Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Is Dibaba’s 1500m Record “Believable”?

A couple of weeks ago Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba broke the women’s world record for the 1500m run with a time 3:50.07. The believability of this performance will certainly be questioned because most of the women’s world records in track and field have been stagnant for decades and date to the era of industrial strength doping in the 1980s and 90s. The 1500 record was set by a Chinese athlete in 1993 who was almost certainly doping. Many of the men’s distance running records are also “old” and occurred after the emergence of the blood boosting drug EPO in the late 1980s and before the advent of better (but far from perfect) drug testing regimens in the later 2000s.

A reasonable rule of thumb is that world records in women’s middle and long distance running “should” be on the order of about 11-12% slower than men’s. This is based on the fact that maximal aerobic power is typically that much lower in elite women than men, while other key physiological factors related to lactic acid build up and running efficiency that determine running performance are generally similar. The current fastest time by a man for 1500m in the pre EPO era was set by Said Aouita at 3:29.46 in 1985! The best time since drug testing got better is 3:26.69 by Asbel Kiprop of Kenya set earlier this year (the world record for men is 3:26 set by Hicham El Guerrouj in 1998).

Historically even better performances, but not faster times, were achieved by Jim Ryun and Kip Keino in the late 1960s. Ryun ran a 3:33.1 on a cinder track at the LA Coliseum in 1967. It was also hot that day. A modern optimally tuned track might be worth 3% and if you adjust Ryun’s performance you get an estimated time of about 3:26 and change.

An even more remarkable performance came a year later when Kip Keino ran 3:34.9 at high altitude to win the gold medal at the Mexico Olympics. Mexico City has an altitude of almost 7,400 feet (2,250m), and the best data suggests that lack of oxygen at that altitude should reduce aerobic power by about 10%. Now Keino was altitude adapted because he had spent his life in the highlands of Kenya, but adaptation only gets you so much. So if we are conservative and adjust his performance by 5% an estimated time just over 3:24 seems “possible”.   Old school “point tables” from the 1960s and early 70s also suggest that the 5000m times run by Dibaba and also her world record holding sister equate to times under 3:50.

Which brings me back to Dibaba and the women’s 1500m record, her time is a little more than 12% slower than what Keino might have run and between 11 and 12% slower than the projection for Ryun. It is just over 11% slower than the best time for men since drug testing got better. There are all sorts of reasons to be suspect of any world record in sports like track and cycling and the East Africans have done their share of doping. However, given the analysis above, Dibaba’s record seems like it is at the edge of believable to me.



10 Responses to “Is Dibaba’s 1500m Record “Believable”?”

  1. July 27th, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    StanAthPhysics says:

    I’m slightly confused as to why you would think records need to be 11-12% slower. Perhaps historically that has been the case, but I cannot believe the part about maximal aerobic power being 11-12% lower in elite women than men. Perhaps this is just an expectation thing, which is largely the restriction for most world records in sports. Look at swimming, a sport where maximal aerobic power is likely a better indicator of time than in running. The 1500m World Record for women is only 6.58% slower for women, and done by a woman pretty much no one suspects of doping (whereas the men’s WR is held by someone who not only is suspected of doping but has tested positive for PEDs).

    Though must runners probably won’t accept it, my guess is that it is a case of lack of training for runners. They cannot train as much as swimmers due to land-based injuries that would result and therefore likely do not maximize their aerobic capacity enough, meaning the statistics about 11-12% difference are purely a result of how much people are training, not a maximum.

  2. August 4th, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    RJRunning says:

    A few things make me suspicious of Dibaba’s WR: 1. Last year, she ran the 1500m in the Diamond League and was getting times around the 4’00” mark, some slightly under. She was sometimes winning but lost to Jenny Simpson on more than one occasion. Dropping almost 10 seconds in a race of this distance is virtually unheard of at this level. 2. Other elite runners have publicly stated that they can’t fathom any woman running the last 800m of a 1500m race in 2’01- which Dibaba did in this race. Breaking 2’00” is a GREAT time for elite women in an 800m race! 3. Just lately in the news there have been some very credible allegations of widespread doping throughout track and field, but most notably in athletes from Russia and Kenya.

    The sad truth is, we may never know and it tarnishes both clean athletes as well as dopers. Her record may be the result of training with men, as she has stated, but until they can perfect testing, this cloud will always be out there.

  3. August 11th, 2015 at 11:22 am

    Andy Renfree says:

    Nice analysis, but I think the suggestion that a 3.24 for Keino was ‘possible ‘ (even if very unlikely) is very over optimistic. He never showed anything like that level of ability anywhere else. More likely is that he was somehow unaffected by the altitude in Mexico (but I have no plausible explanation for this either….)

  4. August 13th, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    John Cobalt says:

    If sea level runners can basically race the 800 unaffected or even slightly aided by altitude (as shown in ’68) then it’s likely that high altitude natives like Keino could run 1500 meters without negative effect, and possibly they could be aided a tiny bit. Anything over 2 min at altitudes of 5000 feet and up seems to clobber sea level athletes. That said, it’s doubtful Keino, even with modern training, had 3:24 potential. Jim Ryun was as talented as anyone who has ever toed the line for the 1500/mile, and I’d put him and Coe, Cram and Aouita as likely able to hit 3:26 with modern facilities and training (Ryun’s training was overdone and misguided, but that was how it was in the dark ages!).

    People seem to scared to believe that the E. Africans would cheat, but with the info that has been emerging the past few weeks and the fact that the E. Africans have avoided out of season testing literally every year since it started, it’s likely that more than a few of them were enjoying more than Gatorade as a supplement. Their numbers of athletes have increased, but the numbers of unreal 5k and 10k times posted has plummeted. But the advantages of out of season PED use can carry over enough to give an athlete the edge. It isn’t even worth it to get into micro-dosing of certain drugs.

    What do I think? I have my doubts about Dibaba’s 1500 record. And that’s simply from looking at the sketchy backgrounds of the people who started the late 80’s running boom in Ethiopia and Kenya.

  5. August 17th, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    someperspective says:

    1) Not sure many close to the sport believe Aouita was clean, even if 1985 likely predates EPO. Everyone and their mother was blood doping in 1984, and Aouita has been known to experiment with what everyone else was doing. Add T, Synacthen, the other anabolics, and the stimulants widespread at the time… and 1985 doesn’t seem likely to give you a good number. Hate to say it, but might also it for guys like Cram, Coe, Ovett as well.

    2) As for Keino’s 3:34.9 converting to 3:24: seems awfully optimistic. Don’t forget Ryun was right behind in that race, and he also failed to sniff 3:30 at sea level. And Ryun had done his share of altitude work too. None of which isn’t to say oxygen doesn’t make a difference, just that 3:24 seems pretty optimistic.

    3) Does it make sense to use the Dibaba times for other distances in support of the point here? Are the drugs more/less useful at one distance?

    I’m still in favor of believing in some of these recent performances, just not entirely sure what the basis for believing should be.

  6. November 13th, 2015 at 3:51 pm

    Nope says:

    In light of recent doping developments, I now have no doubt, Genzebe Dibaba was on the juice for this race. She is not even breathing hard after the finish, in fact she’s dancing and spry as a fiddle.

  7. February 17th, 2016 at 11:20 am

    I was sub 146 says:

    Wish I had seen this earlier. It’s not true that ‘everyone and their mother’ was blood doping in 1984. This is PC prattle designed cut off the very real criticism of the lack of testing that E. Africans and others like the Jamaicans have enjoyed in comparison to their counterparts in Europe, the US, Japan and so on. Just last week video was released with Kenyan athletes (their faces hidden) admitting to widespread doping that is ignored by their Federation. It’s similar to Mr. Epstein’s empty allegations against Alberto Salazar, which were designed to take attention away from the very real info emerging regarding the cheating done in E. Africa.

    Galen Rupp is tested so often that it works out to him being under the gun twice a month. He races men who sometimes manage one or two tests a year, and those tests are in season only.

    Ryun likely could have run under 3:30. He ran 3:33 in 97 degree weather on a lousy dirt track. This was with a slow start and a last 1200 of 2:46, which is apparently still the fastest last 3 laps ever in a 1500. Ryun’s “altitude” training was all of three different sessions that were never longer than 2 weeks a time. Nothing in comparison to today.

    I agree with the poster that says Keino may have been aided by the altitude. Sea level runners suffer no ill effects running the 800 at the altitudes presented by Mexico City and similar locales so it isn’t a stretch to believe that someone from a group of people born and bred at altitude would be fine up through 1500 meters.

    The Kenyans and Ethiopians have a lot of talented people. But their numbers of top runners have been inflated by the ability to avoid out of season testing. I agree the decline in overall numbers of fast 5 and 10 times coming out of E. Africa is due to the fear of better testing.

    How do I know that not everyone was doping back in ’84. Because I was there. I was training with a couple of top middle distance runners who I know were clean. I won’t say who I am, but I will say it’s tiresome to see people attack one group while protecting another for politically based reasons, in some cases this is done for social conditioning.

  8. March 3rd, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    Poster Above is a Biased American Nationalist says:

    PEDs didn’t magically uccur in the 80s, 90s or 00s. And white people don’t have a different moral high ground on using these substances. Amphetamines were around in WW2 on both sides and easily available after. Steroids were around in the 60s and 70s if not earlier.

    Ryun legally took PEDs for his ‘asthma’ medication’ and they were serious PEDs too. I’ve used them, I know. He was also competing in the pre testing era only a couple of years prior to testing. Guess what tests didn’t come in because PEDs weren’t being used. Ryun enters comps with drug testing and suddenly can’t run as fast. Also the talk of him running much faster on synthetic tracks is laughable given the fact he never ran faster on synthetic tracks. A good hot cinder track is near synthetic standard.

    ‘Rupp is tested so often’ – maybe but that doesn’t change the fact that Rupp has been a Salazar PED athlete, ‘legally’ using steroids and asthma drugs and who knows what else. Did you think you can’t beat tests too or get doctor exclusions?

    Every athlete looks to get a boost or advantage

  9. June 5th, 2016 at 1:12 am

    Poster above me is an imbecile says:

    In response to the poster above me:

    “Ryun legally took PEDs for his ‘asthma’ medication’ and they were serious PEDs too.”

    A legitimate medication is not a PED in the same sense that steroids, HGH, or EPO is. What a stupid comment.

    “He was also competing in the pre testing era only a couple of years prior to testing. Ryun enters comps with drug testing and suddenly can’t run as fast.”

    He didn’t run as fast because he got mono in 1968 which caused chronic fatigue syndrome, something that affects you for the rest of your life.

    “Also the talk of him running much faster on synthetic tracks is laughable given the fact he never ran faster on synthetic tracks. A good hot cinder track is near synthetic standard.”

    What’s laughable is that you think dirt tracks aren’t slower. Clearly you’ve never run on one.

    He never ran faster because he was fried after 1968. Dirt tracks are slower. That this fact has gone several meters over your head exposes you as the mental midget you are.


  10. June 20th, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    The Poster Above Me is Correct says:

    The guy posting about Ryun being on drugs is the same hasbarat who tries to sully Ryun and other American / European athletes for reasons that political aware people understand.

    Ryun’s asthma medication consisted of Benadryl truth be told. Hardly a performance enhancing chemical.

    TODAY Jama Aden was arrested for having EPO in his hotel room. However, it’s likely the politics I alluded to will keep Dibaba and others from being suspended. A lesser athlete might be served up as a sacrifice. Might. But the cheats will be let run free. There is a political force far beyond sports that wants certain people to get away with things in order to provide social conditioning for the masses. Laugh now, but it will be plain in the future, as the whole operation is coming apart at the seams.

    Look at was done to the Russians while E. Africans and other anointed groups continue to avoid out of season testing even though dozens have now been caught doping. No double-standards here. Move along.

    Ryun gets a lot of people busy commenting because of the obvious potential, potential that was never fulfilled due to a lot of circumstances. And Ryun is hated by those like Mr. Amphetamine above because he is a great demonstration of a non-anointed individual with amazing talent, something he and his ilk despise.

    Ryun at his peak was as talented as anyone who has ever undertaken the 1500 / mile. Likely more talented than a lot of EPO doped runners who chase rabbits week after week on Mondo surfaces.

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