World Records in Track and Field Pre-2005 Potentially to Disappear

Paula Radcliffe's world record setting marathon time
Paula Radcliffe’s world record setting marathon time

When Bob Beamon set the world record in the long jump at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, his victory was so dominating that the record held for nearly 23 years. Perhaps as amazing, when Mike Powell finally broke Beamon’s mark, Powell’s world record has held even longer – now over 25 years.

The European Athletics Association (EAA), the governing body for athletics throughout Europe, are making recommendations to bring greater integrity to historical track and field records that could result in the erasure of Powell’s records from the books. As far as I can gather, the EAA is assuming that standards for doping tests were not robust enough in the 1990s, and thus it is possible to assume that existing records from that time are suspect.

To that end, the EAA is proposing to the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) to adopt the following standards for athletics records, according to The Sports Examiner:

  • Performances would have to be achieved at competitions on a list of approved international events where the highest standards of officiating and technical equipment can be guaranteed;
  • The athlete will have been subject to an agreed number of doping control tests in the months leading up to the performance, and
  • The doping control sample taken after the record is stored and available for retesting for 10 years.

According to The Guardian, blood and urine samples have been stored by the IAAF as early as 2005. Thus the current speculation is that any track and field record set prior to 2005 no longer demonstrate acceptable levels of integrity. Not surprisingly, holders of records set prior to 2005 are outraged.

Jonathan Edwards, who set the current world record holder in the triple jump in 1995, said “I thought my record would go some day, just not to a bunch of sports administrators. It seems incredibly wrong-headed and cowardly and I don’t think it achieves what they want it to. Instead, it casts doubts on generations of athletics performances.”

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards and his world record setting jump

Paula Radcliffe, also quoted in the Guardian article, expressed dismay at the inference her record in the women’s marathon set in 2002 is thanks to doping. “I fully understand the desire and need to restore credibility to our sport but don’t feel that this achieves that,” said Radcliffe. “It is yet one more way that clean athletes are made to suffer for the actions of cheats.”

And here’s how Radcliffe expressed herself in Twitter.

I am hurt and do feel this damages my reputation and dignity. It is a heavy-handed way to wipe out some really suspicious records in a cowardly way by simply sweeping all aside instead of having the guts to take the legal plunge and wipe any record that would be found in a court of law to have been illegally assisted. It is confusing to the public at a time when athletics is already struggling to market itself.

As quoted in The Sports Examiner, the EAA president, Svein Arne Hansen of Norway, believes that these recommendations are essential to improving the integrity of records in sport. “Performance records that show the limits of human capabilities are one of the great strengths of our sport, but they are meaningless if people don’t really believe them. What we are proposing is revolutionary, not just because most world and European records will have to be replaced but because we want to change the concept of a record and raise the standards for recognition to a point where everyone can be confident that everything is fair and above board.”

Hansen is not alone and has an ally in the IAAF president, Sebastian Coe. “I like this because it underlines that we [the governing bodies] have put into place doping control systems and technology that are more robust and safer than 15 or even 10 years ago,” said Coe. “Of course, for this to be adopted for world records by the IAAF it needs global approval from all area associations. There will be athletes, current record holders, who will feel that the history we are recalibrating will take something away from them but I think this is a step in the right direction and if organized and structured properly we have a good chance of winning back credibility in this area.”

Coe speaks to the challenge of driving dramatic change. Will the records of Powell, Edwards and Radcliffe, among others, be wiped from the record books? Stay tuned.