2023 Track & Field World Record Holders Doping Polls Results
March 16, 2023
Dirty or clean?
Unfortunately, that is the question that immediately runs through the brain of any athletics aficionado when a world record is set in the sport of track & field.
Was the performance set with performance-enhancing drugs or without?
With that question in mind, in 2014 we presented the first LetsRun.com Doping Polls. We asked you whether you thought the world records on the books were legitimate or illegitimate.
Nearly a decade has passed since our last doping polls. In that time period, Lamine Diack, the disgraced former president of the IAAF, was revealed to be part of one of the most notorious doping scandals in history, an entire country (Russia), was suspended by the IAAF in 2015 for its role in state-sponsored doping, Olympic champions Asbel Kiprop, Jemima Sumgong, and Ruth Jebet were busted for doping and American legends Alberto Salazar and Shelby Houlihan were suspended for doping offenses.
How have perceptions changed from 2014 to 2023? Back in January, we brought back the LetsRun.com Doping Polls and asked you whether you thought the current world records on the books were “clean” or “dirty.” We also explained why we think it’s a good idea to do this.
First, let us present the results.
What to make of them? At a glance, the charts don’t look that different from when we did this in 2014.
One thing that stands out is the older the record, generally speaking, the more likely people think it was dirty. This makes sense for a variety of reasons. There are constant advances in training and equipment, so one would expect records to continue to get broken. And there are long-standing records on the books set by people who ran for countries that had state-sponsored doping.
Below is a scatter plot that shows the current world records holders in blue, the year their record was set, and how many of you think the record was dirty. There is a strong correlation between when the record was set and whether people think it was dirty or clean.
In red, we have included the 2014 Doping Poll results for the eight world records that are still currently on the books so you can see how opinions of those records have shifted over time.
For the really old-school records from the 1980s, not much has changed. Nearly everyone thought the records were suspect in 2014 and that remains the case.
But for the still-standing records from the 1990s and 2000s, there is an interesting development. LetsRun.com nation became more skeptical of the distance records and less skeptical of the sprint records.
People in 2023 are less likely to think Usain Bolt and Aries Merritt were doping than in 2014 even though their records got older.
But they are way more likely to think David Rudisha, Hicham El Guerrouj, and Saif Saaeed Shaheen are doping.
We’re not entirely sure, but one reason might be because the vast majority of the major drug busts of runners in the last decade have involved distance runners and not sprinters.
A few sprint stars have served doping suspensions (Salwa Eid Naser, Christian Coleman, and Brianna McNeal), but most of them were actually for missed tests and tampering, not outright positive tests. Meanwhile, on the distance side, massive stars have been popped for drugs, which for the first time included legends from Kenya. Three Olympic distance champions — Asbel Kiprop, Jemima Sumgong, and Ruth Jebet (represented Bahrain but born and raised in Kenya) — tested positive as well as a number of other Kenyan marathon stars. Not to mention in the US we had the Alberto Salazar doping suspension, and the Shelby Houlihan doping suspension.
As we noted in our last doping polls, where we cross-tabulated the results based on age, sex, nationality, and how often people visited LetsRun.com, people are more likely to think those they have an affinity with are clean. Hardcore regular visitors of LetsRun.com in 2014 were more likely to think the distance stars were clean.
With all the recent distance positive tests, LetsRun.com nation has become way more cynical of the distance world records.
Look at the scatter plot below from 2014 and ignore the Chinese and Eastern Bloc distance world records, which were from countries with essentially state-sanctioned doping. By and large, the distance world records are below the dotted line, showing that people were less suspicious of them.
Now look at the scatter plot from 2023:
Nearly all the distance records are above the blue line, indicating people are more suspicious of them. The one big exception? David Rudisha’s 800m world record from 2012. People are more likely in 2023 to think he was doping than in 2014, (27% vs 17%), but he’s still way below the line.
Wishful thinking or can we just appreciate the greatest 800m ever run?
We’ll likely never know, but the doping polls at least make us question our own biases and pine for a cleaner sport.
Coming later this week: doping polls for the current major male stars of the sport.