Darkness: I found your post well-stated and quite convincing. Thanks for the link to that website. So far I just looked at the 5000 men's top 10 lists from 1975 on. You are right. To me it was like reading an interesting story, watching things develop gradually from year to year, and then all of a sudden things become far-fetched. After years of 13:00 to 13:20 being in the top 10, all of a sudden, in the space of a couple of years, there is a list where the entire top 10 is sub 13. In the past, I would have personally agreed with the poster who suggested that this is because more and more Africans began to participate in the sport. However, looking at the statistics, the emergence of Africans running sub-13 is just too sudden. I mean, there are a fair amount of Africans in the list all along; I could see how they might gradually, over a number of years, become more dominant as more and more youngsters participated in the sport. But there is no reason for them to have several good runners year in and year out, and then, over the course of 2-3 years, suddenly have dozens of guys running above that level. The process should be more gradual.
To anyone who takes the time to look at the lists, it is obvious that there is a sudden, huge improvement over a very short time span. What are the possible explanations for this? Track and field had a rich enough history that you can't really say that, all of a sudden, talented athletes were attracted to the sport. There have been obscenely talented runners in the sport for many years: Snell, Coe, Rono, etc: guys who combined top-level talent with a work ethic to maximize that talent. I think we were dealing with basically the same talent pool as before. Maybe a few more Africans than previous years, but no reason for the increase to be that dramatic.
Were there huge advances in training or nutrition? It seems doubtful that any such effect would be noticed so quickly. Such advances tend to be gradual, taking many years to be properly worked out, and several more years to catch on.
Unless I'm missing something, the simplest explanation for the dramatic drop in times would be a new drug that suddenly became available (ie EPO). Now I don't really know the exact timetable of when EPO became available and how well that fits in to the improvement in times. I am under the impression that it was developed not too long before the sudden improvement in times. Maybe someone could enlighten me. But the top 10 lists alone present pretty damning evidence that something suspicious was going on. (also, Darkness made an excellent point that the large improvements only applied to long distance events, not the sprints or middle distance. Why? EPO, which could be argued to be most beneficial to long distance runners, would seem like a good explanation). Obviously you can't convict any individual athlete based on the timing; there are always going to be one or two exceptional athletes who pop up in every generation. But when the whole group at the top improves markedly in a short time period, it immediately casts suspicion on the methods used to achieve that improvement.