IAAF’s misguided idea for sanitizing the record book

mike_powell.jpg

…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 above board.”
— European athletics president Svein Arne Hansen

“It is a heavy handed way to wipe out some really suspicious records in a cowardly way by simply sweeping all aside instead of having the guts to take the legal plunge and wipe any record that would be found in a court of law to have been illegally assisted.”
– Paula Radcliffe

“There’s no record I’m 100 percent sure is clean and no record I’m 100 percent sure is dirty. But […] some are a heck of a lot more suspicious that others. If the records are reset, there will absolutely be some clean athletes who lose records.” – Alex Hutchinson

When the statistical gurus at fivethirtyeight.com take a break from political polling and predicting the outcome of major team sporting events to write about Track and Field, I always pay attention. So I was quite interested in a round-table discussion published a week ago on the topic of whether the sport’s governing body should annul all world and European records set prior to 2005.

When this proposal (made by the head of European Athletics and submitted to the IAAF) first surfaced at the beginning of May, I paid it no mind. I was busy with coaching and other things, and if I registered any reaction it was that annulling old records was a bit of a gimmick. To be fair, the main focus of the proposal is, as Svein Arne Hansen said, is to raise the standards of recognition by requiring that records ONLY be recognized is the following conditions are met:

  1. The performance is achieved at competitions on a list of approved international events where the highest standards of officiating and technical equipment can be guaranteed.
  2. The athlete has been subject to an agreed number of doping control tests in the months leading up to the performance.
  3. The doping control sample taken after the record is stored and available for re-testing for 10 years.

This seems reasonable for records set in the future. Is it a good idea to annul old records because some of the basic requirements were not in place? I had been leaning no, but after reading the fivethirtyeight piece, I have stronger feelings that going that extra step and withdrawing recognition from, any record set prior to 2005 is actually a bad idea, and more damaging to Track and Field than it might at first appear.

The motivation for scrapping old world records is to build confidence that all listed WRs are legit. That confidence is lacking today. Anyone who follows Athletics at all knows that use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) has plagued the sport for decades. One doesn’t have to be an expert (I’m not) to have misgivings about certain times and marks. But using an arbitrary cut-off date to toss some records and retain others seems to suffer from two problems. First, as Alex Hutchinson points out, tossing pre-2005 records means that some clean records will be tossed. Second, records achieved since 2005 are, by implication, considered cleaner, and yet, common sense should suggest that at least some “modern” records are not clean.

What would the record book actually look like if records set prior to 2005 were annulled? Below is a list of men’s records, with old and new versions of the records for those events where the current record was set pre-2005:

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 1.00.04 PM

There are some surprises!

For example, I’m very surprised to realize that Alan Webb would hold the WR for the mile. That might cause some people to look at his career a bit differently. There are also some updates that seem plain silly, for example, in the 5000m, Keninisa Bekele 2004 would lose his record to Keninisa Bekele 2005.

Gone would be Javier Sotomayor, Hicham El Guerrouj, Jonathan Edwards, Jan Zelezny, Randy Barnes, Yuriy Sedykh, Saif Shaheen, and the U.S. 4×400 Relay team from 1993. Gone would be Mike Powell, whose 8.95 long jump in the 1991 World Championships beat Carl Lewis’ superb performance and broke Bob Beamon’s WR in the greatest long jump competition ever staged.

… …Did you react differently to some of those names than to others? Yeah, me too. And that’s part of the problem. We want the list to remove the suspicious names, but leave the ones about whom we don’t have such suspicion. And what about the new records? Do you react differently to the inclusion of Alan Webb compared to the inclusion of Tarik Makhloufi? Yeah, me too.

Here’s a similar study of the women’s world records:

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 1.02.23 PM

Gone are Flo-Jo’s sprint records, the muscular 400 and 800 records from Koch and Kratochvilova, the last of the Chinese distance records, Svetlana Masterkova’s 1K and mile records, the shot put and discus records that were unassailable… Also Paula Radcliffe’s marathon and Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s heptathlon.

I suspect that some of those old records make you very uneasy, while others seem legit. And once again, the problem is that by sweeping them all away (while leaving them on the all-time lists, but not recognized as records), the proposal fails to take a stand one way or the other.

Why is this bad for Track and Field?

In my opinion, while the goal of establishing credibility for records is worthwhile, it is not progress towards that goal to effect a simple re-classification where old is considered of lesser value than new. The harm is that history — in both its inspirational moments (Powell) and its shameful ones (Koch, Junxia) — is one of the things that gives value to the sport today. If the governing bodies are not prepared to judge some performances as illegitimate, then they should be allowed to stand in the record books as grim reminders of the bad old days.

Knowing our history, perhaps we’ll be more vigilant about ever more sophisticated and modern attempts to gain unfair advantages.

 

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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