On the recalibration of world records: Brief thoughts

03 May 2017 Posted by

OK, I’ll try to be brief here, but I thought I should jot down a few thoughts on this proposed recalibration of world records, because the reaction I’ve seen so far (from an admittedly “biased” sample) has been a little bit hysterical at times, and focused on two athletes only – Radcliffe and Edwards.  Patriotism – society’s blindfold, huh?

Anyway, last night I spoke to Off the Ball about this issue, so that’s perhaps worth a listen for my explanations, but here are some quick thoughts:


An all or nothing decision

The moment the decision was made to get rid of the doped world records, it was going to be all or nothing.  So it’s worth understanding why this decision would be made in the first place.

When you look at the list of world records in the sport, they stand as ‘monuments’ to its lack of credibility.  As I’ve written before, they’re basically a fossil record of the failure of anti-doping, because you’ll see a whole bunch of them dating back to the 1980s that were arguably aided by steroids at a time when out of competition testing was non-existent, and then you’ll see a host of them dating to the late 1990s and early 2000s that are equally suspect because that’s when EPO use (and later blood doping) was rampant in the sport, also without adequate testing.

So just like a fossil record, the nature and timing of the world records is a constant reminder that there is a lack of believability in those performance.  What those drugs did is to push performances out to levels that even 30 years of advances in technology haven’t seen threatened.   Not even close.

This is particularly true for women’s performances, which were improved so much by steroid use that they’re basically untouchable, and in the absence of more aggressive cheating, will remain so for decades more (remember Marion Jones – designer steroids and all, could not come close to what the women of the 1980s were running).

The same is true of men’s performances in the distance events. Remember that the late 1990s and early 2000s was cycling’s peak EPO era, and why would distance running be any different from professional cycling?  The same incentives existed, the same laxity in anti-doping.  So I would hope that any logical approach to those performances would recognize that these records have to be at least questionable as artifacts of a time when anti-doping was vastly inferior to doping.

Here’s some data to suggest what was happening at the time.  This is a graph showing the best discus performance (red line) and the average of the top 20 discus performances (blue line) every year from 1960 to 2000, and you’ll notice the arrow that indicates when out-of-competition testing for steroids was introduced.  It caused about a 5% drop in average discus performance almost instantly, with the best performance dropping even more (That it recovers somewhat is probably testament to an evolution of doping – smarter and more sophisticated – rather than its eradication, but that’s my opinion)

Now look at distance events on the track – here’s the 5,000m and 10,000m best (red) and top 20 average (blue) from 1975 to 2000, and this time the arrow shows the introduction of EPO into sport.

I need to update this graph from 2000 to 2016, because what it will show is how much slower those times have become since about 2005 – I’ll do this some other time.  But just for example, here’s the fastest and 10th fastest time every year since 1999.


In any event, neither of these graphs prove doping in those performances SPECIFICALLY, but they do point to the influence of doping and anti-doping factors on the “collective”, and that’s why any performance from these respective eras MUST be viewed with some suspicion.


Implications for today’s performances

This, in turn, has implications for performances today.  If you know that a world record was set with unrestricted and rampant doping, at a time when anti-doping either didn’t exist or was utterly ineffectual (because tests for the drug of choice did not even exist), then what does it suggest when that record is broken?

Perhaps in a climate of trust in authorities, we might look at a modern-day record breaker and say “Wow, that guy is obviously just a genetic marvel. He’s done everything right in his preparation and managed to overcome the effect of doping on athletes 20 years before him”.

Well, that ship has sailed, my friends.  Decades of mistrust have rightly sown in us a skepticism of any remarkable performance, because authorities have failed to earn the “trust capital” that would allow this belief in pure training and genetics.  Perhaps some believed it when they first saw Lance.  That balloon got popped in no time. Maybe some believed Marion Jones.  That belief landed on the concrete.

We are now wise to the reality that doping is not an “in-competition” aid, but rather than it’s used outof competition, to provide for better, harder training.  Knowing this, we see performances from athletes who disappear into isolated places like Kenya, or Ethiopia, and we know that testing of these athletes is lax, and so that compels us to wonder about their performances (and I’m not talking only about Kenyans and Ethiopians here – Mo, Paula, this includes you).

Thanks to whistleblowers, we know that testing of Jamaicans was non-existent ahead of the London 2012 Games.  We also know that Russia was doping just about everyone for generations and managing to hide most of it under noses of anti-doping officials (often it was the anti-doping officials facilitating the doping).  When that doping was exposed, we’ve discovered that some officials wanted to block their noses rather than face up to the reality, and chose instead to fight back against the media who had exposed doping.

It means that any athlete who breaks a “fossilized” world record looks incredibly suspicious, and that’s really understandable given the broader historical context of sports governance and antidoping.

It’s why the decision to reset the world records may have been made – the sport has credibility at an all-time low, and records are part of the problem – those that exist point to failures of the past, and those that are broken are viewed as failures of the present.

Therefore, the decision to reset them would have been made.


How best to recalibrate the records?

So now we arrive at the all or nothing issue.  Imagine for a second that the process was purely subjective.  You’d have a committee looking at the following list:

And then they’d have to do something like this:

“That one is dodgy”.  

“I agree.  Both are. Scrap ’em”

“And that one, definitely. Most ridiculous one of all”

“Absolutely. What about this one?”

“I’m not so sure”.


“Well, someone nearly broke that in 2013”.

“Good point.  It can stay”.

“How about this one?”

“I think she’s trustworthy.  Really outspoken. It’ll be a problem to erase that one”

“But nobody has come close to it – even the women’s 800m WR looks more likely to fall”.

“Yeah, but still.  She’s not from one of the suspicious countries”.

You see see where this goes?  It’s basically a prejudiced and stereotypical process, not entirely without some merit, admittedly, but one that you can’t defend. This is why all the records had to go, or none at all (and I realise some people will say none at all, which I understand).

Now, the problem I have with some of the coverage of this proposal over the last few days is that knowingly or not, many are engaging in exactly this kind of process.  People from the eastern Bloc are easy – “they were all at it”, so “Wipe them out!”.  Easy.

The sprint records on the women’s side are probably, by consensus, doped, but without proof.  A little trickier.  The distance records on both men’s and women’s side are trickier still.  We have reason to doubt, but no proof.

That same description can be applied to most of the “unsure” records in that list, including that of Paula Radcliffe, who is basically asking us to play the game above when she calls the proposal “cowardly”.  Her definition of “brave” would thus be to select who stays and goes based on an appeal or insistence for trust.

But she’s asking for that trust for a performance that comes from same time period as dozens of doped performances, which hasn’t been touched, even by some dopers, and which doesn’t have any more credibility than some of those that we don’t hesitate to condemn to the “doper’s pile”.

Sorry, trust is not that cheap.  That’s not to say that her performance is the equivalent of say, Kratochvilova, but nobody gets a pass because they speak English and hold a vocal anti-doping position.

The fundamental start point is the realization that anti-doping was ineffective and inadequate. Once you recognize that, then you can’t take the position “This proposal is unfair because Athlete X is clean and unfairly discriminated against”, because how do you know they’re clean?  The basis for your belief is flawed, as your own acceptance of anti-doping’s capability reveals!

Unless of course you don’t believe that anti-doping was ineffective, but if that’s the case, then history does not matter to you anyway, because endurance sport from the early 1990s onwards proves you definitively wrong.


Drawing the line

So what the proposal eventually involves, as decided by that Committee, is to draw a line at the point that is most sensible when you consider the root cause of the problem, doping.

Thus, the line is drawn at a point in the history of anti-doping where there is supposedly more credibility in that process, 2005.  That’s when samples were first collected with the intention of storing them for ten years, and thus it makes for a “convenient” watershed.

I have no issue with that – the line was always going to be somewhat arbitrary, and this method seems to me to be the least arbitrary of all.  So far so good.


Some problems arise – the fallacy of heralding a new generation

But now for some problems.

First, drawing this line is basically an admission of previous ‘failure’ (failure being a relative term).  That is, the line says that we cannot fully trust any performances prior to this “watershed of 2005” because doping control simply was not good enough.

I hope that the explanation I provided above, regarding the fossilization of world records, has shown this to be true – the steroid era prior to Out of competition testing, and the EPO era prior to an EPO test are certainly highly suspicious.

So yes, pre-2005 must be viewed with less trust than post-2005.

The problem, however, is that the reverse is not true.  If that 2005 line shows up failure before, it DOES NOT FOLLOW that post-2005 represents success, and this is perhaps the biggest issue I have with how this proposal is being framed.

I even heard it said from one senior official that this proposal would herald a new generation of credibility for the sport.  No, it would most definitely not do so, and if you believe that, then you’ve fallen for the PR-aspect of this process.

I wrote above that the fundamental premise of accepting this type of proposal is that anti-doping in the past was ineffective and inadequate. Unfortunately, the fundamental problem with this proposal is that anti-doping is still not effective and adequate!


The state of anti-doping – improvements in scale, but not concept

Certainly, anti-doping is better than it was.  When there was zero out-of-competition testing (steroid era), or no test at all for EPO, you had unrestricted or unregulated doping.  What we have now is “restricted doping”, but not eradicated.  I know that the biological passport gets a bad rap, and sometimes deservedly, but I do think it has helped squeeze doping down, and it has forced an evolution of doping that is probably good.  Has it eradicated it?  Of course not, but we are still slightly better off than we were with respects to steroids and EPO (they have been replaced by other drugs and the medicalization of performance, which is a problem)

Anyway, this is not a thesis on the state of anti-doping today and in the past, though I have written an article on that, which you can read here, and where I describe that improved tools (the way) highlight a lack of will, which is the more serious problem facing anti-doping presently.


The fallacy of a new generation

What this is, is a comment on the fallacy that this proposal, and that line in the sand at 2005, would usher a “new generation”.  That is a ridiculous position to adopt, especially when you think of some of the things that have happened since 2005 – the Jamaican, Kenyan and Ethiopian “non-testing”, the Russian cover-ups, the numerous clenbuterol cases in various sports including the covered-up ones from Beijing 2008, and not to mention Tyson Gay, Justin Gatlin, Sumgong, Jeptoo etc.

That is evidence enough that doping is still pervasive, and while it may be detected more often than it once was (by definition, steroid detection was 0%, as was EPO detection in endurance sports), it is still pervasive.  Remember that surveys of elite track and field athletes reveal that between 30% and 45% of the CONFESS to doping.  Only 1% to 2% ever fail a drug test.  This was post-2005, by the way.

That is hardly grounds for celebration of a new era of anti-doping.  That alone should make you scoff at the idea that the sport is suddenly credible because of change in the policy for recognizing world records.

Practically, this has implication for what would change.  In some instances, a world record would be handed to an athlete that nobody in their sane mind believes is a clean athlete, but because that athlete has not fallen foul of the slightly improved, but still ineffectual anti-doping procedure.

In other words, the only thing that the new record performance has going for it is its recency, and not its credibility.  But that will be the result of this change.  As mentioned, however, I cannot see a way around this, and I would not, in the words of someone on Twitter, want to make perfect the enemy of good.


The solution to this problem

There is no easy solution, sorry.  But if the records are going to be reset, then fine.  They don’t wipe previous performances from history, and they don’t automatically imply that every specific performance prior to 2005 was doped.  What it does is says that performances from one era are less credible than those from another, and I think this is arguably true.

However, if that position is “abused” to say that one era lacked credibility while the current one has credibility, then it must be challenged – we are nowhere near the type of credibility the sport needs.  What is required for that is probably a structural overhaul, a change in the incentives for anti-doping.

Further, it requires a lot more out-of-competition testing, and those out-of-competition samples are the ones that should be stored for ten years, not the in-competition one where the athlete sets the record.  The action is happening away from the stadium and the floodlights, and I’d be considerably more satisfied with anti-doping if I knew that say, the top 6 of any event were likely to be tested half a dozen times in six months before their event, and that all the samples would be independently retested at some future point.

In conclusion, I understand what the committee was trying to achieve, and I understand why they went about it the way they did.  I realize that it causes some controversy, but I don’t feel much in response to “believe me I’m clean and it’s the others you should be looking at”.  If the premise is a lack of trust prior to point X, then everyone should be treated similarly.

I don’t know that this will solve the problems, and anyone who thinks it might or that it does indeed restore credibility has fallen for the PR-spin part of it already.  You cannot clean the slate properly when the thing that dirtied the slate is still present and has not been controlled.  It’s like trying to wash your car in the middle of a dust storm.  You may well get rid of some of the grime and heavy mud, but it’s going to be replaced pretty soon by a fine dust.  Are you better off?  A little.  But your car still isn’t clean!

I think it is a step in the right direction, that it needs a lot more weight behind anti-doping procedures right now, and that it provides some credibility, but it’s one step in a journey that may never end.





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