Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Why All Athletics World Records Could Be Rewritten

by Oliver Wright

Under a new ‘revolutionary’ proposal from European Athletics, all athletics world records set before 2005 could be rewritten. This move is in response to the judgements of a taskforce set up in January by European Athletics, to look into the credibility of world records. The ruling council in turn ratified the proposals put forward by the taskforce, and is now calling for the main governing body of the sport, the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations), to adopt these changes. Their aim through the elimination of all world records before 2005 is to rid the record books of any records that cannot be supported by the IAAF’s storage of blood and urine samples, thus, if the idea has its intended effect, increasing public confidence in the validity of the records due to the recent doping scandals. If these proposals are accepted by the IAAF then a world record will only be recognised if it can meet these three criteria:

·         It was achieved at a competition on a list of approved international events where the highest standards of officiating and technical equipment can be guaranteed.
·         The athlete had been subject to an agreed number of doping control tests in the months leading up to it.
·         The doping control sample taken after the record was stored and available for re-testing for 10 years.

The main argument in support of these plans is that modern athletics is in dire need of some sort of upheaval. The seemingly constant flow of drugs scandals and accusations is chipping away at the already diminishing credibility of the entire institution of the sport, and as a result, a radical attempt at restoring the trust of the public and media is necessary. While it involves the loss of a number of incredible and historic world records, there is no concrete evidence to support their validity and no matter how much faith we have in an athlete, we can unfortunately never know for certain if they did dope or not. Due to the modern era of athletics clearly having a doping problem, any world record by an allegedly ‘clean’ athlete comes into question, as they will have had to out-perform doping athletes, making their efforts either a incredible feat of athleticism, or, to take a more cynical and realistic standpoint, a result of performance enhancing drugs.

Although I am hoping it is relatively unlikely that the majority of current records involved the performers using a banned substance, as this would lessen the iconic nature of many great performances, to use British examples; Jonathan Edwards’ mammoth triple jump attempt of 18.29m at the 1995 World Championships, or Colin Jackson’s indoor 60m hurdles record of 7.30 seconds in 1994, it remains probable that some were set or broken because of a doping athlete. The lack of pre-2005 blood and urine samples means that there is no way to hold these past records and athletes to the same standards as the current records and athletes, making it unfair to compare the times and distances of post and pre-2005. Records exist to be broken, to highlight the impossible and inconceivable achievement of the human, to evoke excitement and spectacle over even an otherwise ordinary event. Yet the importance of records to athletics is gradually being marginalised, as they simply cannot be broken without cheating. Consequently, I would argue that these proposed changes are essential as they will, if agreed to, be the first of many steps that athletics needs to take towards a cleaner future.


This ‘revolution’ has been supported by former athlete and current IAAF President Lord Coe, who stated the changes were ‘a step in the right direction’. While Svein Arne Hansen, the European Athletics President, is set to encourage this proposal at the IAAF council meeting in August. Although the intentions are for the ‘greater good’, they have met opposition from athletes both present and past.

According to European Athletics taskforce chair Pierce O’Callaghan, athletes like Paula Radcliffe, Jonathan Edwards and Colin Jackson are part of the unavoidable and unfortunate ‘collateral damage’. This ‘bigger picture’ approach has been harshly criticised by a variety of ex-British athletes such as Steve Cram, former 1500m world champion, and current BBC athletics commentator. He has stated this would demonstrate athletics taking the ‘easy route out’, and that it also ‘lumps’ all the clean athletes in with the cheats. He is right as it does not separate clean records from records achieved through doping, and, while there is no way to do this, it discredits any clean pre-2005 records, as this method presents the assumption that all the record-breaking athletes are cheats as there is no way to prove that they aren’t. It clumsily entails the principle that one is guilty until proven innocent, and doesn’t have the desired effect of preserving the dignity of the athletes either.

Although athletics is moving in the right direction, the testing is still not to a standard that it will catch every cheat competing, this in turn making it seemingly futile to reject older records in favour of more recent ones as the doping has merely become more advanced. Paula Radcliffe presents an apt critique of the potential rewriting, questioning whether ‘we believe a record set in 2015 is totally clean and one in 1995 not?’ as truthfully, what do we really know to be fact in regard to athletics most crippling problem?


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