The farcical ruling that has hit women’s road running
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?”
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.”
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.