Doping’s enduring legacy continues to hamper women’s athletics

While men’s athletics continues to dominate the spotlight, with four major track world records being broken in the last two years and superstars such as Usain Bolt drawing in casual fans, women’s athletics has had a tougher time of it, with its single biggest story being the horribly insensitive handling of Caster Semenya‘s controversial gender testing during last year’s World Championships. But how much of the problem is due to a lack of world-class performances, and how much is it down to the IAAF’s refusal to purge its record books of times and distances which were achieved with the assistance of doping products?

David Rudisha lowered the 800m WR twice in a week

Lost in the furore over cricket’s spot-fixing scandal, which broke on the same day, it passed largely unnoticed that Kenya’s David Rudisha broke the 800 metres world record for the second time in seven days three weeks ago.

Rudisha’s 1:41:01 at a meeting in Rieti, Italy on August 29th took a further eight-hundredths of a second off the time he had set the previous Sunday in Berlin. Prior to that, the previous record of 1:41:11 had stood for 13 years, when Denmark’s Kenyan-born Wilson Kipketer first matched and then twice lowered Sebastian Coe‘s 16-year old record, all within the space of seven weeks.

It was a remarkable achievement, particularly set in the context that Rudisha and Kipketer are the only men to have run faster than Coe in 29 years. Such longevity of records in athletics is unusual, at least in men’s events. Looking back over the 21 main track and field disciplines, there are only two world records (hammer and discus) which pre-date 1990. Of the 12 major track events – 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1,500m, mile, 3,000m, 5,000m, 10,000m, steeplechase, 110m hurdles, 400m hurdles – the longest-standing record is Kevin Young’s 400-metre hurdles time of 46.78s, set in 1992, and seven out of twelve have been set in the last ten years.

Now contrast that with the record books in the women’s events. Comparing the same 21 track and field events, ten of these records pre-date 1990 (and all but six were set prior to 2000). And looking at the 12 track events alone, the longest-standing record is Jarmila Kratochvílová‘s 800 metres time of 1:53.28. Not only has that record for a staggering 27 years, but no woman athlete – not even Semenya or Kenya’s Pamela Jelimo – has run sub-1:54 since. For purposes of fair comparison, if you exclude the five events – 3,000 metres steeplechase,  javelin, hammer, triple jump and pole vault – in which women have competed for fewer than 25 years (or, in the case of the javelin, where the event switched to a new design), then 10 out of 16 events (that’s 63%) have not seen a new world record in the past 20 years.

I have no doubt that the longevity of some world records comes from the superhuman performances of once-in-a-lifetime athletes such as Bolt, Sergey Bubka (pole vault) Jan Železný (javelin), and before them the likes of Coe and Bob Beamon. But when so many records of such long standing are held by athletes from nations who are known to have engaged in systematic doping programmes in the past, then you have to question both their validity and the impact such bogus records have on current competitors, in terms of both financial rewards and reputation. There are some questionable examples in men’s athletics, but many more in the women’s events where the use of hormones such as testosterone and other doping products can have a proportionately greater effect than in male athletes.

The women’s 400 metres is a case in point. East Germany’s Marita Koch set her world record time of 47.60s in October 1985; it is the second-oldest world record in either men’s or women’s athletics (after Kratochvílová). Since then, only France’s Marie-José Pérec has ever come within one full second of Koch’s time, and even she was a massive 0.65s short. The illegal nature of Koch’s record is not even a matter of speculation – government files have been produced which detail her drug usage. And yet, because she never failed an IAAF-approved test, her record remains on the books. Which means that every exceptional 400 metres runner who has dominated the event since then – Pérec, Cathy Freeman and Sanya Richards to name three – has had to make do with the label of ‘fastest since’ rather than, potentially, ‘world record holder’.

Here is a full list of the major women’s track and field events. Note the names, nationalities and dates of the record holders – in particular Florence Griffith Joyner, the Russians and eastern Europeans of the mid to late eighties and the Chinese of the mid-1990s – and draw your own conclusions.

Event Record Athlete Nationality Year Notes
100 m 10.49 Florence Griffith Joyner USA 1988
200m 21.34 Florence Griffith Joyner USA 1988
400 m 47.60 Marita Koch East Germany 1985
800 m 1:53.28 Jarmila Kratochvílová Czechoslovakia 1983
1,500 m 3:50.46 Qu Yunxia China 1993
Mile 4:12.56 Svetlana Masterkova Russia 1996
3,000 m 8:06.11 Wang Junxia China 1993
5,000 m 14:11.15 Tirunesh Dibaba Ethiopia 2008
10,000 m 29:31.78 Wang Junxia China 1993
3,000 m s/chase 8:58.81 Gulnara Samitova Russia 2008 Since 1996
100 m hurdles 12.21 Yordanka Donkova Bulgaria 1988
400 m hurdles 52.34 Yuliya Pechonkina Russia 2003
High jump 2.09 m Stefka Kostadinova Bulgaria 1987
Pole vault 5.06 m Yelena Isinbayeva Russia 2009 Since 1991
Long jump 7.52 m Galina Chistyakova Soviet Union 1988
Triple jump 15.50 m Inessa Kravets Ukraine 1995 Since 1986
Shot put 22.63 m Natalya Lisovskaya Soviet Union 1987
Discus 76.80 m Gabriele Reinsch East Germany 1988
Hammer 78.30 m Anita Włodarczyk Poland 2010 Since 1988
Javelin 72.28 m Barbora Špotáková Czech Republic 2008 Event revised 1999
Heptathlon 7,291 pts Jackie Joyner-Kersee USA 1988

Looking at that list, even the most trusting of sports fans must surely question the credibility of the record books.

This is not intended as a hatchet job on women’s athletics. Quite the contrary, in fact. Supreme performances by exceptional athletes should receive the recognition – both adulation and financial – that comes with the title of  ‘world record holder’. However, many such individual milestones are being denied that ultimate accolade by the continued existence of records which, in some cases, are demonstrably illegal and yet are maintained by the IAAF on the basis of mere technicalities.

It is a terrible shame for women’s athletics. I’m not certain there is currently a female athlete with the charisma and freakish speed of Usain Bolt, or the sustained pace of David Rudisha, but that is beside the point. How many ‘new’ world record holders have we been denied over the past two decades? And how many great legacies have remained unwritten by the refusal of the IAAF to wipe the slate clean, an action which is technically wrong but surely morally right?

Looking at the big picture, there is nothing wrong with women’s athletics. The problem lies – as is so often the case – with the sport’s governing body.

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