A (not so) modest proposal: tossing world records for female runners?

Paula Radcliffe as she finishes her world-record performance at the 2003 London Marathon.

The IAAF World Champions are underway in South Korea right now, and if you are a big runner dork like me, you’ll probably end up tuning in for at least some of the events.  I always find it incredibly inspiring to watch these finely-tuned athletes as they tear up the tracks in their respective events.  It makes me want to go outside and run quarter-mile repeats until my legs turn to jell-o.  (This is a good thing.)

But over the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about women’s elite track and field events for another reason, one that’s a little less exciting and a lot more disappointing.

At first, the idea of wiping clean the slate of world records set by women in track and field events was just an idea put forth by Edward McClelland over at Slate:

In the 11 Olympic running events contested by both sexes since the 1980s, the men’s world records are an average of seven years old, the women’s 20.* Even if you include the field events, in which the male and female throwing records are both suspiciously ancient, the gap is still 11 years versus 21 years. The classicism of the women’s record book merits a radical response from track’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations*: They should throw out the old records, and give today’s runners realistic times to chase.

(h/t for this link goes to Erica at Breakfast at Twilight)

I’ll give you the basic rundown of his argument so as to avoid exposing people to the seriously transphobic language that appears throughout the article.  McClelland’s thinking is that performance-enhancing drugs and hormones have more of a dramatic affect on women than on men, and that that drastic improvement allowed women to set records in the pre-drug testing years of track and field.  Now that performance-enhancing drugs/hormones have been banned from the sport, elite female sprinters will not be able to break those records, which has led to a lack of interest from both sponsors and fans, with very real financial consequences for the athletes:

The last crossover star in women’s track was Flo Jo, more than two decades ago. At the height of her fame, Griffith Joyner had a sportswear label and a fitness column in Parade magazine. The second-fastest woman in history, America’s reigning sprint queen Carmelita Jeter, has no chance to attain those rewards.

McClelland points out that the current men’s 100m world record holder, Usain Bolt, makes about $10 million a year in endorsements and appearance fees.

I’m kind of all over the place when it comes to his proposition.  My first reaction was to roll my eyes and dismiss the article as another of what Slate does best, which is post contrarian opinion pieces and watch the outraged page views pour in.  (OMG it worked.)  My second reaction was, Ew, transphobic language much?

I had just settled into my third phase, which is the “Okay, I’ll give this serious thought” stage, when another story popped up on my radar.

Now, where McClelland is merely putting forth a proposal and seeing what shakes out, this new story is about an actual move made by the actual governing body of the sport, and not just some freelance journalist trying to do his job.

From Running Times:

It confirms that the IAAF Congress at its meeting in Daegu, South Korea has voted to allow only times run in women-only marathons for record purposes. Specifically, the new rule reads: “World Records for women to be recognised in women only races. The IAAF shall keep a separate list of “World Best Performances” achieved in mixed Road Races.”

According to a member of the Road Race Commission, the commission had proposed separate records for women-only and mixed races; that proposal was rejected.

The main issue now is whether the rule will be applied retroactively. USATF’s Glenn Latimer seems to think so, and that Joan Benoit’s 2:24:52 at the 1984 Olympics will become the American record. In this case, note also that Paula Radcliffe’s 2:15:25 would no longer be the world record, as she had male pacemakers during that race (as did Deena Kastor when she ran 2:19:36). The Road Race Commission member also thinks existing records set in mixed races will be thrown out.

I thought about this while out running this morning, and tried to figure out why both of these stories are bothering me so much.  It occurred to me that the core of both issues is that certain performances by elite athletes have people questioning whether these women benefited from unfair advantages.  In the case of the world-class sprinters, those advantages are biochemical. In the case of the marathoners, those advantages are psychological.

At least with McClelland’s proposal, I can kind of understand where he’s coming from, but with the rule change for the IAAF, all I can think is what a bunch of crap that is.

Certainly I won’t deny that pacemakers bestow a considerable competitive benefit on those who use them.  That’s why they have pacemaking teams at major races!  I don’t use them, but I often race with my husband, who is a faster distance runner than I am, and his presence has helped push me to faster finishes.  (And now I have gotten to the point where I can offer the same for him – at least, in 5Ks I can.)

But you know who else motivates me to run faster and harder?  EVERYONE ELSE I’M RACING AGAINST.

Obviously there is a world of difference between me, who is a Good Local Racer, and Paula Radcliffe, who is Paula Fucking Radcliffe, but I think the point stands – that it becomes very difficult to say that one kind of psychological motivation was responsible for her world record, when there are so many other factors at play.  (Including, you know, the fact that she actually ran that time.)

It’s not as if this is the only sport that has ever had to deal with the question of unfair advantages.  McClelland notes that competitive swimming saw record after record fall when polyurethane body suits were allowed, and that records stopped being broken after they were banned.

Yet has anyone said those records should be thrown out?  Or what about major league baseball?  I know some have said Barry Bonds’ home run record should be designated with an asterisk to make note of the controversy surrounding performance enhancing drugs, but the powers that be have not done so, nor have they done so for Mark McGuire’s single-season home run record.  Those are records that are liable to not be broken again, at least not in our lifetimes.  Should we wipe them clean so future Major Leaguers can have a shot at breaking them?

I know this is not a perfect parallel, and that there are many factors that make an athlete’s performance over an entire season different from an athlete’s single-time performance.  I also know that McClelland is making the point that, by bringing world records back into play as a possible carrot for elite sprinters, it would give them the opportunity to make some serious bank.

I don’t know what the answer is with regards to sprinters.  (With the marathon rule, though, it’s a no-brainer – the rule change is, as Running Times says, silly.)  But what I do know is that the underlying implication is that a female elite athlete who blows away her competition is automatically suspect.  That it’s not considered possible that she’s just a lot faster than other women, or that she trained harder and has more physical gifts.  The implication is that she must somehow be cheating to be so good.  We’ve already seen that with Caster Semenya, and we know how badly that all played out.

Anyone have any other thoughts on this?  I’d love to hear them.

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3 responses to “A (not so) modest proposal: tossing world records for female runners?

  1. Thanks for blogging my article. I’m not quite sure what you mean by transphobic. I’ve nothing against transgendered people, although I don’t believe it’s fair for female athletes to artificially inflate their testosterone levels, and I don’t think transsexuals should be allowed to compete as women, because they still have broader shoulders, narrower hips, bigger lungs and stronger hearts than XX women. As Runners’ World pointed out, feminists should embrace this proposal, because it would level the playing field between men and women in terms of gaining recognition for achievements in track and field.

    Ted

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