The women’s shot put final at the 2016 Olympics was quite entertaining. There was a whiff of David-and-Goliath as Michelle Carter (USA) knocked off the favorite, Valerie Adams (New Zealand), with her last put. That last put (20.63m, 67′ 8.2″) was a personal best and American record for Ms. Carter.
Valerie Adams was almost born to put shot. She won the World Youth and World Junior Championships, and since 2007 has dominated the World Championships and Olympics. Between 2010 and 2014, she had a 54-meet win streak. The Adams family is noted in New Zealand for their sports genes; Valerie is 6’4″ tall and weighs in at 260lbs. Her brother Steven plays in the NBA, standing at 7’0″, weighing 255lbs. A couple other brothers played professional basketball in New Zealand.
To say that the shot-put final was a David-and-Goliath contest is stretching it, though. Michelle Carter’s father Michael won the silver medal in shot put at the 1984 Olympics and went on to be a Pro-Bowl and Super-Bowl-champion nose tackle in the NFL. Michelle won the 2004 World Juniors and was 5th in the 2012 Olympics. She’s 5’9″ and weighs 300lbs, while Dad was listed at 6’2″ and 285lbs.
All this is to say that two badasses fought it out in the 2016 final. The world record isn’t always set in the Olympics, of course, but given these two I idly wondered how far off they were from it. I expected that Valerie Adams had set it a few years back, or something like that. Nope! They weren’t even close, this year’s winning put being exactly 2m short of the world record (that’s a lot).
What the heck is going on?
If you look at the history of shot put, some strange trends emerge.
(The “dots” in the chart are the actual winning or record puts for the given year; the lines merely connect adjacent dots. Only one world record value (the largest) is recorded in any year in which it was broken; for example, the women’s world record was broken 5 times in 1969, but only the last value (20.43m) is recorded for 1969.)
There’s a lot going on here, let’s break it down:
- No points are cut off on the graph: women’s records only started to be kept after men’s, and shot put wasn’t an Olympic event for women until 1948.
- The gap in records between 1936-1948 is real, and for the obvious reason (WWII).
- Both men’s and women’s performance increases quite a bit starting around the mid-to-late 50’s. It’s hard to say how anomalous the increase is.
- From 1976 until 1987, the gap between men’s and women’s world records closed, and for 8 years in that time the women’s record was further than the men’s.
- The women’s Olympic winning put in 1984 is a precipitous drop from preceding and succeeding years. (The Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Olympics.)
- Performance plateaued in the late 80’s, and since then has fallen off a cliff. Neither men nor women have come within shouting distance of the world records since then.
- Men’s and women’s performances have diverged significantly again since the late 80’s.
Veeeeery interesting. Of course, if you know anything about Olympic history, you’re jumping up and down yelling “doping” or “steroids” by now. And you’re definitely right. In the mid 50’s, anabolic steroids started to become available and be used in some sporting events. In the mid-70’s, the International Olympic Committee banned steroids and started testing for them. And in the late 80’s and early 90’s, steroid testing finally started to become somewhat effective. You don’t have to squint too hard to match that timeline up with the results plotted above.
Steroids explain the discrepancy between recent performance and the peak in the late 80’s, but what explains women’s records closing the gap on men’s and then falling back significantly below, post-‘roids? First of all, men put a 7.26kg shot, while women put a 4kg shot. So the absolute distances aren’t directly comparable. But looking at the relative trend, it seems that the juicing that the elite women were doing improved their performance more compared to men (who presumably were on the same juicing programs).
So now, it’s hard to guess at shot-put performance trends. Will men and/or women ever get back near the results from the ‘roid era? Seems an open question.
Concretely, if you look closely at the graph, there’s a data point missing for the 2016 men’s Olympics — I write this early in the week of August 15th 2016, and the men’s final is later this week. We can pretty confidently predict that the winning put won’t be anywhere near the world record. But there’s a good chance that someone will cross the 22m barrier this year, legitimately!
UPDATE: the men’s results from the 2016 Olympics are in … and the 22m barrier was smashed! Ryan Crouser (USA) threw 22.52m, breaking the ‘roid-era Olympic Record in the process.
I don’t know of any other sports that have been thrown as far out of whack by steroids as shot put — others I’m familiar with like 100m dash have had cheaters, but the long-term progressions have been pretty stable — but admittedly I haven’t done any systematic analysis. Do you know of any examples more egregious that this?
 Watch the excellent documentary 9.79* to learn about this era.
 I didn’t try to break down doping by country; pretty much all countries cheated. It seems that the Soviet Union may have started systematic doping earlier, and evidence is that doping was more prevalent among Soviet women. But the current men’s world record, for example, is held by an American who’s both an admitted and caught steroid user.
UPDATE: edited to note that men and women put shots of different mass.