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Baby with the bath-water: Athletics records subject to delete button

Last week, the drug-related sports news was about Maria Sharapova. Specifically, her return to tennis after being banned for a year. This week it’s about several track-and-field athletes. Not because they have tested positive for drug use and have been punished, as Sharapova was. No, they’re in the news because they set various world records before 2005—ones that still stand—and there’s a proposal to delete those records from the books.

Sounds a little crazy? Well, it’s just the way things will be if this proposal from European Athletics—the governing body for the sport in Europe—is accepted. In essence, the reasoning goes like this: Justified or not, there’s a near-permanent cloud of suspicion over athletic performances. As the EA team that came up with this recommendation says in their report, “The sad reality is that there are records on the books at the World, Area (continental) and national levels in which people in the sport, the media and the public do not have full and complete confidence.”

A record that lacks this public confidence, they suggest, is meaningless.

After considering various measures, the team decided the most credible one would be what they called “The 1913 option”. This refers to the early days of the International Amateur Athletics Foundation (IAAF, the world body) and its goal, stated at its second Congress in Berlin in 1913, to lay out the parameters under which records are set and recognized. In that spirit, the EA proposed a new set of criteria for recognizing records. Two, in particular, will shake up the record books:

Florence Griffith-Joyner set the 100m and 200m records in 1988. Photo: Getty Images

■ “Records can only be set by athletes who have had a specified number of doping control tests (number to be agreed) in the previous 12 months.

■ Part of the doping control sample for any record performances must be stored and available for re-testing for 10 years.”

The implication is simple, yet enormous. This level of regulation of drug-testing in athletics has only been in force since 2005. Thus all records from before then will no longer be recognized.

Imagine the consequences of this. Florence Griffith-Joyner set 100m and 200m records (10.49 and 21.34 seconds, respectively) in 1988. Mike Powell set the long jump record (8.95m) in 1991. Paula Radcliffe set the marathon record (2:15.25) in 2003. Hicham el Guerrouj set the 1500m record (3:26) in 1998 (he actually stands to “lose” four other world records). Javier Sotomayor set the high jump record (2.45m) in 1993. Yuliya Pechonkina set the 400m hurdles record (52.34s—this is PT Usha’s event) in 2003.

All these still stand.

You get the idea: it’s a long list. About half the 146 recognized IAAF world records were set before 2005. If the EA’s proposed rules are accepted by the IAAF, all those will be taken off the record books on 1 January 2018. These men and women will be referred to as “former” record holders. And as you can imagine, the prospect has angered many of them.

Radcliffe, for example, feels “hurt”, and this “cowardly” proposal “damages my reputation and dignity”. Clean athletes, she said, should not be “suffering for the actions of cheats”.

Hicham el Guerrouj. Photo: Getty Images

Colin Jackson, who set the indoor 60m hurdles record of 7.30s in 1994, expressed his anguish this way: “People have come close to [my record] but not close enough, and now it looks like it’ll be lifted off by a delete button on a laptop.”

Mike Powell, whose 1991 effort broke another long-standing and remarkable record—Bob Beamon’s 1968 leap of 8.90m—called the move “disrespectful, an injustice and a slap in the face”. He probably spoke for a lot of athletes with what he went on to say: “There are some records out there that are kind of questionable, I can see that, but mine is the real deal. It’s a story of human heart and guts, one of the greatest moments in the sport’s history.” There’s added poignancy to that when you consider that Beamon’s legendary feat would also be taken off the books.

For its part, the EA acknowledged that many athletes would be hurt by their proposal. But if they were trying to persuade them of the necessity of doing this, the leader of the EA team, Pierce O’Callaghan, probably did not do such persuasive efforts any good. Under the new regulations, he said, some record-holders would be “collateral damage”.

What are we to make of all this? I’m honestly conflicted.

For one thing, there has always been doubt cast on certain athletic performances, especially if they are far ahead of other contemporary performances. After Florence Griffith-Joyner set her records in 1988, for example, some athletes remarked that her physique had changed remarkably in that year, giving her greater muscle tone. Not only that, her performances improved dramatically too. Before 1988, the fastest she had ever run the 100m was in 10.96s; the 200m, 21.96s. Approximately half-second improvements in those times may not seem like much, but it is actually huge.

To put it in perspective: before Griffith-Joyner, the world record in the 200m was 22.71s, set in 1979. To match the improvement Griffith-Joyner posted in 1988 (0.62s), you’d have to look for when the world record was about 22.4s—and that takes us back to 1970. Nine years (1970-79) to register the kind of improvement Griffith-Joyner saw in her own performance in a few months in 1988.

All this is why, despite plenty of tests and assertions that she was drug-free, there remains that general cloud of suspicion over her records.

So if there is such suspicion, what’s an IAAF to do? Accept the EA’s radical solution, perhaps.

But there’s the other side to this: why should athletes against whom there’s never been a whiff of suspicion—Radcliffe, El Guerrouj, and so many more—lose their records because some others may have taken drugs?

I have no answer to this.