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In Stride

Lots of World Records Could Soon Be Up for Grabs

A new proposal would scrap all track and field world records set before 2005, all in the name of the war on doping. Will the radical measure do any good?

Under the new proposal, Paul Radcliffe's 2003 London Marathon performance is now in danger of losing its world record status. (Michael Steele/Getty)
world record

A new proposal would scrap all track and field world records set before 2005, all in the name of the war on doping. Will the radical measure do any good?

On Monday, European Athletics announced that it had accepted a proposal that would effectively rewrite the record books in professional track and field.

The proposal outlines radical new criteria for determining official records: in order to be recognized, records must be set at specific, approved events, by athletes who have undergone a preset number of doping tests in the months prior. Furthermore, all athletes will be required to have a control sample of their blood stored for up to ten years for re-resting purposes. Since the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) only began storing such samples in 2005, under the new criteria, all records set before that year would de facto be rendered obsolete.

Following an enthusiastic response by IAAF President Sebastian Coe, there is a reasonable chance that the sport’s worldwide governing body will ratify the new standards. (The issue will likely be decided at an IAAF Council meeting in August.)

“What we are proposing is revolutionary, not just because most world and European records will have to be replaced but because we want to change the concept of a record and raise the standards for recognition [to] a point where everyone can be confident that everything is fair and aboveboard,” European Athletics President Svein Arne Hansen said in a press release.  

The language of the European Athletics press release is somewhat ambiguous on how it would go about “replacing” former records. It states that: “Current records not established in accordance with the agreed standards will remain on the all-time list but recognition will be transferred to performances that meet the criteria.” In practical terms, “recognition” could translate into financial compensation for athletes who distinguish themselves in this new, ostensible age of innocence. 

Given that it would radically reshape the world record landscape—every women’s record from 100 to 1000 meters, for instance, would be scrapped, since they were set before 2005—it’s worth asking if the proposal is really worth the trouble. Put bluntly, how seriously should we take Hansen’s statement that the new initiative will ensure that “everything is fair and aboveboard”?

On the one hand, a reassessment of all-time performances might seem overdue. Some records, like Florence Griffith-Joyner’s otherworldly sprint times or Eastern European marks set during the Cold War, have long been viewed with suspicion. Random drug testing didn’t exist in the ‘80s, and many race times from that decade are laughably implausible. In that sense, the prospective new record criteria might serve as a useful excuse for the IAAF to hit the reset button.

That’s how University of Houston cross-country coach and anti-doping pundit Steve Magness interprets it. “My understanding of what they are trying to do is almost to find a legal loophole to restart world records and at least partially address the issue,” Magness says, after pointing out that there are several world records (like Marita Koch’s 400-meter mark from 1985) that no clean athlete has a realistic shot at breaking. He is doubtful, however, that now is the appropriate moment to take such measures. 

“In our current climate of dealing with Russia and Kenya, and dealing with other anti-doping organizations that aren’t fully compliant, I’m not sure if it’s the exact right timing because we could be doing the same thing ten years from now. That’s kind of the conundrum that they are in.”

Magness also pointed out that it was a curious decision to only invalidate records from before 2005, since there have obviously been numerous prominent doping violations in recent years.

That was one of the objections raised by Paula Radcliffe, the retired British marathoner, whose 2003 London Marathon performance is now in danger of losing its world record status. (Radcliffe was involved in her own doping-related imbroglio after she refused to release all of her blood data following the surfacing of apparent suspicious leaked tests, though she was later exonerated of any wrongdoing.) In an extended Twitter post, Radcliffe criticized the European Athletics proposal as a “cowardly” failure to protect clean athletes.  

“Although we are moving forward I don’t believe we are yet at the point where we have a testing procedure capable of catching every cheat out there, so why reset at this point? Do we really believe a record set in 2015 is totally clean and one in 1995 not?” Radcliffe wrote.

It’s certainly true that the contemporary state of track and field means that any new world record will be met with skepticism; Almaz Ayana’s eyebrow-raising obliteration of the (already suspect) women’s 10,000-meter world record last summer in Rio is a prime example. But the argument can be made that recent records undergo a more rigorous verification process, as athlete blood samples will continue to be retested for years after competition. Dubious records that were set back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, meanwhile, are effectively cold cases. 

The new regulations for record eligibility could also force dysfunctional national anti-doping agencies, like beleaguered Athletics Kenya, to upgrade their programs in order for their athletes to even be eligible to set records. “I think that some of the nations that are non-WADA compliant and haven’t built the infrastructure in their countries for out-of-competition testing will now be motivated to build that structure, since you are responsible for doing that within your own nation,” Lauren Fleshman, a former professional runner and longtime anti-doping advocate, says of the proposal. 

Fleshman was quick to point out however, that state-sponsored corruption and manipulation of test results would still be a problem, even if national agencies were to undergo an extensive overhaul. Likewise, aspiring dopers would still try to beat the system. 

“It’s not going to solve the problem of technology and science being ahead of the testing,” Fleshman says. 

As for the underlying motivation for recalibrating the record books, Fleshman feels that there’s been a long-held belief in professional track and field that the sport would be more marketable if the stratospheric times from the steroid era were erased. While making records obtainable again might stoke the interest of fans and sponsors in the short-term, Fleshman ultimately doesn’t think it’s viable solution. “I think that the real problem is that our sport has become addicted to telling one story: medals and records,” Fleshman says.

 “Unless we learn how to tell the story more creatively, while also combating doping, our sport isn’t going to survive.”

Filed To: Running / Fitness / Doping / Track and Field / Olympics / Marathon
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