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Track And Field May Scrap Its Records Because Of Doping Scandals. Is That A Good Idea?

The Russian doping affair that became public with a report by a World Anti-Doping Agency-supported independent commission in 2016 is only the latest doping scandal to rock the world of track and field. From the wide-scale doping programs in the 1980s Soviet Union and East Germany, to Ben Johnson and the Balco scandal that snared Marion Jones, doping has a long history in the sport.

Now, a proposal developed by European Athletics and submitted to track and field’s international governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, aims to wipe the slate clean.

The proposed rules would essentially annul records set before 2005, when new anti-doping standards took effect. “It’s a radical solution for sure, but those of us who love athletics are tired of the cloud of doubt and innuendo that has hung over our records for too long,” EA President President Svein Arne Hansen said in a statement. IAAF President Sebastian Coe has also expressed support for the proposal, and the IAAF plans to consider it by the end of the year.

We gathered a few runners and sports journalists to discuss the proposal, the ethical issues it raises and what track and field might do to improve the sport’s credibility. The transcript has been lightly edited.

Our participants:

Christie Aschwanden is a lifelong runner and lead science writer at FiveThirtyEight.

Bonnie Ford is an enterprise and Olympics reporter for ESPN, where she has written extensively about doping in sports.

Kara Goucher is a two-time Olympian, an American record holder, World Championships silver medalist, and one of America’s most accomplished distance runners.

Alex Hutchinson is a former physicist and national-class runner who covers the science of endurance sport for Runner’s World and other publications.

Christie: Let’s talk about the specifics of the proposed rules in a minute. But first, I want to ask about the intention here. According to the proposal’s text:

The sad reality is that there are records on the books at the World, Area (continental) and national levels in which people in the sport, the media and the public do not have full and complete confidence.

Do you agree that there are records on the books that are questionable? Solutions aside for a moment, is the EA’s characterization of the problem accurate?

Kara: Yes, I’d agree that there are records that are suspect.

Bonnie: True. I’d add that this could be said of any modern sport.

Alex: That’s an understatement. There are records we know were drug-aided. And there are some that are suspect for other reasons, i.e., Florence Griffith-Joyner’s record was almost certainly wind-aided.

Christie: It’s interesting to see track and field address the doping issue in this way. Bonnie, do you know of any other sports that have seriously considered revising their records to account for doping (or other forms of cheating)?

Bonnie: There was a big debate in swimming after the introduction/impact of the “tech suits,” [special suits that increased buoyancy and decreased drag] and 43 world records went down at the 2009 Rome worlds. Suits are now far more strictly regulated, but those records were ultimately left standing. Some “tech suit” records now have been broken or are being challenged.

Christie: So in track and field, is this a case where there are certain records that are widely considered suspect, or are all of them suspect?

Kara: That’s a good question. I think some are considered more suspect than others, but sadly, suspicion looms over most now.

Bonnie: I do NOT by any means think all the extraordinary performances in track were achieved by doping.

Alex: I don’t think it’s a binary answer. There’s no record I’m 100 percent sure is clean and no record I’m 100 percent sure is dirty. But as Kara says, some are a heck of a lot more suspicious that others. If the records are reset, there will absolutely be some clean athletes who lose records.

Kara: I agree with Alex, and that’s why I think the reset is dangerous.

Christie: OK, so let’s get to the proposal itself, which says that world and European records can only be recognized if:

  1. the performance is achieved at competitions on a list of approved international events where the highest standards of officiating and technical equipment can be guaranteed;
  2. the athlete has been subject to an agreed-upon number of doping control tests in the months leading up to the performance; and
  3. the doping control sample taken after the record is stored and available for retesting for 10 years.

Reasonable?

Kara: I like the idea of stricter testing. I like the idea of scheduled retesting. But I think this must be grandfathered in. I am opposed to erasing records set prior to 2005.

Bonnie: No. 1 seems like a no-brainer. No. 3 is now WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) standard and, as Kara said, should be grandfathered. Broad philosophy-wise: I oppose scrubbing any records for a few reasons. First, it does not give athletes due process. Second, record books are a reflection of actual events, not a perfect text.

Alex: I think the specific rules are fine. In a sense, I think they just wanted some change in rules as a legally defensible way of wiping the record slate clean. They say as much in their report.

Christie: So Kara, you would be in favor of adopting these rules going forward but not eliminating the existing records?

Kara: Yes, I could agree to that. But I’d like to see more clarification on how many tests they need and how often the will retest the stored sample. No. 2 is the hardest to implement.

Bonnie: No. 2 is the tricky one. It LOOKS like a simple, easy fix to require a certain number of drug tests. But that would require a change in the WADA code and would be a nightmarish extra layer of bureaucracy.

Christie: Kara, you have been a whistleblower and a vocal advocate for clean sport. Do you have a sense of how this proposal is being received among your peers?

Kara: I think most people are for the proposal moving forward, but we are more concerned with what is happening in competitions right now. We are a little frustrated that it is focused on world records and not just clean competition across the board.

Bonnie: The International Olympic Committee has also advanced this notion of having a required number of tests in a period before the Olympics, but the global infrastructure simply doesn’t exist to do this right now.

Kara: Agree with Bonnie that it sounds good but will be nearly impossible to implement.

Bonnie: And how would you account for someone who was not in a testing pool but qualifies for an Olympic or world team? It happens.

Kara: It does happen.

Christie: You raise an interesting issue, Kara. With these sorts of proposals I wonder how much of it is aimed at showing that the bureaucrats are doing something versus doing the most effective things they can to address the problems.

Kara: Christie, that’s honestly how I feel. This is to show they care, to get good press. But what are they doing about actual everyday problems? Are they addressing competitions now?

Alex: That’s an interesting point — focusing on world records is “easier” than cleaning up the sport at large.

Christie: Do we know that new records are cleaner? There’s been a lot of suspicion about some recent records.

Kara: We don’t know that new records are cleaner. We have seen two “unbreakable” records go down in women’s distance running in the last two years. Are those breakable?

Bonnie: I view erasing sports history as just as dicey as erasing other history! If there are questionable records, letting them stand is a continual reminder that the system failed the industry, the athletes and fans, and that the system needs to be constantly monitored and improved.

Kara: Yes, and the IAAF doesn’t like that.

Alex: It’s maybe worth pointing out that history won’t be fully erased. Those times will still be in the books as part of IAAF history, much like Uwe Hohn’s javelin record under the old specifications. They just won’t be recognized as the current records. No one will forget, say, Marita Koch.1

Christie: Given how many of the recent doping scandals have been exposed due to whistleblowing and investigative work, not doping tests, is the reliance of these proposed rules on doping tests going to assure that new records are clean?

Kara: I’d say absolutely not.

Christie: Yeah, one of the problems with doping (and the fallibility of testing) is that it makes every good performance suspect. How do you balance the need to root out cheaters with the desire to recognize truly great performances?

Kara: That’s the sad part of all of this. It makes all great performances be taken with a grain of salt.

Bonnie: I can’t stress this enough: You can’t ever be completely sure.

Kara: Agree — you can never be 100 percent sure either way.

Christie: Right, you can’t prove you’re clean. Remember when Lance Armstrong talked about how many tests he’d passed? And that Nike ad where he said, “What am I on? I’m on my bike, bustin’ my ass, six hours a day.” It really comes down to trust. How does the sport win that back?

Kara: Well, that’s the frustrating part. Lance never failed a test (although that is now disputable), so what does that prove? Nothing. Trust will only be won when the IAAF isn’t afraid to nail big names.

Christie: Good point. The Armstrong case shows just how vested a sport and all its stakeholders can be in the sport’s stars.

Bonnie: So what truly is the point of putting some world records back “within reach”? It does not eliminate the mistrust factor, so is it to benefit athletes who would get bonuses, or sponsors who would promote those athletes? Kara — you would know more about this; are there big incentives for world records written into contracts, or has that faded from fashion?

Kara: No, there are still big incentives.

Christie: So one question is whether the focus on records actually has a negative effect here, by incentivizing unbelievable performances.

Kara: I think that people want records; they think that makes the sport more popular and interesting. But the competition can be sold in a way that is interesting. We don’t need world records for people to watch.

Alex: So to me, it feels a little extra unfair for once-in-a-generation athletes who spend their careers being compared to ridiculous records. But then again, I thought that about the women’s 10,000 record too, which, as someone mentioned above, went down last year.

Bonnie: I know track is a point-A-to-point-B sport, but shouldn’t the work and results be its own reward? (Easy for me to say, I know.) For example, there are mountains in the Tour de France that will likely never be climbed as fast as they were a while ago, but there’s still a winner and a best athlete on the day.

Kara: I like Bonnie’s point. We need better marketing and selling of stories and personalities.

Alex: There’s always a tension in the sport between those who think it should be all about head-to-head competition and those who think it’s about the clock or measuring tape. I think both are important and exciting, but I definitely think the ability to compare current stars to “all time” is one of the sport’s attractions. So records do have some meaning, even given the haziness surrounding some of them. To me, that’s one argument for trying to make at least some sort of attempt at keeping the records “real.”

Bonnie: Alex is right in that there is a thrill, even in the press box, of being present to see a world record broken.

Alex: I’m actually kind of ambivalent about the proposal.

But given that Kara and Bonnie seem to be skeptical, I’ll try to articulate a bit some of the pros … 🙂

Bonnie: Alex, I am interested in the pros, because I’m totally down on this proposal. I see it as a mixture of shell game and ill-conceived PR.

Kara: Alex, I hear what you are saying, but you liked the sub-two-hour marathon attempt, right? It was interesting. It was captivating. But at the end of the day, it wouldn’t have been a real record.

Alex: Yeah, that turned out to be way more exciting than I expected — but to me, that sort of argues that the pursuit of never-been-done times does have an attraction.

Christie: As a fan, I prefer to watch a race like the 1500, where tactics come into play, over a race where everything spreads out and one runner dominates.

Bonnie: Same with the marathon, Christie. I like seeing how athletes interact in real (and imperfect) conditions.

Kara: There is a place for records and fast running, but there is still just as much thrill in head-to-head competition on the track or on the field. We’ve gotten away from that.

Alex: It seems we’re sort of arguing here that world records aren’t that important. But if so, why the angst about resetting them?

Kara: Well, they are important. But a world record is a world record, and it should be hard and it should be rare and it shouldn’t be taken away because we don’t like that they haven’t been broken in a long time.

Alex: To me, you scan down the list of current records, and the message it sends is a white flag of surrender — like we’ve given up even pretending that the records are supposed to be undoped. Marita Koch’s doping regimen was released after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there are other records that aren’t much more credible than hers.

Bonnie: There are outlier cases like Koch’s where there is specific evidence out there, but that doesn’t exist for many/most old world records. My angst is from the athletes’ rights perspective.

Kara: Imagine you are Mike Powell and you had a magical day and now you are told that your record doesn’t matter because no one has broken it. That’s insane! World records should be rare — they are magical moments when people achieve a new level of human greatness.

Alex: Maybe it’s a messaging problem. The proposal clearly states that they’re not implying guilt or “taking away” records. They’re just starting a new list as of 2005. Just like the javelin, which changed technical specs in the 1980s. Instead of talking about “erasing” world records, maybe we should talk about starting a new list of post-2005 records, which will be listed alongside the pre-2005 records in the books.

Just like, since turning 40, I get to keep track of my new “masters” PRs …

Bonnie: I hear you, Alex. But what I don’t like is the implication that anti-doping now is foolproof. What happens when the “new” records get upended after retesting? Even more of a credibility issue, IMO.

Alex: I guess I don’t take the implication that anti-doping is foolproof. No one could possibly believe that. They’re not trying to be perfect, they’re trying to be better.

Kara: And yes, I think that is a huge part of it. We are seeing people beat some of these records now that were thought to be unbreakable. So now we are just supposed to believe it because of stored samples?

Bonnie: Christie said that for this discussion, we should pretend we’re at a bar. I feel like I’m a couple drinks in.

Christie: Ha 🍸

Alex: 🙂

Christie: So what would you all think of adopting these new rules, but only henceforth? So the old records stay, but new ones have to meet the new criteria. Then you have a line in the sand where records before/after either did or didn’t meet these criteria. (For whatever the criteria are worth.)

Kara: I’m fine with requiring more testing. Athletes should always want more testing. But it should not erase what has happened in the past.

Alex: Yeah, people like Powell, Paula Radcliffe — I totally understand why they’d be opposed. And maybe that’s sufficient reason not to do it. But then again, maybe there are broader sport-wide benefits that outweigh their needs. (And of course, me naming those two names carries a lot of implicit judgment that is totally fallible!)

Christie: Alex, to me this is one of the most insidious things about doping — the atmosphere of suspicion that it creates. It’s totally unfair to clean athletes, but every athlete insists that s/he’s clean! I wrote a story about doping in advance of the 2012 Olympics and while interviewing an athlete who’d started a foundation to promote clean sport, all I could think of was, this is great PR.

Kara: Christie, I don’t blame you. And that’s sad! But that’s the world we are in now. To be honest, I am the most skeptical person. I hardly believe anything I see. But I feel so strongly that it is wrong to put an asterisk next to records before 2005.

Alex: Kara, you’ve now got a World Championship silver — surely that’s the kind of past that deserves updating! 🙂

Kara: But that’s the frustrating thing. I don’t have a WC silver. I have never heard from the IAAF or USA Track & Field [the governing body for the sport in the U.S.]. I still have my bronze. How about they help athletes who have been cheated? Focus on that instead of a big PR move about world records.

Alex: Ha, well that’s a fair point.

Christie: Kara, I will throw you a huge party and ceremony when they finally deliver that medal! (Hopefully I’ll still be young enough to stand up and clap.)

Kara: Haha, I’d love that! I hope that it can be something special I can share with my son and not just mailed to me 10 years after the fact.

Christie: OK, let’s start to wrap up. If you were put in charge of the IAAF, what would you do to address these issues and improve the sport’s integrity?

Bonnie: 1) Get their own house in order. 2) Show leadership in quality and geographic reach/fairness of testing. 3) Show leadership in quality of service to athletes denied medals by doping. 4) Serious consequences for nations/federations with multiple violations (standard TBD) of organized doping.

Kara: All of Bonnie’s points are spot on. How can we trust anything until WADA and IAAF get their act together?

Alex: I wish I had a useful answer. Stop accepting bribes?

Kara: Yes, that would be a start!

Bonnie: I just downed another fictional drink! O-pa!

Kara: 😂

Alex: Seriously, I don’t have any magical solutions. They should start by doing all the stuff that people like me assumed they were doing all along, until the scandals really started breaking the last few years. As for world records, it doesn’t really bother me one way or the other. I’m not sure I see enough positives from resetting the records to be worth the hassle and ill will it creates. But if they do it, I won’t be too upset either. As long as they don’t touch my City of Toronto Grade 9 1500 record (which was actually scrubbed from the books when they changed the age categories, now that I think about it).

Kara: Sounds like a good record!

Alex: And now no one can break it. 🙂

Christie: 🏆 for you, Alex. I held my high school 1600-meter record for 22 years. For most of those years, I thought the event was the mile, but then I found out that 1600m is just short of a full mile! Not only that, the official record was 3 seconds slower than I remembered it. (The older I get, the faster I was …)

Bonnie: I have no records, other than “time spent procrastinating while writing.”

Kara: Well, I’m sure that record is clean, Bonnie.

Bonnie: Fortunately, chocolate and Diet Coke are not on the banned list.

Christie: This has been really fun. Final thoughts?

Kara: I do think that athletes should be demanding more change. The more people are outspoken and join forces, the more likely people in charge will be to listen. Look at how amazing the response was for Lily King in Rio. We need more of that.

Bonnie: Athletes have more power than they know. I truly think they are the only ones who can force/shape a more rational, honest system.

Alex: I agree with Kara that athletes have an important role to play in demanding change. But as Kara and others know, that’s a very, very hard role to play while also trying to compete at an elite level.

Kara: People in charge don’t like “whistleblowers.” They are a problem. Do you think the IAAF is reaching out to them and asking what they know? They are not.

Bonnie: There’s some interesting research ongoing now about how athletes themselves can probably exert the most pressure on each other, but that is hard for any human in any field.

Kara: Competing while being outspoken has been impossible at times. But the more people that do it, the easier it becomes.

Bonnie: But if we look at some of the really seminal labor events in sports — the women’s tennis tour, for example — active athletes can have such a huge impact. And anti-doping is part of working conditions, when you come right down to it.

Christie: That feels like a nice note to end on. Thanks everyone!

Alex: Thanks, all!

Kara: Thanks for respectful dialogue!!

Bonnie: Thank you! Fun and informative.

Footnotes

  1. Koch set the world record in the 400 meters in 1985 as a member of the East German team, which was later found to have carried out a systematic doping program.

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.

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