“Heavy-Handed” Proposal Divides Record-holders and Administrators

Think Paula Radcliffe’s marathon world record or Hicham El Gerrouj’s 1500m world record should be expunged? That is what could happen if the IAAF carries out a proposal to axe world records that took place before current doping controls were implemented in 2005. The proposal was made by a European Athletics taskforce. The IAAF has agreed to consider it in August, and it has some people hopping mad.

According to a report in The Guardian (May 1st), IAAF President Sebastian Coe supports the proposal. “World Records” set prior to 2005 would be downgraded to “All-Time.” (It should be noted that Coe’s past middle distance WRs would be subject to the same downgrading.)

For a summary of the proposal and possible fallout, see:

A stunned and stung Radcliffe (whose 10 Mile and 10K WR’s are also in the wind) called it “heavy-handed.” Onetime middle distance WR holder in three distances Steve Cram called it a “PR exercise.” Jonathan Edwards, whose 1995 triple-jump WR is in jeopardy, said, “I thought my record would go someday, just not to a bunch of sports administrators.” Both Radcliffe and Edwards characterized the proposal as “cowardly”— see https://sports.yahoo.com/news/edwards-radcliffe-blast-apos-cowardly-091222615.html

Radcliffe has publicly castigated drug cheating for years, and has pushed for prosecutions where there’s enough smoke to justify looking for fire—that is, to find positive proof. It is especially ironic that she should be placed under a cloud of suspicion, given that if she ever was proved to have cheated, the hypocrisy would destroy her entire career. What sane person would run that risk?

Of the athletes harmed by the policy under consideration, the proposal’s chief designer Pierce O’Callaghan said, “apologies to the athletes; we never intended to damage their reputation and legacy. “

Which begs the question of: what is the actual intent? O’Callaghan’s answer: “[The proposal] is intended to give the public belief and credibility in what they are watching in the sport.” It’s an image issue. Too bad for the likes of Radcliffe and Edwards, et al, whose fates he characterized as “collateral damage.” For his remarks see: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-athletics-europe-records-idUSKBN17Y1FE

My own take on O’Callaghan’s statements is a tad more blunt: “We’re sanitizing the sport’s history to present a cleaner face to the public. To show it , we’re taking records away from people for whom there’s no proof of doping. Just in case those record holders might have cheated.”

It turns on its head the presumption of innocence (still the rule in U.S. jurisprudence, although not in that shining example of judicial probity, Russia). For having set records at a premature time, athletes would see their records erased, or recast as the suspect “All-Time.” Punished for perhaps having done something wrong, although we can’t prove it and don’t know quite what it is.

In the U.S., at least, “cold cases,” where investigators suspect that a not-convicted perpetrator of a long-unresolved past crime wrongly went free, evidence of guilt must be produced—suspicions, no matter how strong, are not enough to convict. Shouldn’t this—absent a confession— be the policy in athletics?

How this would play with the public whose perception Mr. O’Callaghan would like to shape is open to question. If they see the authorities addressing the doping issue with a meat cleaver rather than a scalpel, they (the public) might get the picture that the authorities in the sport don’t really know what they’re doing. After all, the public of 2017 is more interested in what is going on now rather than what happened more than a decade ago. . . and what is going on now cries out for solutions that cut to structural problems more serious than problems on paper.

By the logic of it, performances prior to 2005 going back to the beginning of record-keeping would lose the prestige of the World Record” designation. Those of us who like to look at progressions of records over time—think of a sloping graph with spikes in it here and there, as with Radcliffe’s marathon—are left in a quandary as to what progression is more legitimate: the “World Records,” or the “All-Time.” Was Bob Beamon’s phenomenal long jump in Mexico City really due to the thin air, or talent, or was he cheating?

Rewriting history is a tricky exercise. How you look at this may depend on your political philosophy, which may reflect a divergence in continental European and Anglo-American points of view: the former emphasizing the good of the collective (enhancing the overall image of the sport); the latter the rights of the individual. For myself, despite the excesses to which individualism has been taken in my native country, the answer is clear: world records set prior to 2005 should stand, unless proof of cheating is found. If that’s too late to have caught some cheaters, so be it.

As for the new testing protocol itself, a world record would only be ratified if the athlete had been tested “a number of times” before the performance. That would probably preclude a record for a prodigy such as Zola Budd, who set a putative World Record in the 5000m at age 17. It was not ratified because at the time she was South African running in South Africa; a year later as an English citizen she set the official record with a time 13 seconds faster (14:48.07 in 1985). Under the new rules, a 17-year-old phenom who ran a WR time would probably not have been drug tested “a number of times” before the event. With records now approaching what is humanly possible, such an episode seems highly unlikely. But at least the rules would be clear going in; applying new rules retroactively is another game altogether.

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