Opinion 6th August 2015

Why are the Russians getting slower?

It is a generally accepted rule of human development that as time marches on, athletes get bigger, faster and stronger. World records are broken, and new, younger heroes replace the old masters. So why have Russian athletes got slower in 400m and middle distance events during the last ten years?

The Russian Athletics Championships concluded in Cheboksary yesterday, a city of half a million people almost 700km east of Moscow. The times were amongst the slowest recorded in the last ten years. The men’s 400m winner, Maksim Dyldin, recorded the slowest time since 2005. His time of 46.04 was over a second slower than his victory in the 2012 Russian Championships – an Olympic year. That is perhaps to be expected as he is getting older, but where are the younger challengers to his position?

The 2015 women’s 400m winner, Kseniya Aksyonova, was only marginally quicker than last year’s winner, but was over two seconds slower than the 2012 winner, Antonina Krivoshapka. The 2015 and 2014 Russian Championships represent, respectively, the second slowest and slowest times over the last ten years for Russian 400m women.

The 2015 women’s 800m winner, Anastasiya Bazdyreva, recorded the slowest time over the last ten years at the Russian Championships. With a time of a second over two minutes, she was almost six seconds slower than 2008’s winner, Yelena Soboleva. The men’s 800m, won by Konstantin Tolokonnikov, was the fastest since Yuri Borzakovski’s 1:45.45 time at the 2007 Championships in Tula.

In the 1500m, Valentin Smirnov recorded the slowest time of the last ten years, over ten seconds slower than the time he recorded when he also won the 2011 Championships. Tatyana Tomashova’s time of 4:04.48 was the second slowest women’s time of the last ten years, eclipsed only by a freak time of 4:08.65 in 2007.

In the 5000m, Yelena Korobkina recorded the slowest time of the last ten years. At this distance, women’s times have been getting steady slower since 2008, when Liliya Shobukhova recorded a time of 14:23.75, over a minute faster than the 15:57.59 recorded by Korobkina this year. At 5000m, the men’s times have remained fairly constant, however the quickest times were recorded in the 2012 Olympic year by Andrey Safronov – an Olympic year – and by Pavel Shapovalov in 2005, just after the Athens 2004 Olympics.

Doping?

The 2012 and 2008 Olympic years seem to have a major effect on times at all the distances studied, as our graphs show. That is perhaps to be expected, as athletes hone their performances to make the Olympic teams. However, doping has also had an effect on some of the times. It is interesting to note that in general, performances got consistently slower after 2009, when the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) was introduced.

Yelena Soboleva, the 2008 800m winner, was suspended following her selection for the 2008 Beijing Olympics after doping test irregularities were discovered. On 20 October 2008, Soboleva and six other Russian athletes received two-year doping bans for manipulating their doping samples.

Amongst those was Yulia Fomenko, who recorded a time of 1:57.07 in the 800m at the 2007 Russian Championships in Tula, three seconds quicker than the 2015 winner. She also recorded a time of 3:97.80 in the 1500m at Tula in 2005, almost seven seconds quicker than the 2015 time.

Another name that may be familiar to many is Liliya Shobukhova, who was banned for two years in April 2014. The times featured for the 5000m in 2005, 2007 and 2008 are all hers but by 2009, she had moved on to the 10,000m. Her 2007 win was over ten seconds ahead of her nearest rival and in 2005, her and second finisher Alla Zhiliaieva finished over 15 seconds ahead of third place.

Conclusion

The fact that Russian middle distance athletes appear to have got slower during the last couple of years could be viewed as evidence that although Russian athletics had an issue with doping in the past, it is now beginning to resolve that issue. It is perhaps no surprise, given that the focus of the anti-doping world has fallen on Russia after a December 2014 German documentary alleged that systematic doping was taking place in the country. In its reply to ARD and the Sunday Times’ recent analysis of its historical blood data, published on 4 August, the IAAF alluded to the fact that Russia may have had an issue with doping in the past.

It referred to the publication of a 2011 study based on the same data analysed by ARD and the Sunday Times, which showed ‘an estimated prevalence of blood doping in the target population of 14%, with significant variations between countries from 1% to 48%. If the top three countries, including Russia, are removed from the prevalence data, the estimated average prevalence reduces from 14% to approximately 7%.’ It also pointed out that since 2011, it has pursued 63 doping cases on the basis of athlete biological passport (ABP) profiles ‘considered as atypical’ by an independent expert panel. It added that 31 of these were from Russia. Analysis of the full results of the last ten years, all of which are available on the Russian Athletics federation’s (VFLA) internet site, would likely cast suspicion on those who finished second or third to a known doper – especially if they finished a long way ahead of the rest of the field.

Anti-doping organisations spend a large amount of money on testing – perhaps more room needs to be made for detailed results analysis and targeted testing of athletes who recorded unusually fast times, or finished a close second to a known doper, but well ahead of the rest of the field. In many countries, of course, this is already done. Article 5.8.3 of the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code contained a new requirement for anti-doping organisations to actively investigate any intelligence that may assist in anti-doping. With budgets tight (WADA and UKAD have recently reported that funding its flat), result analysis could perhaps prove cheaper than relying on testing, the costs of which are ever increasing.

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