, the 1988 Seoul Summer Games produced a number of standout distance-related performances for both men (two still standing – as of the conclusion of Beijing 2008 – records) and women in particular (three still standing – as of the conclusion of Beijing 2008 – records).

Petra Felke of East Germany won the Women’s Javelin Throw with her 74.68-meter heave (current Olympic Record), Martina Hellmann (also of East Germany) won the Women’s Discus Throw with a 72.30-meter launch (current Olympic Record), while Jackie Joyner-Kersee of the United States won the Women’s Long Jump with a leap of 7.40 meters (current Olympic Record).

It seems that this anomaly is even more pronounced for distance-related, rather than speed-related, events such as Javelin and Discus.

A side note: Once more, this chart offers a good example of why data without context is dangerous. The above chart shows that at a number of Olympic meets, most conspicuously Seoul, female competitors out-threw their male counterparts in distance-related sports (Javelin, Discus, Shot Put and Hammer Throw). However, a little research offers a fairly logical answer. During Olympic competition, women throw a Javelin that weighs 600 grams, while the Javelin used in the men’s competition weighs 800 grams. Likewise, the women’s discus weighs one kilogram, while the men’s weighs two. And, in open Olympic competition, the women’s Shot Put weighs four kilograms (8.8 lbs), while the men’s is a considerably heftier 7.260 kilograms (16.01 lbs). Yep, you guessed it; as with the other three weighted objects, the men fling a much heavier projectile in the Hammer Throw – the men’s hammer weighs 7.257 kilograms (16 lbs), and the women’s a more manageable four kilograms (8.82 lbs).

So, which countries were involved in setting these long-standing Olympic distance-related records?

Track & Field: The number of Olympic Records for Gold medal distance-related performances by year and country at the Summer Games (1976 – 2008)

It seems that the vast majority of these long-standing anomalies were recorded by combatants from the USA and former Eastern Bloc.

What could be the reason for this apparent trend – particularly the unusually high number of records achieved in 1988?

Well, the 1988 Seoul Games was the first Summer Olympics at which both the Soviet Union and USA had competed since the Montreal Games of 1976 – the USA led a Cold War inspired boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and the USSR staged a retaliatory boycott of the subsequent US-hosted 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games. The dismantling of the USSR in 1991 also meant that 1988 was the last Olympics at which the Soviet Union competed, drastically reducing Cold War related tensions at future Olympic meets.

So, did both power houses, and their respective athletes, feel that they needed an edge because they had something to prove to one another at the 1988 Games? We’ll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions.

To find out more about these political tensions at the Olympics, check out our Olympic data blog, Data visualization analyzes the East vs West rivalry at the Olympics.

After the fact: Suggestions were made back in 2003 that a number of high profile American athletes – including Carl Lewis, Andre Phillips and Joe DeLoach – were known to have failed drug tests in the lead-up to the 1988 Olympics, but weren’t banned from competing.

Where to next?

Stay tuned for our continuing series of Olympic data blogs, appearing daily until London’s Closing Ceremony (12 August).

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