Some sort of rewriting of the track and field record books is being examined as the sport continues to wrestle with its credibility in light of recent doping scandals.
The problem is deciding how to draw a line through not just some of the existing world records but also continental and national records: UK Athletics has called for all world records to be reset as part of its Manifesto for Clean Athletics, published yesterday, although the European Athletics Federation is examining a somewhat more plausible solution.
European competition member Pierce O’Callaghan, also on the Athletics Ireland statistics committee, is part of the working group set up to examine the issue. European Athletics president Svein Arne Hansen has admitted several world records, which also stand as European records, stem back from recent doping eras and are thus effectively unbreakable (unless also drug-fuelled).
“Svein is very realistic about it,” says O’Callaghan. “Some of those old East German records, for example, might never be broken. And it has reached the stage where many people have stopped watching athletics because they don’t believe what they are seeing.
“So he has put together a working group, including myself, to present some concrete proposals towards addressing this. But scrapping a record is a complex business. There may be question marks over some, while others may be considered fair.
“What we are looking at instead is adjusting the rules of competition for certain events. In the 100m, for example, there are ways at looking at the photo finish. Instead of using the ‘trunk’ of the body, as is now the technical rule, it could be adjusted to make it the ‘chest’. So, under these new regulations, the existing records are no longer applicable.
“It’s already been done, when they redesigned the javelin, after the distances being thrown became dangerous. Something like that could be done across the throwing events. In the 110m hurdles, the official height of the hurdle is 106.7cm, so perhaps that could be adjusted too. Or another example, in race walking, where they are very close to introducing an alarm on the shoe which indicates loss of contact with the ground, thereby breaking the rules. That effectively becomes a different event, under new competition rules, and with that allows for new records.
“In the jumps and pole vault, there doesn’t appear to be as much of a problem [with doping]. So we can’t just wipe all the records clear and begin again. We can break down the different events, different disciplines, and work from there. We’re looking at a few different ideas and we’d hope to report by the late spring. We’re not going to hang around on this.”
Several European records also stand as world records: former East German sprinter Marita Koch still holds the 400m world record of 47.60, set in Canberra in 1985. No other woman has broken 48 seconds in the 30 years since; former GDR team-mate Gabriele Reinsch has held the discus world record of 76.80m since 1988, while no other woman has come within two metres of it since; the former Czechoslovakian Jarmila Kratochvilova’s 800m world record of 1:53.28 has stood since 1983, and the Bulgarian Yordanka Donkova’s 100m hurdles world record of 12.21 since 1988.
Indeed the current IAAF world records for women now have a combined age of over three centuries, many of which will outlive the women who set them. They already have in the case of Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 10.49 for 100m and 21.34 for 200m, both set in 1988. She died in 1998 of an epileptic seizure.
If the process of rewriting world and continental records begins then national records will also be impacted.
Athletics Ireland has just published its complete evolution of national records, and many of those records are equally long-standing: Colm Cronin’s triple jump record has stood since 1977, Ray Flynn’s mile/1,500m record since 1982, and John Treacy’s marathon record since 1988.
“I can safely say that no one has any doubt over any of the Irish records in the books, or that any of them are not legit” says O’Callaghan. “Just read the list. John Treacy still holds the marathon record from 1988, but he also still holds the intermediate schools 3,000m record from 1974.
“If competition rule changes are agreed, then effectively that becomes a different event, but to be fair, Ireland has been one of the world leaders in anti-doping. That’s well accepted. Some word records have lasted long because we know were part of a doping regime. Others are still there because they were set by great athletes.
“We want to ensure the people can believe what they are watching, not associating with records from, say the former East Germany. But this is only the start of the process of restoring some credibility.”
For the Evolution of Irish Athletics see athleticsireland.ie