Revising the record books in athletics ‘nothing personal’

Irish physical therapist Gerard Hartmann has urged Paula Radcliffe, the women’s marathon world record holder, to embrace plans to rewrite the record books in athletics after the Briton said the plans were “cowardly” and an insult to the dignity of clean athletes.

Under proposals put forward by European Athletics this week, all marks set before 2005 would be wiped from the books, regardless of the athlete involved, in a bid to eliminate any doping doubts surrounding past performances. This would mean Radcliffe’s mark of 2:15:25, set in 2003, would no longer be recognised as the world record.

“Paula has got to stomach up and realise how important this is for the sport,” said Hartmann, her long-time physical therapist. “If she’s true to the sport she loves, she’s got to take a stance as well and realise this is not personal. This is completely, once and for all, a move to clean up the sport.”

Under the new standards, a world record would only be recognised if it met three key 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; and the doping control sample taken after the record was stored and available for re- testing for 10 years.

For Hartmann, such an approach is the only way for the sport to move forward from its troubled past. “It has to be done, otherwise the sport is in tatters,” he said. “People who are genuine athletics fans, we’re invested in human performance. We love it, but we’re sick of it. World records have been meaningless for a long time. You sit in the stands, watch athletes win and by and large, you know you’re being duped. A radical solution is needed.

“Unfortunately there’s going to be collateral damage done to very good people. Paula has said it demeans her record, but everyone with common sense knows what performances were clean. It has to be decisive to restore athletics’ integrity now before it becomes a shambles.” Amid declining attendances on the European circuit, Hartmann believes it’s a move which may also boost the sport’s popularity.

“People love to see honesty and transparency, and athletics is viewed by people when they’re watching human performance they know is honest. The doping scandals almost took cycling down but they’ve re-jigged themselves, lost a lot of integrity then brought it back. Athletics needs to do the same. If not now, I don’t think it’ll ever happen.”

The task force behind the recommendations was led by Irishman Pierce O’Callaghan, who yesterday told the Irish Examiner athletes need to look at the broader picture.

“I understand why athletes like Paula feel this way, but this has to be seen beyond the individual,” he said. “It’s about writing a fresh chapter and making sure people have credibility and belief in the records they see. People have rightly been critical of leadership for not making strong decisions in the past, but when the emotion dies down and people see this idea for what it is, they’ll realise it’s the right thing for the sport. It’s another move forward from the dark days.”

Q&A: Thinking behind new proposals

Athletics could be about to rewrite its records book in a radical change to how the sport’s governing body, the IAAF, recognises world bests.

The idea could see dozens of records, including several set by Irish athletes, consigned to history, with tough criteria set for the ratification of new marks.

So what exactly is being proposed?

The IAAF should change its rules so records can only be ratified if they were set at major events where there is total confidence in the measurements and timings, the athlete has had a minimum (but still to be decided) number of anti-doping tests in the last year, the athlete’s anti-doping sample is stored for 10 years so it can be re-tested and the athlete has never been convicted of doping.

Why has this come up now?

The short answer is European Athletics has unanimously adopted these rules at a council meeting in Paris at the weekend, having asked a “records credibility project team” to look at the issue in January.

As several European records are also world records, European Athletics consulted the IAAF and the world body’s president Sebastian Coe was at the meeting.

The longer answer is that everybody associated with the sport has known for years that many of the records are simply incredible as they were set during the Cold War era when state-sponsored doping was rife or long before the World Anti-Doping Agency started to make any impact on athletes’ behaviour.

This is particularly obvious when looking at women’s athletics, with many of the most significant records more than 30 years old.

Most doping products are believed to have a greater effect, relatively speaking, on women than men.

Ok, but what do the proposed rules have to do with the old records?

This is the controversial bit as these changes would apply retrospectively, too, and the IAAF only started storing samples in 2005. This means a lot of records can no longer be recognised as such. It is proposed that these older records are retired and the record-holders become “former record-holders”. When a record is withdrawn in this way it is not automatically reallocated to the next best mark that meets the criteria but it would remain vacant until a new record is ratified.

How many “former” records are we talking about?

Of the 87 current outdoor European records, only 26 were set in the stored-sample era and several of those can be discounted as they were set by athletes later found to have doped in their careers. Coe did not have a vote in Paris, as he is an “ex officio” member of the council, but he is understood to back the idea, despite holding two European records which will now be retired. If, as expected, the IAAF adopts the same measures, at least 18 of 48 men’s and 28 of 61 women’s outdoor world records can immediately be re-set.

How has this gone down with potential “former record-holders”?

In Britain at least — it has been negative, with triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, hurdler Colin Jackson and distance runner Paula Radcliffe strongly criticising the move as being draconian and unfair. Radcliffe, who would lose her marathon world record from 2003, labelled the idea “cowardly” and Denmark’s Wilson Kipketer, who set a European best for 800 metres in 1997, has also tweeted to call the idea “a shame, unfair and (an) insult”.

Does anybody like it?

“Like” might not be the right word, as nobody is comfortable about the impact this will have on clean athletes, but the reaction elsewhere in Europe appears to be more nuanced, with perhaps a greater recognition of the need to staunch the sport’s gradual loss of credibility after the Russian doping scandal, the IAAF’s own role in that disgrace and continuing bad news from places such as Kenya. For example, Romania’s Gabriela Szabo actually voted to retire her own European 3,000m record, as she is a European Athletics council member. And Pierce O’Callaghan, the Irishman chairing of the project team, said there was “always going to be some collateral damage but there is a bigger sport out there”. That sport has witnessed an alarming dip in popularity in many markets, particularly the United States. Resetting the records to erase the most glaring injustices could win some sceptical fans back. It will also bring back some excitement, as athletes, broadcasters and sponsors love new records.

What happens next?

From a European point of view, hopefully some new records will happen next. In a conference call on Tuesday, Serbia’s European long jump champion Ivana Spanovic said she could see the pros and cons of the changes but her focus was on breaking East German Heike Drechsler’s 29-year-old world indoor record whether it was retired or not. That is the ideal scenario but one that may not sound realistic to today’s female sprinters, for example, as they contemplate Florence Griffith-Joyner’s contentious 100m and 200m bests. The IAAF Council is expected to discuss the European rules at its next meeting in the days before the 2017 world championships, which start in London on August 5. It is possible Europe has run ahead of global opinion on this, and non-Europeans around the table will look at one of the three other options the project team considered — do nothing, weed out the most dubious records or tweak the events to come up with genuinely new records. Coe’s backing, however, makes that unlikely, which means the record book looks set for a major rewrite.


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