An Amazing World Record Runs Into a Question: Was It Too Amazing?
Tobi Amusan of Nigeria set a world record in the women’s 100-meter hurdles on Sunday at the world track and field championships in Eugene, Ore. That by itself was not surprising: World records often fall at big events, after all.
What raised eyebrows, though, was not the result but the margin by which Amusan broke the record, and the sheer number of personal and national records set by competitors in the event.
The fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and eighth-placed runners in Amusan’s heat, a semifinal, also ran their best times ever. The other three runners ran their best times of the year.
Even Amusan looked stunned when she saw her time — 12.12 seconds — on a stadium scoreboard.
Amusan’s time of 12.12 broke the old record of 12.20, held by the American Kendra Harrison since 2016, by 0.08 of a second — a huge drop in an event often decided by the finest of margins. The four most recent world records in the event, for example, broke the previous marks by 0.01, 0.04, 0.01 and 0.03 seconds.
The last time the record was lowered by such a large margin was in 1980.
The confluence of fleet times made some wonder if something was wrong with the timing system, or even with the wind gauge, which when the race began showed a tail wind of 0.924 meters per second, well within the legal limit of 2.0.
Could all of hurdlers have run such personal-best races at the same time? At least one expert wasn’t so sure.
The 200- and 400-meter legend Michael Johnson, who was working the worlds as a BBC television commentator, led the charge of doubt over the times, which the meet’s own social media accounts labeled, apparently unironically, “unbelievable.”
“I don’t believe 100h times are correct,” he wrote on Twitter. “World record broken by .08! 12 PBs set. 5 National records set.”
Johnson noted that at least one of the runners, Cindy Sember of Britain, had suggested she felt she had been running slow. “All athletes looked shocked,” Johnson added.
(In the equivalent men’s race, the 110-meter hurdles, there was only one personal best in the semifinals and one in the final.)
Amusan’s time was unusually fast even for her: 0.28 of a second faster than her previous best time of 12.40, set in the heats on Saturday. That improvement represented a staggering margin in such a short race.
The second and third semifinals of the women’s 100 meters also had a lot of fast times, although not as many as the first. In the second semifinal, the top five finishers ran or equaled their personal bests. The third semifinal had two personal bests and three more season bests.
And comparing the speedy semifinal times to the final two hours later is difficult, because the wind was at the runners’ backs for that race, at 2.524 meters per second. Amusan won the gold medal in an even faster time — 12.06 seconds — but that mark will not count as a record because it was deemed wind-aided.
While her semifinal time was startling, there was no questioning that Amusan, 25, was capable of winning the championship. After capturing an N.C.A.A. title at Texas-El Paso, she won the gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2021 Diamond League final. She placed fourth in the final at the Tokyo Olympics last year.
But perhaps because her gold was the first for Nigeria in any event at a world championships, there was plenty of pushback on Twitter to Johnson’s skepticism, with some accusing him of bias against Amusan, an African athlete who beat a record held by an American.
After briefly mixing it up with several critics, Johnson eventually dismissed the accusations of bias, writing: “As a commentator my job is to comment. In questioning the times of 28 athletes (not 1 athlete) by wondering if the timing system malfunctioned, I was attacked, accused of racism, and of questioning the talent of an athlete I respect and predicted to win. Unacceptable. I move on.”
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