Under fire for drugs, athletics mulls resetting records clock

athletics

Ben Johnson of Canada, right, leads the pack to win the 100-meter Olympic finals in Seoul, South Korea, 24 September 1988. Johnson was later stripped of his medal after testing positive for steroids, and American Carl Lewis (center) was awarded the gold.
(AP Photo/Gary Kemper, File)

By John Mehaffey

A proposal to scrap all world track and field records set before 2005 has divided the athletics community and exposed the illegal drugs problem that continues to bedevil the core sport of the Olympic Games.

Blood and urine samples from world record breakers were not stored before 2005. That means they cannot be retested to see if they contained performance-enhancing drugs that were not detectable at the time but which now can be traced retrospectively by more sophisticated tests.

Samples from major championships including the Olympics are now routinely retested when new tests are devised. A number of medalists from the 2008 and 2012 Games have been stripped of their medals and had their results erased from the record books.

The radical suggestion to start again from 2005 comes from the European ruling body. Crucially, it has been endorsed by Sebastian Coe, president of the world governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), who has called it a “step in the right direction.”

Coe, the only man to retain the Olympic 1,500-meter title, set three world records in the space of 41 days in 1979. Those records would be wiped from the books under the proposal he supports.

It’s common knowledge that anabolic steroids were used.

A glance at the women’s world records for Olympics track and field reveals what has provoked the European Athletics’ initiative, after a similar suggestion in 1998 from German Athletics head Helmut Diegel to start afresh at the turn of this century was rejected by the IAAF.

In a measure of how things have changed, Coe was opposed to Diegel’s suggestion at the time but now believes the time has come for a global debate because the sport needs to win back its credibility.

But two fellow Britons — Paula Radcliffe, the women’s marathon world record holder, and Jonathan Edwards, men’s triple jump — are opposed to the proposal as is American world long jump record holder Mike Powell, who said it was “disrespectful, an injustice and a slap in the face.”

Eleven current women’s world records were set in the 1980s before an IAAF decision to introduce random drugs tests in 1989. That meant athletes using banned performance-enhancing drugs while training, but who stopped weeks before major championships to allow the substances to leave their systems, were now liable to be tested at any time — clearly an effective deterrent.

Women’s world records that still stand include the 100, 200, 400 and 800 meters, plus the high and long jumps and the shot put and the discus, although it must be emphasized that none of the athletes involved ever failed a test and none has ever admitted using drugs.

But it is now common knowledge that anabolic steroids, which replicate the effects of the male sex hormone testosterone and can dramatically improve female performance, were widely used in the 1970s and 80s. And documents obtained after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 show East Germany ran a state-controlled doping program in athletics and swimming for at least two decades.

Evidence of cheating changed the mood of the world’s press.

Athletics reached its peak in popularity during the 1980s when it rivaled soccer as a global sport. The buildup to the 1988 Seoul Olympics was dominated by a rematch between the defending 100-meter men’s champion Carl Lewis and the muscular Canadian Ben Johnson, who had beaten the American decisively at the Rome world championships the previous year.

In Seoul, the final was again a no-contest, with Johnson winning in a world record time of 9.79 seconds, only to lose the gold medal and the record when he tested positive for a steroid.

Incontrovertible evidence that the world’s fastest man was a cheat dramatically changed the mood of the world’s athletics press, who sat in stony silence when Florence Griffith-Joyner, who had never won a major title, clocked a world record 21.34 seconds in the women’s 200-meter final after setting an equally astonishing world mark of 10.49 over 100 meters earlier in the season.

Griffith-Joyner announced her retirement in 1989 and died in her sleep in 1998 at the age of 38.

Even Marion Jones, who was stripped of her three gold medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics after admitting to steroid use, never got close to Griffith-Joyner’s times. That despite running at altitude, which lessens air resistance, at the World Cup in Johannesburg in the same year as her compatriot’s death.

One world athletics record that will not be recognized for different reasons is the mark of two hours, 25 seconds set by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge for the men’s marathon on the Monza Formula One track in Italy earlier this month.

Kipchoge was aided by pacemakers entering the event after it had started, plus drinks delivered on mopeds, so that he did not have to slow down to take them from a table.

Although the event was not conducted to IAAF regulations, it does show that the magic mark of two hours, equivalent in mystique to the four-minute mile that eluded the world’s best until Briton Roger Bannister clocked three minutes 59.4 seconds at Oxford in 1954, is just over the horizon.


John MehaffeyJohn Mehaffey worked for four decades as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, including 33 on the Reuters Sports Desk covering seven summer Olympics plus World Cups and world championships in athletics, soccer, cricket, rugby, amateur boxing and gymnastics. He wrote extensively on sports news including drugs in sport, the readmission of South Africa to international sport and corruption in cricket. He was appointed Chief Sports Reporter in 2001.

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