Sonia O’Sullivan: Wiping out all world records not way forward

If we want to restore sport’s credibility, athletes must break code of silence

IAAF president Sebastian Coe. Photogaph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

IAAF president Sebastian Coe. Photogaph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.


Some people have asked me if Sebastian Coe is the right person to lead the fightback and the regeneration of athletics as a sport that we can have faith in once again. Rather than saying he is the right or wrong person, I think it’s more important to focus on the fact this is not a job for one person.

Because what we can easily deduce from recent Wada findings into doping in Russia and elsewhere, with more such revelations due later today, is that the problem has gone beyond what most clean honest athletes could even have suspected: some cheats will be caught, some may even put their hands up and admit guilt, but many will escape and simply just count their lucky stars. 

It’s up to everyone involved in athletics to help weed out the cheats and to build a system that is more favourable for the athletes supporting a clean sport, rather than those that try to beat the system by using loopholes to reap the benefits for themselves.

Athletes have been silent for a long time, particularly athletes that have been true to themselves and protective of their sport. Only now, with so many of the recent revelations – proof of blatant cheating by athletes that was actually being covered up – should more of us speak up, and take more responsibility for restoring some credibility.

Payment for fast times can sometimes encourage athletes to cheat. But the suggestion that the IAAF should simply erase all current world records and start all over again as part of their clean-up act is something I don’t agree with. However, I do feel many world records have not been achieved fairly.

Athletics is also built on statistics and fast times each year, but as the times have improved and some athletes have achieved greatness with increasing ease, the credibility within the sport has continued to diminish.


It often requires superhuman efforts to achieve the sort of times bonuses and other rewards in the form of million dollar payments. That will always create a further temptation for certain athletes to cheat to sustain their professional livelihood and status in world athletics.

But rather than erase what has gone before, I think in time we need to analyse the records that have been set in the past and document any credibility issues by highlighting the uncertainty of some records.

Second Captains

We cannot simply delete history as many past athletes have clean sheets and they deserve to be recognised as pure athletes, with clean honest performances that have set the benchmarks for future generations to either emulate or surpass.

If we start to erase world records, where will it end? National federations may follow suit to delete a whole generation of records because some athletes didn’t follow the rules. This is not the time to sweep aside the past and start all over again; we need to take time to weed out questionable records and this is where retired athletes, coaches, training partners need to stand up and be honest and appease the public with an honest review of our athletics history.

Athletics is still the most basic of sports, and sometimes it’s the simplicity of athletics that generates the most interest. A race is always so much more engaging than a time trial, and exciting as it is to watch an athlete run faster than ever before, the cloud of doping allegations hanging over the athletics world further highlights this need for the IAAF to focus on rebuilding athletics as a simple yet competitive sport.

That means restoring the importance of racing, pitting the best athletes against each other, rather than always looking to go faster, higher and stronger. 

It used to be that cross country was the bread and butter of most distance runners at this time of year, including myself. More recently, with the somehow dwindling importance placed on the world cross country, fewer and fewer athletes are using it as an important part of their progression through the winter months

In some ways it has become more of a niche sport for those who are not as successful on the track, beyond the odd appearance of world stars at international events. 

There are a few exceptions: the European cross country has found a successful place on the athletics calendar, as has last Saturday’s Edinburgh International. This is one of the few cross country races that still attracts a big crowd to Holyrood Park each year and, backed up with live TV coverage, it is attractive for the athletes too. 

European team

The inclusion of a European team gives several Irish athletes the opportunity to test themselves against the top US and British runners, who also compete each year. It’s another level up from the European cross country and that gives it added importance too.

Having a team race as part of the event adds another important dimension, allowing the athletes to engage with the audience much more so than an ordinary individual invitational race.

This is one area that could be used throughout the athletics season – on the roads, indoors and even on the track.


By reverting to some traditional matches between countries, more of the top athletes would be encouraged to compete, and likewise engage the audiences. There is also a little suspense and unpredictability surrounding the result, and true racing like this is the perfect platform to help restore some credibility in the sport.

This is one of the areas that the IAAF hasn’t fully recognised and must focus on if it is to regenerate interest and engage the fans.

They have to reconnect with past athletes and work together to regain trust in athletics and also work with current athletes to drive the credibility and faith in this most basic of all sports.

That way, everyone can begin to move forward again.

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