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When is a world record not a world record?

Wednesday 21st September 2011

The big (ish) news in athletics this week is that Paula Radcliffe is the world record holder in the marathon. Hang on, I hear you ask, wasn’t she always the world record holder? Of course you are right – she was and still is, but the IAAF, kind people that they are, have added 2 minutes on to her world record. So why has the world’s governing body decided to alter the world record by a margin large enough to make a cup of tea in?

In April 2003, Paula Radcliffe shocked the world by running the greatest marathon ever, winning the London Marathon in a time of 2:15:25. She had previous of course, having captured the world record half a year earlier in Chicago, but her London time was absolutely stunning. However, in both races she had the assistance of male pacemakers, rendering the races ‘mixed races’ and thus ineligible for world record purposes.

Mercifully Paula is still the record holder, by virtue of the fact that she completely dominated the women’s marathon for several years in the early part of last decade, and the third fastest time ever also belongs to her. But this isn’t right. I appreciate the benefits of having a pacemaker; indeed most modern distance records were set with the assistance of someone else who didn’t finish the race, but to disallow this particular record seems foolish, and moreover sets a very strange precedent. Where do we draw the line now a world record is not a world record? Presumably Bernard Lagat’s US record at 5000m does not count because he was following someone faster from another country, thus gaining an advantage not available to other Americans? Christophe Lemaitre ran a national record this summer trailing in Usain Bolt’s wake. Cancel it. And whilst we are on the subject, my 5k PB might as well be disregarded as I was chasing people who were better than me. Of course I bloody was, that’s why I set it.

The main argument seems to be that in men’s races the pacemaker drops out before the end of the race. The athlete is beating a genuine competitor, albeit one who can run 30k at world record pace but knows he can’t go any further. This is why race organisers don’t just let someone fresh step in after the first pacemaker is finished; they wouldn’t be genuine competitors. The men who paced Paula to her London time were genuine competitors, as she has pointed out this week. They were asked to run at 2:16 pace and did so until Paula decided she had more in the tank and dropped one of them. He couldn’t keep up with the pace that Paula was setting, not the other way round. She did that all by herself. It’s not her fault that there were no women good enough to run with her.

We now have an interesting situation where the two best male times and the two best female times for 26.2 miles do not count as world records, the best of these being given the second-rate ‘world’s best’ tag. There is a reasonable argument for not ratifying the former of these times, set during this year’s freakishly fast Boston Marathon, as the athletes benefitted from tailwainds for the entire length of the point-to-point course. But try telling Paula Radcliffe she couldn’t have run 2:15 without assistance, when the world record list for women reads like a who’s who of people who have quite clearly had assistance.

What a shame.