Image by fergie_lancealot/Flickr
Last month, the International Association of Athletics Federations decided that women who run alongside men in road races cannot set world records. The IAAF now believes that male pacers give women an undue advantage, and have made the incredible decision to remove male-paced times from its record books. Officially, that disqualifies the standing world record, Paula Radcliffe's 2:15:25, which she set while running alongside two Kenyan men at the London Marathon in 2003, and elevates the world's third best time, 2:17:42, which Radcliffe ran in 2005 on her own. The IAAF has been concerned about male-paced female records for some time, and became especially concerned when Kenya's Mary Keitany broke the half-marathon world record while drafting off of a man earlier this year.
Women who run with men do gain some advantage. A male pacer is likely bigger than a female pacer and may block more wind. A man will also be able to run all or most of the race, and because he's not redlining, he can hit more consistent splits. (This is a point Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune went out of his way to avoid last week.) So by removing men from the pacing duties, the IAAF has made women's times, in a very, very narrow sense, more natural. But because the rule is inconsistent and retroactive, the IAAF's decision is bad.
Following the World Anti-Doping Agency's guidelines, IAAF bans "substances and methods" that violate the spirit of the sport, enhance performance, or pose a health risk. Male pacers enhance performance, certainly, but all pacers do, and the spirit of the sport rule is so vague as to be meaningless—it's a sort of know-it-when-you-see-it rule that the governing bodies have applied haphazardly. Nor has the IAAF explained why it banned men only in races. I would guess that most elite women run with men in training, which they do to enhance their race performances, and I can't think of any other banned substance or method that is illegal in a race and perfectly legal any other time. Maybe this is a small point, but it suggests to me that the IAAF did not take a logically systematic approach to the ruling. If it did, I'm struggling to see how.
Still, the bigger problem is that the ban will work retroactively. When Radcliffe set her record she was following the rules, and it's not unreasonable to wonder if she could have run times in the same ballpark without pacers. She is a frontrunner by nature, and did not want pacers when she ran 2:15; she told Runner's World last week that she went out of her way to run beside them, not behind them, and gain as little advantage as possible. On Sunday, Radcliffe finished third in 2:23 at the Berlin Marathon. She is 37, and will never again run as fast as she did in the mid 2000s. There are things left for her to accomplish, particularly at the London Olympics next summer, but she won't get her world record back.
I would suggest that the IAAF's main job is to craft a body of rules that allow track and field to operate safely and fairly. Every single woman at Radcliffe's level, and many on the levels below her, have had access to male pacers. There's no issue of fairness here. In banning male pacers, who is the IAAF protecting, and what is violated when women run with them?