A world record… or is it?

A world record… or is it?

I recently re-read one of my favourite books ‘The London Marathon’ by John Bryant and in one chapter, the author describes a fictional scenario for how the 2 hour barrier will be broken in the marathon;

It is 6 May 2024, London Marathon Day, the date set… after detailed discussions with the Ministry of Climate Control – the day when running 42.2 km should be perfect.

Millions are gathered around the course and a battery of television cameras are focused on the bright orange strip of all-weather running track two metres wide that snakes the miles from Blackheath to Buckingham Palace… Tufimu [the fictional athlete in this fantasy] is not wearing shoes as such for this marathon. His feet have been painted just 90 minutes before the race with a tough, flexible weatherproof coating – and one of the latest wafer-thin energy-return soles have been laser-glued to the bottom of each foot…

Bryant goes on to imagine that the runner will have an ear-piece plugged in to a feed from his personal hypnotherapist and that micro-chips under his skin will feed data back to a control centre, etc, etc. All very amusing.

The 2-hour marathon

But it makes a serious point. The 2 hour barrier for the marathon will, I have no doubt, be broken (hopefully in my lifetime) and it will also probably require a series of developments in both the way the athlete prepares and the kit they use. This was the case when Roger Bannister broke what many considered to be an impossible barrier – the 4 minute mile. In the case of Bannister’s historic run, it was the use of pace-makers that was the new (and in some quarters highly controversial) development, and one which has changed the face of athletics ever since. But does that mean that Bannister didn’t run a mile in under 4 minutes? No, it doesn’t.

That is part of sport. Things develop. Cars get faster, balls get lighter (or heavier or rounder or whatever), tracks and pools get ‘faster’ and sport should look forward. But I don’t believe that sport can, with one obvious exception, look backwards.

Paula Radcliffe’s world record

So how is it that the IAAF has announced recently that Paula Radcliffe’s world record for the marathon – 2:15:25 – set on 13 April 2003, will no longer be recognised as a world record (it will instead be listed as a ‘world best’ what ever the hell that means)? And the reason that this record is being down-graded is that Paula ran it in a race where there were men alongside her. Not men that Paula asked for and not, as we saw in the men’s race in Berlin this year, a peleton of runners in a ‘V’ formation in front and to the sides of her. The pace-makers in 2003 were just in the race, at most offering a target to help with the psychological challenges of keeping up the incredible pace Paula ran at.

Drug cheats

The obvious exception to all this, of course, is when it comes to drug cheats. And there the IAAF is in murky waters. I believe most strongly that if an athlete is found guilty of cheating by taking drugs, then all of their victories and all of their records should be disregarded. If they prove to be as capable clean, as they were when doping, then once they return after they have served their ban, they will surely regain their records. If they don’t… well then maybe the records weren’t legitimate anyway. But certainly in the case of many shorter distance events, almost all of the the women’s world records, mostly set in the 1980′s – before the introduction of mandatory drug testing was introduced – are so far beyond what the world’s current best are capable of, that there is a strong whiff of suspicion. There is a great article about this very subject here.

But Paula Radcliffe is not under suspicion of any misbehaviour. She is however in danger of having one of the most increadible feats of athletics, down-graded because of the occurrence of men on the course at the same time as her (ESPN have a great piece on this storm here). For what it is worth, I for one don’t think that is either sensible or fair and certainly brings into question whether ‘assisted’ marathon world records are going to be banned in which case Kenya’s Patrick Makau had better enjoy breaking the world record (2:03:38) last weekend, because he definitely hid from the wind behind a phalanx of pacers and if there is one rule for women, it is only fair that it should be applied to men. What do you think?

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About simon

I run marathons. Everything else is a result of that.

3 Responses to “A world record… or is it?”

  1. Phil October 14, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    without doubt the IAAF have dropped the baton here. I doubt European law allows discrimation in this manner. i.e. If a man can use services of a male pacemaker to set a WR then a woman surely can too. this rule makes a mockery of our sport and if taken literally to the N’th degree we will watch all races run like time trials in cycling where each athlete runs alone with a delay between each as they start. not on my watch!

    • simon October 18, 2011 at 9:43 am #

      I couldn’t agree more. I really don’t like the idea that we could end up with marathons that look like cycling time trials to avoid the insinuation that there has been assistance of some kind. These are races after all. Even in my own little way I experienced something similar when I raced the Amsterdam half marathon on Sunday. From about 5km I had been running with two chaps, taking turns to lead until one dropped off at around 15km. Soon after the two of us that were still together caught the lead woman and she joined our little group to bring it up to three all the way to the last 500m. Did we assist her? Possibly psychologically. Did she run every step of the way? Yep! And what on earth would have happened as we caught her if running in a group was outlawed? Would she have to slow down or speed up to avoid us? Or would we have been forced to run in a way that didn’t compromise her solo effort? It is all a load of… well, you know!

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  1. IAAF performs marathon u-turn | | Simon FreemanSimon Freeman - November 10, 2011

    [...] Marathon in 2003 would be down-graded to a ‘world best’ (you can read all about that here) and found themselves running head-on against the tide of public opinion. Now it appears that they [...]

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