Some Thoughts about Wind Readings

A phenomenon that is unique to the sprint and hurdle events in track and field is that of wind-aided times. The current rule is, if a race is run with a wind reading above 2.0 meters per second, the times in that race cannot qualify as records of any kind. But wind readings aren’t used for any other purpose. Should they be? This article will explore that question in some detail.

I guess the trouble I’m having has to do with the fact that wind readings aren’t considered in determining who the qualifiers from preliminary rounds will be in major meets. It seems to me that they should be.

Let’s say you have a meet where, in the hurdles, there are two semi-final heats. The top three places in each heat qualify for the final, plus the next two fastest times. Let’s say the athletes in the first heat run into a negative wind of -0.5, and the athletes in the second heat have a tailwind of +0.5. Let’s say the 4th and 5th place finishers in heat one run 14.48 and 14.49 respectively. In the second heat, the 4th and 5th place finishers run 14.43 and 14.45 respectively. Based on the times, the two athletes in heat two qualify for the finals, while the two athletes in heat one are left out in the cold.

That’s how it goes. But if the wind readings were factored in, it could very well be that the two athletes in heat one actually ran faster than the two athletes in heat two, and therefore should be moving on to the finals. But these athletes have no recourse. It was just their bad luck that they ran in the heat that faced the headwind.

At the NCAA West Regionals last weekend, there were six preliminary heats of the women’s 100 hurdles. The wind readings for these races ranged from +3.8 (heat two) to -2.1 (heat six). The top three in each heat, plus the next six fastest times, would qualify for the next round. Seven of the eight athletes in heat two qualified, whereas only one athlete in heat six got in on time. In heat four (-1.8 wind), only the automatic qualifiers made it to the next round. When wind readings can fluctuate that drastically in the same round of a single event, then it’s quite obvious that having the good fortune of being in a heat with a strong tailwind can play a significant role in getting you through to the next round.

I’m no expert when it comes to the math, but I would have to think that it wouldn’t be too hard to convert all times to what they would be with a 0.00 wind reading. Doing this would not only make advancement through rounds more fair, but it would also serve the purpose of evening out the record books.

Here’s what I’m thinking: Drop the whole idea of “illegal” winds. That just sounds silly anyway. What is an illegal wind? What are you gonna do, give the wind a ticket for blowing too hard? The wind is the wind. Track is an outdoor sport. So wind will always be a factor. So, for example, instead of saying that Roger Kingdom’s 12.85 back in the ‘80s doesn’t count as a world record because he ran it “illegally,” with a wind reading of +3.5 (or something like that), convert his time to what it would be with a 0.0 reading, so we get a clear idea of how fast he would’ve run without the aid of the wind. At the very least, convert it to what it would be with a 2.0 wind, so we can tell if it’s a “legit” record or not.

In regards to records, I don’t like the fact that athletes have to hope for a “legal” wind when they run their best races. Using performance-enhancing drugs is illegal. Runnng with a strong wind as your back isn’t. I’m not sure how it’s determined how much wind is too much – how much wind gives athletes too much of an advantage. But if 2.0 is the standard we’re going by, then, for record purposes, converting plus-2.0 times to 2.0 would be better than just dismissing windy races as “illegal.”

The thing about it is, athletes are very aware of wind readings. We live in a world now where races and places are decided by hundredths and even thousandths of seconds. Athletes know that catching the right wind at the right time can be the difference between racing in the finals and watching them from the bleachers. So, just like some of the major team sports have adopted instant replay review in order to “get things right,” it seems to me that adding wind reading to the criteria for determining who advances from one round to the next, and what the state, national, or world record “truly” is, would be a logical step forward for the sport.

Another thought worth mentioning, in regards to advancing through the rounds, would be to base it solely on place. That way, advancing comes down to how well you compete in your heat. The problem with that, of course, is that if you’re in a really fast heat, you could get bumped out even if you ran faster than athletes in slower heats. But it could be argued that such incongruities exist in all sports. In the NBA and NFL, one conference is always stronger than the other, so weaker teams in a weaker conference can make the playoffs while a stronger team in a stronger conference cannot. This solution would at least give athletes a clear knowledge of what they have to do heading into the race. Of course, there’d need to be an appropriate number of heats each round so that the ensuing round always has eight athletes per heat. So, a three-heat semi wouldn’t work. If there are 24 athletes in the semis, then have four heats of six athletes, with the top two finishers in each heat advancing to the final.

Finally, let me throw this thought out there: it might make sense to abandon wind readings altogether. The logic here is that all races are either wind-aided or wind-inhibited to some degree. So if you catch a wind that’s blowing strongly in your favor, more power to you. If you ran that fast, you ran that fast. And if you set a record, it counts as a record. The problem with this approach though is that it can lead to some inflated personal bests and unrealistic expectations regarding how fast you can run consistently. Records, too, would most likely be inflated. But hey, thought I’d just throw it out there.

© 2011 Steve McGill

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