Although my memory for such things isn’t terribly reliable, I am pretty sure that the old cinder track at my high school included an extension on both ends of the home straight that made it possible to run the 220 yard race as a single long sprint in one direction. In fact, I have a memory of an older teammate winning that race in what seemed like a world-class time but was probably around 23 seconds. The point is, the race was straight and the competitors started next to each other, as they did in the 100 yards, not staggered.
These days, the 200m is always run around a turn and we’ve become completely used to seeing the runners sprinkled around the far turn, each one fretting privately about “making up the stagger” on runners in front and outside of them, or “holding off” unseen pursuers from the inside lanes. It’s a lonely and anxious race, the 200m, and it’s all because of that damned curve.
Recently, I’ve become obsessed with another odd thing about the modern 200m. Basically, if the wind is blowing, it’s not a fair race. If the wind is strong, the difference between running in lane 1 and lane 8 is surprisingly large, and can easily amount to a several hundredths of a second or more. Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about this? Is it because the 200m is subject to wind effects that are maddeningly complex, and thus, ignored completely? Although protocol demands that a wind gauge be used for the 200m, the wind reading is a very poor way of capturing the complexity of how the wind actually assists or impedes the runners. The more I think about this, the more my head hurts.
Let’s review: the 200m is run in lanes, with each runner staggered so that the distance from start to finish is the same 200m. Each runner starts at a different point along the curve, and hence, is facing in a different direction than the other runners at each point along the curve.
The wind gauge is placed along the final straight, which means that it measures the strength of the wind in that direction only. A tailwind is expressed as a positive number, with units of meters per second. A headwind is expressed as a negative number. For the race to be considered legal for record purposes, the measured wind speed cannot exceed 2.0 m/s at any point once runners have entered the homestretch. If you remember your track geometry, you will remember that the final straight of a standard IAAF track is 84.39 meters. And how is wind speed measured for the first 115.61 meters of a 200m race? Surprisingly, it’s not measured at all.
Let’s leave aside the fact that wind speed and direction are variable, and freak gusts might help or hinder runners without ever being detected by the current method of wind measurement. The real scandal is that even in the case of a steady wind that blows in a constant direction, the impact on the runners varies significantly depending on lane assignment. before describing that impact, I want to state that most of the information that follows is from a paper by physicist J.R. Mureika (“The Legality of Wind and Altitude Assisted Performances in the Sprints“), and a brilliantly simple calculator for determining the impact of wind speed and altitude on the 200m for each lane (200m Wind/Altitude Conversion).
Let’s consider two female H.S. runners of exactly equal ability over 200m, one of them starting in Lane 1 and the other starting in Lane 8. Let’s further stipulate that they are competing at or near sea level and that on this particular day, they run identical efforts that would be equivalent to 26.00 on a windless day. How does the presence of a headwind or tailwind affect their actual results? To keep things simple, lets further assume that the direction of any wind is parallel to the final straight, so a headwind is directly in their faces as they finish, and a tailwind is directly at their backs.
For a -1.0 m/s wind, the actual finish times would be:
Lane 1: 26.07 (26.063) Lane 8: 26.09 (26.089)
For a -2.0 m/s wind, the actual finish times would be:
Lane 1: 26.16 (26.157) Lane 8: 26.21 (26.209)
That’s a significant disadvantage (0.052) for the runner in the outside lane! But the difference is in the opposite direction (and slightly wider) when there is a tailwind.
For a 1.0 m/s wind, the actual finish times would be:
Lane 1: 25.93 (25.922) Lane 8: 25.90 (25.893)
For a 2.0 m/s wind, the actual finish times would be:
Lane 1: 25.88 (25.875) Lane 8: 25.82 (25.817)
For a 3.0 m/s wind (not unheard of), the advantage to Lane 8 compared to Lane 1 is about a tenth of a second. Maybe that doesn’t seem like much to you, but I know some high school sprinters who would beg to differ.
I ran some numbers for world-class men’s 200m times, and while the advantages/disadvantages aren’t quite as wide, in theory, they’re enough to change the place order of championship races. Fortunately, the top runners are clustered together in the inner lanes, with the outer lanes given to those with slower qualifying times. So in practice, it would take a huge wind and a very unlucky runner to lose out because of this effect.
Nevertheless, I find it somehow unsatisfying that this inequality is allowed to exist, unexamined and unchallenged. Should we eliminate the 200m? Run it on straight tracks? Or only run it when there is no wind? Most likely, the 200m will continue in its present form and everyone in the stadium will be fine with it, except me, of course, and maybe after reading this, you, too.