Wednesday 16 January 2019

Radical proposals for records a step in right direction for athletics

Desperate times need revolutionary measures for the sport to save itself

Pierce O’Callaghan, the chairman of the Project Team. Photo: Sportsfile
Pierce O’Callaghan, the chairman of the Project Team. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

A confession to start. When the news broke this week about the proposal to wipe all world and European records before 2005, I realised I didn't want athletics to lose its dirty past. I like the fact that I can run my finger down the list of world records, shake my head and think how stupid I was to believe what I saw on TV especially when I was a kid.

I like the fact that most of these records are a constant reminder of the extent to which some athletes went to cheat and lie along with the more sinister systematic doping.

I like that they're a symbol of how corruption can destroy a sport, of a failure of governance to mind the sport it was meant to protect, of a world where fairness was deemed irrelevant and, most of all, I like the fact that most of these world records remind me that athletics will never fool me again.

What these recommendations that would lead to the rewriting of the world and European records lists does is force us to ask ourselves how much we want athletics to really save itself.

If the European Athletics' project team's proposals are accepted by the IAAF then a record would only be recognised if it meets certain criteria including if an athlete has been subjected to an agreed number of doping tests in the months leading up to the performance and if the doping control sample taken after the record is stored and available for retesting for 10 years.

On the opening page of the Report of the European Records Credibility Project Team is a quote from John Lydgate: "You can please some people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time".

The project team knew what was coming. What followed was an outcry especially from athletes who would be stripped of their records, records like Paula Radcliffe's 2:15.25 for the marathon in 2003.

In response to these proposals, Radcliffe said on Twitter that "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".

Clean athletes with world and European records set before 2005 have a right to be pissed off. They're once again the fall guys.

These new recommendations initially came off as an attempted root-and-branch search for re-branding of its past where the branches were being pruned for public view while the root was being left to rot away the rest of the sport.

What about bigger suspensions for cheats? What about more out-of-competition testing? Because this doesn't feel like a fight against the actual root problem of doping in all its guises.

But that's somewhat missing the point because records are important reference points in the sport. Records like Florence Griffith Joyner's 100m and 200m marks from 1988 are a weight dragging the sport down.

When W.R. flashes up on the screen, the initials mean less 'World Record!' and more 'What? Really?'

While wiping the slate clean when it comes to world records has long been bandied about, it still felt like the rug was pulled from under us with these radical proposals because we've been so used to gesture politics.

We became used to administrators bringing a knife to a gunfight to try and rescue athletics - decisions like making athletes wear 'I Run Clean' slogans on their bibs as if that might actually convince anyone that everyone wearing this propaganda is 100pc clean.

But these recommendations don't seem like gesture politics. The cut is falling on the year 2005 because this was the year when the IAAF started storing samples so it is as feasible a year as any to reset the record books.

The argument that "records are solely there to be broken by athletes not administrators" is not fit for purpose for a sport which has run so out-of-bounds with doping that it needs radical action to save itself.

But why lump clean athletes' records in with the dodgy ones? Why does it have to be a one-size-fits-all approach?

The report states that one of the possible options was to "examine the records one by one and remove those clearly achieved by unfair means".

But, according to Pierce O'Callaghan, the chairman of the Project Team, this option would not stand up in a court of law. Therefore, the decision was made to establish new criteria for records.

"The recommendations were around the integrity and credibility of the records. It wasn't about stripping away the past, it was about changing the criteria by which a record is defined," O'Callaghan said yesterday. "This isn't an instant solution. This is part of a process of reform in the sport".

Why should female athletes competing in the 100m and 200m continue to have a record attached to their event which did not have the same kind of doping tests available which exist today?

This proposed move to rewrite the record books isn't sensationalist, it's actually common sense.

O'Callaghan's mantra is to write a better future. When words like this are backed up by an actual desire to enforce real change then why should it be automatically downgraded, as some have done, to being a public relations stunt?

"Is this process going to stop doping tomorrow? No it's not going to stop doping. It's another deterrent, it's another battle against doping," O'Callaghan added.

"A record should be comparable over conditions. But the conditions when the records were set in the 1980s are quite obviously not the same as now."

Stricter rules for a world and European record to be ratified won't automatically make athletics a clean sport. But, whisper it, it might just be a step in the right direction.

Irish Independent

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