This morning as I excitedly watched Patrick Makau complete the Berlin Marathon in a new World Record time of 2:03:38, I couldn’t help but wonder how matters would have progressed had a female athlete run faster than Paula Radcliffe’s 2003 London Marathon time of 2:15:25. Why? Because this week, that time was downgraded to a “World Best” rather than a “World Record” as the IAAF changed the rules with regard to female world records.
When Paula set her “record” time, she used a male pace setter and was competing in a mixed-sex race. According to new rules announced this week, a women’s record can only be set in women-only races. In a mixed-sex race, it would simply be called a “World Best”. Theoretically, a woman could hold the world record even though it might not be the fastest time run in a ratified race. And this is the part that I don’t really understand.
Ok, so things change sometimes: the world moves on, familiar things become different and, yes, rules change. If things hadn’t changed, there would be no women taking part in the marathon at all and I, and countless other women like me, would not have had the opportunity to conquer the 26.2 mile beast. A lot of these changes have taken place in the last 40 years, prior to which it was believed that a woman’s uterus would fall out if she ran a marathon! It took trailblazers like Roberta Gibb and Kathrine Switzer sneaking into (and successfully completing) marathons (complete with uterus!) for the rules to change and women to be allowed to compete in the Olympics at distances longer than a mile.
Yes, things do have to change, but this recent ruling not only affects future races, but is also being applied in retrospect, in effect rewriting history. Rewriting history to suit new developments? Rather Orwellian I feel. Wasn’t this the function of the “The Ministry of Truth” in his 1984 dystopia? Paula Radcliffe will still be the World Record holder with her 2005 London Marathon time of 2:17:42 due to the fact that the women’s race began 45 minutes before the men’s/mass race. So the new “World Record” is over 4 minutes slower than the “World Best”. I say it again: I just don’t understand.
Those responsible for the change state that the previous rules were unfair, but who exactly were they unfair to? Those who have held marathon records completed those races with their own training, their own race day efforts and their own legs. A pace setter may assist them to regulate their own pace, but why should it matter what sex that pace setter is? These athletes need someone who can run at the pace they want to maintain and for the top-level female athletes this may indeed have to be a male runner. These pace setters do not complete the whole race with the competitors, who are left to run through the toughest part of the race with their own grit, determination and ambition. So why the change?
Personally, I can’t come up with a reason why this change is really necessary, but I do wonder just how far it will go. In general, women’s marathons take place as part of mixed-sex races, although these days they often do begin in advance of the men’s/mass race as per the new “World Record” race of 2005. In the wider racing circuit, most races are mixed. What happens if this new ruling filters down to club race level and an individual’s best race times will only be those they achieved in single sex races? How would this motivate runners to compete in mixed races or would the racing map face permanent change to account for same sex races? Is this progress?
To me, the new ruling seems ludicrous. As far as I’m concerned, if a runner of any sex completes a ratified marathon course in a faster time than another runner of the same sex has completed a similarly ratified race, it should be a World Record. This new system of both World Records and World Bests seems, as the joint statement from the World Marathon Majors race directors and the Association of International Marathons states, ” confusing and unfair and does not represent the history of our sport”.
I couldn’t have put it better myself.