When a world record is not a world record

The farcical ruling that has hit women’s road running

Posted on September 22, 2011 by
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Paula Radcliffe (Mark Shearman)

In the years leading up to the turn of the millennium, there were calls from a vocal minority in the athletics community to wipe the slate clean on all world records and to start again from scratch. The thinking being that it would get rid of the untouchable world records set in the drug-fuelled era of the Seventies and Eighties, and therefore allowing the chance for ‘clean’ athletes to have a shot at breaking records.

The IAAF, quite rightly, ignored such requests but in the same vein of attempting to create a level platform for world record-breaking performances, the IAAF has recently ruled that performances set by women in a race that includes male pacemakers are not eligible for world record status.

The ramifications of this mean that marathon world record-holder Paula Radcliffe gets penalised, while other world records – including Marita Koch’s 47.60 for 400m, Gabriele Reinsch’s 76.80m discus throw and Galina Chistyakova’s 7.52m long jump – still stand to this day.

The record books didn’t change for the heptathlon when the new specification javelin was brought in. Neither did they for the pole vault, when the pegs that hold up the pole were altered.

And don’t get me started on Flo-Jo’s world 100m record of 10.49, a performance set in blatantly wind-assisted conditions (wind speeds of 5m/s were recorded in other field events that were taking place at the same time that day in Indianapolis), yet because the “official” reading from the malfunctioning wind gauge was 0.0m/s, the record is allowed to stand. Perhaps it could be wiped on the basis that it was set during an era when the false start rule was different?

Unfortunately not. Meanwhile, the current marathon world record – set by Radcliffe at 2:15:25 – is now simply a “world best”, and the ‘official’ world record will be her 2:17:42 clocking from 2005, her third-best performance.

Confused? Try explaining it to the casual fan.

Joe Bloggs: “Hey, what’s the fastest marathon ever run by a woman?”
Bob Joggs: “Well that depends – do you mean the world record or the world best?”
JB: “Huh? Just tell me what’s the fastest ever performance.”
BJ: “Right, that’s Paula Radcliffe’s 2:15:25.”
JB: “So that’s the world record, right?”
BJ: “Wrong.”
JB: “How so?”
BJ: “She had male pacemakers in that race, which isn’t allowed for record performances.”
JB: “Okay… but didn’t she run a fast marathon before that? So that must be the world record…?”
BJ: “Her 2:17:18? No, that was also in a mixed race.”
JB: “Unlucky! Has she ever run in a women’s only race?”
BJ: “Yes, she ran 2:17:42 in 2005, which is the ‘official’ world record, even though her ‘world best’ of 2:15:25 is a couple of minutes quicker.”
JB: “Zzzzzzz….”

When Radcliffe ran 2:15:25 at the London Marathon in 2003, it was considered to be one of the greatest performances in athletics history. It was a career-defining moment for Radcliffe and proved to athletes the world over that you did not need to turn to performance-enhancing drugs to make it into the world record books.

On that day she was joined by two Kenyan male runners – Christopher Kandie and Daniel Too – but she made a point of not simply running behind them and instead they ran side-by-side. With her nearest female challenger finishing four and a half minutes behind, Kandie and Too were the closing thing to being opponents to Radcliffe that day. Indeed, in her mind she was racing them.

During that run, Radcliffe went through half way in 68:02 – a performance that just one other woman, Margaret Okayo, had bettered that year. At that time, Okayo was one of the best road runners in the world, having won the Boston Marathon one year before with a course record. However big the paycheque, Okayo would not have agreed to run in London to simply be a pacemaker for one of her biggest rivals. And even if she did, there would be no guarantee that she would have been able to get within 40 seconds of her season’s best on that given day.

Understandably, the organisers of the London Marathon were in a dilemma as there were simply not enough women around who were good enough to pace Radcliffe, which is why they opted to use men and make it a mixed race.

But did it ultimately make much difference? When Radcliffe returned to London in 2005, it was a women-only race with Leah Malot and Restituta Joseph hired as pacemakers. But they didn’t even make it to the half-way mark and Radcliffe had dropped them after five miles. Running alone, Radcliffe hit the half-marathon mark in 68:27 – a very similar split to her 2003 performance set in a mixed race. And just like her split from the race two years prior, only one other woman had run a faster half-marathon in 2005.

Male marathon runners never face such a problem, of course. Even at this year’s Boston marathon where Geoffrey Mutai ran 2:03:02 on a downhill course, the half-way mark was reached in 61:54 – a time that almost 100 men have bettered this year in the half-marathon.

So even for the fastest male marathon runners in the world, finding fast same-sex pacemakers is never an issue. But finding same-sex pacemakers fast enough to pace a peak Radcliffe in 2003 was impossible. And now, eight years later, Radcliffe is retroactively having her most noteworthy accolade being downgraded.

But beyond Radcliffe, it affects many more athletes too. Several countries will need to amend their national records that were set in mixed races. And not just in the marathon – this rule applies to all road races, including popular distances like the 10km and half-marathon, meaning Mary Keitany will lose the world record of 65:50 that she set in the half-marathon earlier this year.

It’s a move that the World Marathon Majors – an organisation made up of the race directors from the world’s greatest big-city marathons – do not support. “The current situation where the fastest time is not now recognized as a record is confusing and unfair and does not represent the history of our sport,” they said.

As race director of the New York City Marathon and a member of the IAAF road racing commission, Mary Wittenberg is caught between a rock and a hard place. But even she is not a fan.

“The IAAF wanted to show that women can stand on their own two feet, that they don’t need guys to help them get to world records,” she said. “But to call one accomplishment a ‘world best’ and another ‘a world record’ only leaves the public befuddled.”

Not only the public, but Radcliffe too. Speaking to Runner’s World ahead of her run at the BMW Berlin Marathon this weekend, Radcliffe said that it’s a situation that isn’t ideal, but one she can’t do much about.

“I think it is a decision that is going to be hard to fully enforce. Look at how many national and area records are set in mixed races,” she said. “I also think it is a little unfair to set it like that retroactively. If they were going to make that rule, it should have been so from the beginning when world records came in on the roads. Now it is messy.

“In my two mixed races it was not my decision, rather the race organizers’, to have male runners with me, and in each case I very consciously ran alongside them rather than ever behind,” she added. “Indeed, in London, I was actively racing the two guys. Furthermore, I fully believe that I would have run pretty much the same time that day alone with the crowds and motorbikes.

“However, rules are rules and I am not stressing about things that are out of my control.”

Rules or no rules, one thing is for sure. In my eyes, the marathon world record is 2:15:25, not 2:17:42.

14 Responses to “When a world record is not a world record”

  1. Dan A says:

    I remember in the early days of the London marathon when the women ran with the men, and Ingrid Christiansen broke the world record. Does that not count any more?

  2. beast says:

    @Dan A: How would it count? It isn't a world record anymore, under the new rules or not… It'll always be "WAS a world record at the time" under the old rules.

  3. Chris Berry says:

    Get a grip why should it be different for road runners, no female world record could be set on the track if it were achieved in a mixed gender race under the rules of the sport so a level paying field for setting records has been achieved.

  4. hiddendanger says:

    IAAF = INSTITUTE of ARCHAIC ANAL FOOLS

  5. hiddendanger says:

    If I was Paula I'd be absolutely determined to post a new world record tomorrow in Berlin !

  6. Dave West says:

    Presume that in the interests of equal opportunities, the winning time in Berlin today will only be world best as it was set in a mixed race? Surely Macau was racing men and women today?

  7. joe w. says:

    Wouldn't it be great if paula could run a 2:03! Even hypothetically would all of the mens past world records be just be best performances then too. Every stride she ran was earn by her effort alone!

  8. paul says:

    Joe – what you been smoking man? Having said that, Paula's 2:15 was the fastest by any Brit (male or female) that year.

    Dave West – was Makau accompanied by two other runners (men or women) running within themselves, specifically there to benefit him, for the whole journey? Then you aren't comparing apples with apples.

    Question – if mixed races are unacceptable for record purposes, should they be allowable for qualification purposes? Especially when you are seeking qualification to run in a women-only race (eg Olympics)

    Second Question – following the IAAF logic, nobody should be able to set a national record in a race in which other nationalities compete, because arguably they are getting the same assistance from faster runners as women get in a mixed race.

  9. paul says:

    Post 2/2
    I think the ruling is absurd if you are talking about a competitive mixed race in which all athletes are striving to perform to their best. Where the grey area comes in is where you are looking at artificial pacing, which is always banned, and in a mixed race it is very difficult to differentiate between male competitors and male support runners. Sometimes it's blatant, like when Tegla Loroupe used to have 4-5 guys running in formation around her (beside & in front) so that she was being drafted, paced, and having drinks etc handed to her. Radcliffe's Kenyan minders in her 2:15 were less blatant, (as stated she actually went out of her way to make it so by not running behind them), but the fact remains that they were there for her benefit and were not actual competitors.

  10. Philip says:

    Traditionally, all marathon records were regarded as "world best" because of the different nature of marathon courses. Since the IAAF introduced the concept of a "world record" in 2003, courses are obliged to meet specific criteria in order to be counted. Hence, Geoffrey Mutai's 2.03.02 (April 2011) is not accepted as a world record because the Boston course does not meet the criteria for record attempts. There is still a case to be made for all road races to be regarded as world bests rather than world records but as the IAAF has decided the criteria for the acceptance of world records the matter is moot.

  11. Mike B says:

    It doesn't matter what the IAAF think most athletic fans regard paula's 2-15 as a world record

    • john hennessy says:

      on that day paula beleived as did everyone else watching that 2.15;25 was the fastest marathon ever ran by a woman it was an incredible performance one of the few believable world bests or records by a woman, yet the I.A.A.F. wish to ignore all the ridiculous performance enhanced records , which everyone knows to be a joke..

  12. Ian Macmillan says:

    quite rightly most thinking people regard Paula's world best as the world record but I seem to remember the London being won a few years ago in an inferior time to the then worlds best set in a mixed race and this being claimed as a world record as it was the fastest yet in a female only race. Anyway, no London time should count as the finish is both miles away from the start and a lot lower.

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