What sport could possibly be more basic and uncomplicated than running? You line up at Point A and run to Point B. If you do that faster than anyone else ever has, you're a record-holder, right?
Umm not necessarily, it now seems.
You may have absorbed some of the controversy regarding a decision by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) regarding women's marathon records. The IAAF is the governing body of track and field and road racing, and has now decided that only times run in "women's only" races can be given consideration as world and national marathon records, and that times in "mixed" races, or those in which men were employed as women's pacesetters, cannot be designated as records. The most controversial part of the decision is that the IAAF is rewriting history.
Thus, Paula Radcliffe's previously accepted world record of 2:15:25 is out, as is another 2:17:18 she ran. The consolation is that Radcliffe is still the world record-holder, with a 2:17:42 she posted in London in 2005, when the women started 45 minutes before the men. Radcliffe told Runner's World that the IAAF action "is a little unfair. 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." She also made clear that in the two races now ineligible for record consideration, "it was not my decision to have male runners with me, but that of the race organizers."
Deena Kastor's listed American women's marathon record of 2:19:36 is now out, as are fast times by Joan Benoit -- who nevertheless will likely be listed as the U.S. record-holder, based on her 2:24:52 back in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics. Kastor suggested that the IAAF ruling "feels like a little bit of a cheapo shot" and asserts "nothing is going to take away the feeling I had of breaking the record that day."
Well, the IAAF is going to try to take away that feeling. One has to wonder why any sense of urgency exists about rewriting the marathon record books. One has to wonder because the IAAF isn't saying much about its motivation. It's a decision that seems both idiotic and nasty. If it's an attempt to provide "clarity," it fails miserably.
As part of the journalistic corps that follows running closely, I fret perhaps a little too much about how this niche sport comes across to the casual observer, the "general public." I recall the days when the exploits of Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Grete Waitz and Joan Benoit generated excitement and acclaim. That was back in the day when the simplest and most straightforward of sports was just that; the person who ran the best time for the distance held the record. As an aside, it needs mentioning that in the early 1980s, it was Waitz, not by her own design or preconception, who was pacing the men in the marathon. Second-tier (OK, third-tier) runners would hang with her, knowing she would reliably carry them along to a sub-2:30 performance, a very laudable showing for a "local hero."
But now there are a panoply of restrictions on road race record-setting. "Records" can only be set on what are virtually loop courses, layouts where the start and finish are in the same spot or at least in proximity to each other. So-called "point to point" courses, where the start and finish are miles apart, are not eligible for record consideration. This means that no world or national record can be set at the two most famous American marathons, Boston (which is run from the town of Hopkinton to downtown Boston) and New York City (which has a Staten Island start and finishes in Manhattan). Part of the reasoning is that elevation drops could give the athlete an advantage in timing -- even though New York City is actually known as a difficult course.
So when Geoffrey Mutai ran 2:03:02 in Boston this April, 57 seconds under Haile Gebrselassie's "world record" set in Berlin in 2008, all pertinent parties quickly made clear the Kenyan had not replaced Gebrselassie in the record books. Ryan Hall, a towhead with an "aw shucks" manner, a Stanford graduate's intelligence and all the makings of a popular hero, ran 2:04:58, 50 seconds under Khalid Khannouchi's American standard, but Hall didn't get credit for a record, either. On the women's side, Desiree Davila's second-place 2:22:38 effort in Boston that day wasn't as fast as Kastor's 2:19:36, but it's among the times being passed over to hand the record back to Benoit (who is now Benoit Samuelson).
Just think of it. What other sport's poobahs would rush to declare that the most superlative performance in the sport's history "didn't count?" When Rory McIlroy scored an all-time best 16-under par at golf's 2011 U.S. Open, did anyone say it "didn't count" because the Congressional course in Maryland wasn't hard enough? Should the NBA review games played before the shot clock was instituted in 1954 and invalidate all baskets scored more than 24 seconds into a possession?
Rewriting history. What a strange practice that is. Women like Radcliffe and Kastor will now be deprived of recognition for achievements that were approved and even lauded at the time, efforts that expanded the boundaries of what seemed attainable for women. Do you realize what Radcliffe's 2:15:25 marathon -- superior to that of men who had shoe contracts designating them as "world class" -- did to the typical diligent female endurance athlete's sense of what was now possible for her? It was an epochal achievement. Now it "doesn't count."
Let's imagine if this kind of rewriting extended to other sports, if we insisted that conditions in widespread acceptance now had to be applied to past achievements. Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in baseball in 1941 is revered as one of the greatest feats in sports. DiMaggio called Satchel Paige "the best and fastest pitcher I've ever faced." But regrettably, because of the sport's segregation, DiMaggio didn't face Paige during the streak, as Paige wasn't in the major leagues until 1948. Does that mean DiMaggio's streak shouldn't count? Is that a dumb idea? It's an extremely dumb idea. But logicians at the IAAF could argue in favor of it. Standards of what constitutes a balk have been altered over the years. Do you want to go back to tapes of games played before that change, and see what the outcome would have been if today's rules were imposed on yesterday? Does that sound preposterous? Yes. Yes it does.
The upshot of the IAAF move is this: Negating existing marathon records is punishing heroic women. It's confusing an issue that, on the face of it, isn't confusing at all. And to what end? If the IAAF is so intent on "cleaning up" record books, when will it remove the marks set by drug-ingesting East German women in the 1970s and 1980s? Files that became public after East Germany ceased to exist revealed the details of systematic drug-taking. Why won't the IAAF excise those records?
None of this argues against the notions that world-class men and women should not be competing in the same marathon, and that women should not be paced by men. I happen to concur with those policies, provided that they're announced in advance of the marathons and are enforced in the present and future. Altering the past, though, is unfair.
The World Marathon Majors -- which is a consortium of races in Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York City -- and AIMS, the Association of International Marathons, released a statement declaring "the current situation where the fastest time is not now recognized as a record is confusing and does not respect the history of our sport." Well and succinctly put. And not terribly hard to figure out.
Meanwhile, at this Sunday's Berlin Marathon, a half-dozen pacers (male) will be utilized to try and coax a Kenyan named Patrick Makau to a world record. They're the same gender, but what they're doing is clearly "assistance" and "aid." And it's still a widely accepted practice. But does it seem right to you?
New York City-based journalist Peter Gambaccini has covered distance running for Runner's World and other outlets for the past 30 years, and is the author of a book about the history of the New York City Marathon.