What is the World Record of Athletics?
Deciding the winner via the Mercier Scoring Tables

J. R. Mureika
Department of Physics, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON Canada M5S 1A7

Published: Athletics: Canada's National Track and Field / Running Magazine (April/May 2000)

Another century come and gone. Is it number 21 already?? What a century of Athletics it has been, too. Considering that the number of athletic records kept prior to 1900 is most likely miniscule, it seems appropriate to say that the 20th Century was the only century of Athletics so far.

These lists come a bit late in the game, what with the pre-2k innundation of "top" rankings, but nonetheless better late than never. As previously discussed, the Mercier Scoring Tables [1,2] are used as a statistical method of cross-event and gender-comparsion. So, it seems the natural thing to do is to compare the World Records, as they stood at the turn of the Clock, to determine who is the best Track and Field Athlete of all-time. That is, what is the World Record of Athletics?

Of course, before any number crunching is done, countless names spring to mind as to who might hold the crown. But, surprises are in store. Since the lists are not flawless, the statistical methodology not foolproof, but it's mostly an unbiased framework. We can only hope to trust these figures so far, but at the very least they'll provide some coffee-table discussions over the next little while.

Table 1 and Table 2 show the associated scores for the standing men's and women's World Records, as of January 2000. The listed events include only those officially recognized by the IAAF, although the Mile and 3000m are thrown in due to their strong presence in some key high performance competitions. Table 3 shows the overall rankings, from highest to lowest score. Ties are broken by considering the first decimal place (recall that scores are always rounded up, to ensure the maximum possible points are obtained). Surprisingly, all records considered are grouped between 988 and 1079 points, with an (unbiased) mean score of 1031, and a median of 1024. The standard deviation of the distribution is 26.04. The last three columns give the following information: the minimum performance required to achieve a ``maximum'' score of 1079, the mean performance (score of 1031), and the median performance (1024). The mean and median performances for men only are 1025.8 and 1022, while for women these values are respectively 1037.2 and 1037.5. This suggests that either the tables favor higher women's scores, or that women are generally better at their events than men!

Perhaps the most striking result of this comparison is the tie for top seed: the Women's Shot Put and the Heptathlon. Aparently, along with Natalya Lisovskaya, Jackie Joyner-Kersee really was the best athlete of all time! Performances commonly hailed as athletic feats of wonder (Florence Griffith-Joyner's and Michael Johnson's sprint dominating WRs, for example), rank not far behind, as does Mike Powell's long jump record: truly Beamonesque! Curiously, benchmarks such as MJ's 43.18s and Maurice Greene's (second-hand) 100m WR gain merely 1028 and 1015 points, respectively, with mean-score performances of 43.13s and 9.74s! In fact, note that for particular events, the mean/median performance are commensurate with the top world performances other than the WR (men's 200m, women's 100m and 200m, etc...).

The overall comparison also suggests certain weaknesses of the method, and help to indicate areas of improvement, either statistically (my problem) or athletically (theirs!). New events such as the women's Pole Vault may yet to have developed the performance rankings to make the scoring overly effective. The 110mH, men's marathon, women's Javelin, and women's Hammer Throw WRs are also curiously low-scoring. Granted, since the scoring tables are based on the weighted overall event rankings for the past 5 years, this may simply indicate a strength/weakness contrast in an event between consecutive years (i.e. some years may show stronger performances, and if these are weighted higher than others it can serve to skew the scoring).

It should be noted that the relay events (4x100m, 4x400m) are low, due to the fitting process. This is due to the fact that the 1st place rank for a particular year is assigned the equivalnent score as the 5th place avgerage for other events (due to the general lack of world-class relay performances in a given year). It could be arugued that since a relay is a team effort, the associated score should not be as high as for an individual event.

[1] J. R. Mureika, D. Covington, and D. Mercier, "The 1999 Mercier Scoring Tables: A How-To Guide" (submitted to Athletics: Canada's National Track and Field / Running Magazine)
[2] J. R. Mureika, D. Covington, and D. Mercier, "The 1999 Mercier Scoring Tables", Official Athletics Canada release (in press)

Table 1: Men's World Records Mercier Scores; mean = 1025.8, median = 1022

Event Performance Athlete Score
Long Jump 8.95 (0.3)Mike Powell USA1069
200m 19.32 (0.4)Michael Johnson USA1069
Javelin 98.48 Jan Zelezny CZE1067
Shot Put 23.12 Randy Barnes USA1048
Discus74.08Jurgen Schult GDR1047
High Jump2.45Javier Sotomayor CUB1040
10000m 26:22.75Haile Gebrselassie ETH1040
400m 43.18Michael Johnson USA1028
20kW 1:17:25.6 Bernardo Segura MEX1026
50kW3:40:57.9Thierry Toutain FRA1026
5000m 12:39.36Haile Gebrselassie ETH1024
3000m SC 7:55.72 Bernard Barmasai KEN1023
Triple Jump 18.29 (1.3)Jonathan Edwards GBR1023
1500m 3:26.00Hicham El Guerrouj MAR1021
800m 1:41.11Wilson Kipketer DEN1020
400mH 46.78Kevin Young USA1019
Hammer86.74Yuriy Sedykh URS1018
Decathlon 8994 Tomas Dvorak CZE1016
Pole Vault 6.14 ASergey Bubka UKR1016
Mile 3:43.13 Hicham El Guerrouj MAR1015
3000m 7:20.67Daniel Komen KEN1015
100m 9.79 (0.1)Maurice Greene USA1015
110mH 12.91 (0.5)Colin Jackson GBR1003
4 x 400 2:54.20 United States USA999
4 x 100 37.40United States USA993
Marathon2:05:42Khalid Khannouchi MAR990

Table 2: Women's World Records Mercier Scores; mean = 1037.2, median = 1037.5

Shot Put22.63Natalya Lisovskaya URS1079
Heptathlon 7291Jackie Joyner-Kersee USA1079
100m10.49 (0)Florence Griffith-Joyner USA1077
200m21.34 (1.3)Florence Griffith-Joyner USA1068
Discus 76.80 Gabriele Reinsch GDR1068
3000m 8:06.11Junxia Wang CHN1066
10000m29:31.78Junxia Wang CHN1065
400m47.60 Marita Koch GDR1064
Long Jump7.52 (1.4)Galina Chistyakova RUS1064
Triple Jump15.50 (0.9)Inessa Kravets UKR1048
100mH12.21 (0.7)Yordanka Donkova BUL1038
High Jump2.09Stefka Kostadinova BUL1038
1500m3:50.46 Yunxia Qu CHN1037
800m1:53.28Jarmila Kratochvilova TCH1027
Marathon2:20:43Tegla Loroupe KEN1026
400mH52.61 Kim Batten USA1021
4 x 400m 3:15.17USSR URS1020
Mile 4:12.56Svetlana Masterkova RUS1012
4 x 100m41.37German Dem Rep1009
5000m14:28.09Bo Jiang CHN1008
Pole Vault4.60 Emma George AUS
Stacy Dragila USA
10km Walk41:56.23Nadezhda Ryashkina URS995
Hammer76.07 Mihaela Melinte ROM992
Javelin68.19Trine Solberg-Hattestad NOR988

Table 3: Overall Ranking, Athletics World Records

Event WR ScoreMax Performance (1079)Mean (1031) Median Perf. (1024)
Shot Put (W)1079 (1078.6)22.62m21.24m 21.04m
Heptathlon 1079 (1078.1) 7291 69206866
100m (W)1077 10.48s 10.69s10.70s
200m (M)1069 (1068.2) 19.25s 19.59s 19.64s
Long Jump (M)1069 9.01m 8.74m8.70m
Discus (W)1068 (1067.2) 77.97m72.68m72.13m
200m (W)1068 (1067.1)21.23s21.69m21.76s
Javelin (M)1067 99.81m94.19m93.39m
3000m (W)10668:02.598:15.588:17.49
10000m (W)106529:18.7630:06.81 30:14.04
Long Jump (W)1064 (1063.8) 7.61m7.33m 7.29m
400m (W)1064 (1063.6)47.25s48.41s48.58s
Shot Put (M)1048 (1047.3)23.94m22.67m22.49m
Triple Jump (W)1048 (1047.1)15.88m15.30m15.21m
Discus (M)104776.87m72.61m72.00m
High Jump (M)1040 (1039.2)2.50m2.43m2.42m
10000m (M)1040 (1039.1)25:55.3926:29.3126:34.38
1500m (W)10373:45.573:51.313:52.17
Triple Jump (M)1028 (1027.8)18.90m18.32m18.24m
400m (M) 1028 (1027.7)42.30s43.13s43.26s
800m (W)10271:50.371:53.101:53.50
50kW (M)1026 (1025.6) 3:35:433:40:273:41:09
20kW (M)1026 (1025.4) 1:15.371:17:151:17:30
Marathon (W)1026 (1025.4)2:16:352:20:202:20:54
5000m (M)102412:21.4012:37.1112:39.46
3000m SC (M) 1023 (1022.7)7:42.91 7:53.987:55.63
400mH (W)1021 (1020.6)50.97s52.33s52.53s
1500m (M)1021 (1020.5)3:21.043:25.163:25.78
800m (M)10201:38.681:40.651:40.94
4 x 400m (W)10203:09.163:14.063:14.79
400mH (M)101945.43s 46.51s46.67s
Hammer (M)101893.65m88.17m87.39m
Pole Vault (M)1016 (1015.5)6.52m6.23m6.19m
Decathlon1016 (1015.3) 959991369069
3000m (M) 1015 (1014.9)7:08.667:17.737:19.08
Mile (M)1015 (1014.5)3:37.193:41.653:42.32
100m (M)1015 (1014.4)9.59s9.74s9.76s
Mile (W)10124:03.784:10.004;10.94
4 x 100m (W)100940.07s40.96s41.09s
5000m (W)100813:55.3614:17.4714:20.79
Pole Vault (W)10045.03m4.75m4.71m
4 x 400 (M)9992:48.292:51.792:52.31
10km Walk (W)99546:27.4548:00.5948:14.69
4 x 100 (M)99336.2236.87s36.97s
Hammer (W)99286.08m80.45m79.64m
Marathon (M)9902:00.442:03:222:03:46
Javelin (W)98877.28m72.40m71.70m