A few weeks ago, the governing body for international track and field made an announcement regarding women’s marathon records. Turns out, the IAAF will only recognize world records run by women in races with a women-only field. The reason? Running with men in the field gives women an artificial advantage because they can pace themselves off the (faster) men.
As if that’s not ridiculous sounding enough, the IAAF made the rule retroactive. In other words, it erased the world record of 2:15:25 set by Paula Radcliffe at the London Marathon in 2003.
OK, it’s demeaning enough that the powers that be are discounting women’s times in mixed-gender events, but to erase Paula’s world record time retroactively? Eight years after she set it? Remember, it’s not being vacated because she used performance-enhancing drugs or otherwise “cheated.” It’s being vacated because she set the mark in a race with men in the field. Occasionally, things happen which cause me to literally bang my head against my desk. This? Is one of them. Agree or disagree with the new standards, her world record time should still stand as the world record. Nike even got involved launching a hashtag campaign on Twitter: #historystands. There are many philosophical grounds on which I disagree with the company Nike, but on this, they are spot on. History stands.
Now on to the notion that women’s times should not count as world records in mixed events. The argument, as I have read, is that since men run faster than women, the best women are using the men to pace themselves to faster overall times. Women, officials say, run faster in events with men than they do in women’s-only events.
If that is true the next question is: Does it matter?
As British columnist Simon Hart pointed out in a post late last month: The IAAF had no problem with Haile Gebrselassie running with a coterie of pace-makers when he established the men’s world record in the 2008 Berlin Marathon. Catch a major marathon on television and elite runners will often have a bunch of pace-setters running with them in attempts to break a world record. These aren’t other competitors. These are runners there specifically to help the elite keep a world-record pace. So where is the logic in penalizing women elite runners who pace themselves off other competitors in the same field?
The idea of women getting better by playing (or training or running) with the boys often is tinged in controversy for a variety of reasons from a variety of vantage points. Frankly, I fail to see anything wrong with boys and girls playing sports and training together. Each gender can learn from the other — whether it’s in increasing speed and strength or improving balance, technique and flexibility.
Herein lies another case of restricting opportunities for female athletes. No one wins when opportunities are limited, restricted or rescinded. For Paula, history should stand so that the future can include more, not fewer, opportunities for women to run world record times.