Raise ‘Em Up

You gonna have to raise up, Brotherman, you gotta raise up outta here.
-Martin Lawrence

For the past decade or so, there has been a lot of talk about raising the height of the women’s 100m hurdles to 36” from the current 33”. Yet, for all the talk, rumor, and opinionating, nothing has happened. So, the height of the hurdles for female hurdlers remains the same for women at the international level as it is for little ninth graders just learning how to put one foot in front of the other. For several reasons, I feel that a raising of the height of the hurdles is long overdue, and I will expound upon this topic in this article.

Raising the height of the hurdles from 33” to 36” for collegiate female hurdlers would be a natural progression that mirrors the raising of the high school boys’ 39-inch hurdles to 42 inches for the collegians. Raising the height of the hurdles as the level of competition increases is a logical thing to do, and, indeed, it is done throughout age-group competition. For the males, the final increase occurs in the transition from high school to college; for the females, the final increase occurs in the transition from eighth grade to ninth grade in high school track, and from age fourteen to age fifteen in USATF Junior Olympic track. Obviously, from age fifteen to nineteen (freshman year of college) a female hurdler, just like a male hurdler, is going to be much stronger, significantly faster, and quite possibly significantly taller. Therefore, the raising of the height would be a logical way to adjust the parameters of the event to the athletic abilities of the athletes who are participating in it.

My biggest issue with the women’s 100m hurdles as it now stands is simply that the race is more geared toward sprinters than it is to hurdlers. When the hurdles are only 33”, it doesn’t take much effort to get over them, so there is very little break in the sprinting stride. In the male 110m race, the best performers possess a combination of skills, of which speed is only one. In the men’s race, it is essential to be flexible, quick, strong, and technically efficient. In the women’s race, good speed is too often enough to get by on. Because of the low height of the hurdles, female hurdlers can get away with too many technical flaws, and, to me, this factor lies at the heart of why the hurdles need to be raised. Too many top-flight women hurdlers can get away with locking out their lead leg knee; too many top-flight women hurdlers can maintain their sprinting posture throughout hurdle clearance without bucking from the lower back; too many top-flight women hurdlers can get away with dropping their trail leg knee without driving it up in front; too many top-flight women hurdlers can get away with swinging their arms across their bodies without causing a major loss of balance. To me, the fact that hurdlers can run fast times without hurdling efficiently verifies the belief that the event itself is flawed, and therefore needs to be amended.

To extend the point made in the above paragraph, raising the height of the women’s hurdles would also force coaches to learn the finer points of efficient hurdle technique, and to teach it to their athletes. For a high school coach, as long as you know that all you have to do is find a fast girl who can three-step without any training, then that’s generally what you’re going to set out to find, and instead of really teaching the girl how to hurdle, you’ll train her with the sprinters and just tell her to sprint over the hurdles on race day. When college coaches get these kinds of hurdlers in their programs, they find that fixing the technical mistakes is an enormously arduous task, as numerous bad habits have been ingrained in the hurdler’s hurdling style. Therefore, the college coach will too often choose to cut his or her losses by letting the mechanical flaws linger, focusing instead on compensating for them by building up the athlete’s speed and strength even more. If the hurdles were higher, such strategies wouldn’t work. Female hurdlers would either have to learn how to hurdle or give up the hurdles; hurdle coaches would either have to learn how to coach the hurdles or just accept the fact that they won’t be able to develop any hurdlers.

One of the arguments against raising the hurdles for the women is that it would take the smaller female hurdler out of the event. The 5’2” and 5’3” women wouldn’t be able to negotiate the higher barriers, which wouldn’t really be fair, especially when considering that some of the best women hurdlers ever (such as Gail Devers and Perdita Felicien) stand only 5’3”. But this argument just doesn’t add up. If the hurdles were 36”, the smaller women would still be able to hurdle well, and they would still be among the best in the event. Check it out: I was doing some math on this subject, and came to an interesting discovery. I think everyone would agree that 5’10” is rather small for a male 110m hurdler. With the exception of Allen Johnson, who stands 5’10”, most world-class 110m hurdlers stand somewhere in the range between 5’11” to 6’2”. For a 5’10” hurdler clearing 42” hurdles, the difference between his height and the height of the hurdle is 28”. Now, check this out: for a 5’3” hurdler clearing a 36” hurdle, the difference between her height and the height of the hurdle is only 27”. In other words, mathematically speaking, it is easier for a 5’3” woman to clear a 36” hurdle than it is for a 5’10” male to clear a 42” hurdle. To put it another way, if Allen Johnson can be the best in the world over 42’s, then Perdita Felicien could be the best in the world over 36’s. She, and those like her, would not be pushed out of the event.

Another point I’d like to make is that raising the height of the women’s hurdles would benefit the taller women – those in the 5’7” or taller range – in that it would enable them to actually develop a hurdling rhythm, as they wouldn’t have as much of a problem with getting too crowded between the obstacles. We all know that many of the taller 110m hurdlers over the years (such as 6’3” Greg Foster, 6’4” Reggie Torian, and 6’7” Florian Schwarthoff, for example) have had trouble fitting their three steps between the hurdles without crashing. Taller hurdlers don’t have room to get their legs moving; that’s why you don’t see many world-class male hurdlers over 6’2”. So check this one out: for a 5’7” woman clearing a 33” inch hurdle, the difference between her height and the height of the hurdle is 34”, which is the exact same difference for a 6’4” male hurdler clearing a 42” hurdle! In other words, mathematically speaking, a 5’7” female hurdler would have just as much trouble fitting in her three steps between the hurdles as a 6’4” male would. Considering that the distance between hurdles is 8.5 meters (9.3 yards) for females and 9.14 meters (10 yards) for males, this point still more or less holds true. And last I checked, 5’7” isn’t really that tall.

A final observation worthy of note is that back in 1968, the women’s race was changed from 80 meters to 100 meters, and the height of the hurdles was raised from 30” to 33”. So raising the height again wouldn’t be revolutionary; it would just be a way of acknowledging the fact that the event has continued to evolve, and that the athletes who participate in the event have evolved – arguably to the point where they have outgrown the event.

© 2005 Steve McGill

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