Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Athletics needs to clean up the present, not the past

Under controversial plans being considered by the IAAF, all athletics world records set prior to 2005 could be wiped from the record books unless they meet they meet three specific criteria, namely:

• It was achieved at an event on their approved list
• The athlete was tested in the months before the record
• The sample taken after the record was stored for 10 years

The aim of the plan, put forward by the European Athletics taskforce, is to restore credibility in the sport following a series of medal-stripping and reallocating over the past few years as stored samples have been re-tested using modern techniques.

On the face of it you can see what they’re trying to achieve. There are a number of records on the books that some might see as suspect. Jurgen Schult’s discus world record has stood since 1986 and was set at a time when his country, East Germany, has been proved to be heavily involved in doping, and American Randy Barnes set the shot putt best in 1990 shortly before being banned for steroid use.

It’s probably worse in women’s athletics. Another East German, Marita Koch, has held the women’s 400m record since 1985, but evidence has been put forward that purports to link her to drug use. Czechoslovakian Jarmila Kratochvilova’s 800m mark has stood for even linger, since 1983, yet the communist government of the time is suspected of state-sponsored doping, and Flo Jo, Florence Griffith Joyner, is still listed as being the 100m and 200m world record holder despite repeated allegations of drug use, although she never failed a test.

None of them have been proven to be drug-cheats, but the rumours abound and the doubts remain, which is why the IAAF may act. However, the move would also remove many other athletes who are not suspected of being anything other than clean. One of the most high profile is probably Mike Powell’s long jump record, which in 1991 finally overcame Bob Beamon’s famous leap from 1968. He has already threatened legal action if the plan is agreed.

It would also affect British greats Jonathan Edwards, Paula Radcliffe, Steve Cram and Colin Jackson (as indoor and European records would be affected too).

The aim is a good one, but is it missing the point? Don't athletics fans want to be sure that performances they see now are clean, rather than worrying about performances from the past that we can all make up our own minds about. It's clean athletes who lose out when a drug cheat robs them of a record, a medal or a place in a final, and it's clean athletes who would be losing out again if they have their honestly-earned records taken from them.

There are other knock-on effects as well to be considered. Colin Jackson has made the point that his European record was set whilst winning a world title. If that performance is going to be questioned should he not lose his medal as well? And what about every single country's national records, which may also need to be re-written as they may end up quicker/longer/higher than the new world record?

There is no doubt that athletics, like many sports, needs to clean up its act, and be seen to be doing so. Fans need to be confident that the performances they see are clean. But messing with the past in this way isn't going to achieve that, and too many innocent parties will see their careers and achievements tarnished in the process.