IAAF only succeed in confusing record issue


ATHLETICS:Even if the IAAF stop women being paced by men for world record purposes, it doesn’t give them the right to scrap records that were set under the previous rule, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

I FINALLY TOLD my dad the truth the other night about how I qualified for the FISEC Games. It was 1987, I believe, and the FISEC Games were a sort of European championships for Catholic schools – and my first shot at the big time.

To qualify, the Irish Schools’ Athletic Association staged a trial, so we assembled in Belfield that Sunday morning and declared our preferred event. As it turned out, when it came to the 1,500 metres, there was only myself, two other lads, and two girls, and for expediency purposes it was agreed we’d all run together.

Selection wasn’t just based on winning the trial but the winning time as well, as competition in the FISEC Games was actually pretty stiff. We set off steady enough but at 800 metres I injected a ferocious surge, carried it through until the bell, then took a quick glance over my shoulder: to my absolute shock the only runner to stick with me was one of the girls.

Let’s just say I ran the last lap in a blaze of terror – a sizzling 55 seconds, to be precise – for fear of being beaten by that girl, and arrived home a brilliant winner in 3:54.1, which still rates as one of the best performances of my humble career.

“The worry now,” I told my dad, “is the IAAF are going to downgrade this performance.” He looked at me worryingly and said: “What the hell are you on about?” Thus began our heated debate about this new rule where women cannot be paced by men when it comes to world records.

The IAAF passed it, subtly enough, at their Congress in Daegu in August and it’s due to come into effect on January 1st – when the immediate and most high-profile casualty will be Paula Radcliffe’s women’s marathon world record of 2:15.25, which she ran in London in 2003, and yes, accompanied by a few men.

This rule has effectively applied to track races anyway, but there is one important difference: the vast majority of road races, especially marathons, are mixed, with men and women competing together, whereas on the track, of course, they’re always separated. What the IAAF have now decided is if women are running alongside men on the roads then they can’t set world records; these times will only be recognised as a “world best”.

Ironically, the world record will still stand to Radcliffe, the 2:17.42 she ran in London in 2005, when the men were kept separate, but in the meantime there’s a swelling of complaints that might yet force the IAAF to change their minds.

Radcliffe is actually meeting IAAF president Lamine Diack on Wednesday to argue her case (“I fully believe I would have run pretty much the same time that day alone,” she says) although it probably won’t help that the vast majority of the IAAF council members are men.

The reality of Radcliffe’s 2:15.25 is the pace-making made little or no difference: she was in phenomenal form that day, at the peak of her distance running powers, and the fact is her two male pace-makers – Kenya’s Christopher Kandie and Daniel Too – never once ran in front of her, but rather alongside her. Where’s the great advantage in that?

There are other implications here, including of course national marathon records – almost all set in mixed races. Catherina McKiernan had a couple of male pace-makers when she set her Irish record of 2:22.23 in Amsterdam in 1998, including my former Dundrum team-mate Gerry McGrath. She was targeting the then world record of 2:20.47, held by Kenya’s Tegla Loroupe, and set with a team of male pace-makers – although McKiernan’s problem in Amsterdam wasn’t the pace but the horrendous wind, which almost certainly cost her the record.

Like Radcliffe, McKiernan was well capable of running that sort of time alone, not that she had – and still doesn’t have – any problem with men running alongside women, or vice versa.

Thankfully, Athletics Ireland still intend to recognise McKiernan’s 2:22.23 as a national record, as is their right, not that anyone is about to break it soon anyway. But what the new IAAF rule also means is the vast majority of road races are effectively ruled out for record purposes, as men will nearly always be running with the women.

There’s another element to this debate. I’m looking at the list of women’s track and field world records right now, and frankly, most of them are a joke. Of the 21 headline events, all but six of the world records were set during the drug-fuelled 1980s or the freak Chinese invasion of the early 1990s. Some of the records are so ridiculous there’s every chance they’ll outlive those who set them, which is already sadly true in the case of 100 and 200 metres world-record holder Florence Griffith-Joyner.

Surely if the IAAF feel strongly enough about the need to effectively scrap some world records because the woman might somehow have got an unfair advantage by being paced by a man, then why not scrap the world records where the woman very probably got an unfair advantage by consuming industrial amounts of anabolic steroids?

There’s not just the drugs argument here: why not scrap the 100 metres world record of 9.58 seconds Usain Bolt set at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, because he false-started in his semi-final, and of course under the new rules, should have been disqualified.

The point there is even if the IAAF are intent on bringing in this rule where women cannot be paced by men when it comes to world records it doesn’t give them the right to simply scrap the records that were set under the previous rule.

No one is denying that pace-makers can and usually do offer a significant advantage: the very definition of a pace-maker is to run at a set pace that would be impossible to sustain over the full length of the race, while also shielding the following runners from wind, before then dropping out. But it shouldn’t and doesn’t matter if that’s a man or women.

If so, why stop there? Should it be similarly illegal from now on to allow Kenyan runners pace Europeans, given the Kenyans are invariably faster? Indeed several Irish athletes hope to chase the Olympic marathon qualifying time over the coming weeks, starting tomorrow, when Martin Fagan runs in Chicago. He intends being paced by the Kenyans to run under the necessary 2:15.00, so should the IAAF now question that, believing he had an unfair advantage?

Or perhaps the men should not be allowed set world records in races that also feature women, as part of their motivation might be to not lose to “one of the girls”, the way I was that day at the FISEC Games trials?

It seems in trying to level the platform for world-record breaking performances the IAAF have instead created further inconsistencies and some silly differentiation, and not only disrespected one of the truly great world records, but left me wondering if I was truly worthy of that 3:54.1.