What does it say about today’s athletes that the men’s triple jump record hasn’t been broken since 1995, the long jump since 1991 and the discus since 1986? Or that the women’s long jump record still stands from 1988 and the 800 metres since 1983? Does it say that athletes all used to be a bunch of doped-up cheats which today’s squeaky clean competitors can’t possibly be expected to beat without steroids and a few other goodies from the medicine cupboard? Or does it just say that the people currently competing in these disciplines aren’t quite as good as a few exceptional athletes in the past?
European Athletics, the governing body in this part of the world, has pretty well decided that it is the former – athletes of the past can’t be trusted. It has proposed to wipe the slate clean, so that no record set prior to 2005 – the year when blood and urine samples were first retained after being tested — would be recognised. According to Svein Arne Hansen, the organisation’s president, records ‘are meaningless if people don’t really believe them’.
But why should we believe a record any more when we know full well that someone ran faster, jumped further or threw further in the past? The European Athletics proposal is based on the assumption that with its tougher rules and its extensive library of wee no athlete can any longer get away with cheating. But that is just wishful thinking. Sport keeps turning up cases of people who have cheated in ever more ingenious ways. Not only has the science of doping come on, but so have the methods of masking it. True, it is a fair guess that those charming East German women discus-throwers with beards might have been on something – but so too is it safe to assume that a few current athletes are taking something far stronger, but that their coaches are better at hiding it.
I don’t blame Paula Radcliffe, whose 2003 marathon record would be one of those to be erased from the record books, for kicking up a stink. It is a slur on her to say that her performance can no longer be trusted just because no-one bother to keep her urine samples after they were tested – and found to be clean – 14 years ago.
What European Athletics is proposing – and which the international governing body, the IAAF, is considering – is a form of cheating in itself. I can’t help feeling that the proposal to erase the record books and start again is driven by the vanity of current athletes, their coaches, TV producers and so on, all of whom would be very happy for records to tumble a little more often. I am sure that people who put in years of lung-splitting training feel that their efforts deserve to be rewarded by having their names etched in the record books. But to try to achieve that by picking on blameless athletes of the past and pretending their feats didn’t take place is blatant manipulation. It is as if European Athletics had decided to shift the finish a few metres closer to the start.