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.


About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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

  1. Boyan Stanev says:

    What a speculative thinking. I simply can’t believe it.
    The athletics of the 80’s are characterized by The Cold War. To beat the opponent was a matter of national pride and political action. That is why everyone wanted to win so bad that we have these records of the 80’s.
    Doping is being used ever since pharmacy has interfered with sports. Of course there are cases of doping usage in the records in question, but doping is everywhere. I might agree that Bolt is a great athlete and doesn’t use doping, but Phelps – I strongly doubt it. It’s just that pharmaceutical companies develop newer and more sophisticated substances that cannot be qualified as forbidden by the IAAF’s list.
    You just can’t wipe out supreme performances just because you THINK they are wrong. There are rules!!! There has to be proofs of illegal action. And even if you do that, why be so selective, and come to think of it, so discriminative. Why only women records, let’s erase all the records from the 80’s, including Sebastian Coe’s. What would feminist organisations say about erasing only women records. One must think of all outcomes when one suggests such an action.

    • Tim says:

      Where am I being speculative? I think you will find the evidence I have laid out is both simple and based on fact:
      – There are a much greater number of long-standing world records in women’s athletics than there are in men’s events. This is fact. Look at the record books.
      – Virtually all of these records are held by athletes from the former Soviet Union or Eastern European nations. Furthermore in the years since these records were set, contemporary athletes have often been unable to get anywhere near these records. Again, this is a matter of historical record.
      – Official records document the doping of, at the very least, Marita Koch. This is not speculation. This is a fact. Many other sources cite, either in fact or anecdotally, that countries such as East Germany were systematically doping their athletes in many sports, not just track & field.

      My argument is that, if female athletes are being prevented from setting new world records by the existence of illegal ones, this is robbing them of both adulation and financial rewards. I do not for one second dispute the IAAF is technically correct in maintaining these records because there is no evidence from within their jurisdiction which proves doping – no one failed a drugs test, for instance. (But I also think it is fair to say that drugs testing was laughably poor then, by today’s standards.) The issue is whether it is morally right for these records to stand. I know the IAAF cannot just expunge the record books on a whim, and yet modern athletes’ achievements seem less than they might be as a result. It is the gap between the rule book (what is technically right) and “the right thing” (what is morally right) that causes the issue.

      Doping is everywhere? I wouldn’t argue against that. One of my favourite sports, cycling, is riven with doping. But when you talk about Phelps, you are venturing into wild speculation. You may possibly be right. But why doubt Phelps and not Bolt? (For the record, I don’t doubt either.) But there is absolutely no supporting evidence that I am aware of to support your doubt, other than him foolishly getting caught smoking a bong at a student party.

      I was not singling out women’s athletics, as I pointed out in my post. Of course, should the IAAF ever (hypothetically) take any such action, they should target both men’s and women’s records. But, as my post points out, there are only two men’s records which pre-date 1990 versus ten women’s records. The impact is far greater in women’s athletics. As for Coe, there would be no point erasing his record, as it has already been broken.

      To sum up: my argument is a moral one, rather than a call for the IAAF to take action across the board. But where the evidence comes from an irrefutable third party, as in the case of Koch, surely then the IAAF could do something?

    • Tim says:

      I should also add that there is a precedent for rewriting the history books, where people caught out-of-competition or even in completely different events have their historical achievements scrubbed out. This happened to Marion Jones’ 2000 Olympic achievements, based on her own court testimony, And it has happened in cycling too, where a doper’s wins are struck from the record book based on external testimony, even if they tested clean at those events themselves.

      I’m not saying the IAAF should apply this solution wholesale. I am merely saying that it would not be a unique action,

  2. Boyan Stanev says:

    It is speculative when you say that records from the 80’s should be wiped out when you only have evidence of one athlete using doping. About the records being set mostly by east Europeans I explained that for the countries of the communist block it was a matter of political and national pride to win.

    Let me say that I am Bulgarian and I am directly concerned of your statement because of the two great Bulgarian athletes in the list above. I have watched only the record run of Donkova, but as to Kostadinova I have watched many of her competitions because she went on to win the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta 9 years after she set the world record. And she did that with an Olympic record of 2.05 m in the years when the doping police was already going strong. As I remember she even tried to jump the same 2.09 m in her last attempt. She has jumped over 2 m 197 times. Now, I don’t think all that is due to doping, do you? It is clear that she was an outstanding athlete.

    So what I am saying is that even if there are revisions, they should be individual and we need to have much stronger arguments than those you listed above.

    About morality. This is quite an abstract term when it comes to modern sports and even some classic sports, where judges decide the winner. If we go on the morality area, believe me, there will be many rewritings of the history. As in 2004’s Olympic gymnastics competition where Greek athlete Tampakos won the gold at Rings with his arms shaking as if he was suffering from Parkinson’s syndrome and the perfect performance of Jovtchev left on 2nd place by the judges. And we have many examples in football history. Pardon me for using only Bulgarian athletes as an example.

    Actually when I was writing about Phelps and Bolt, I had Marion Jones in mind as an example of an athlete who was caught at some point, but actually had been using doping that was not caught by the tests of the previous years. Her case is the argument that questions outstanding performances as those of Phelps and Bolt who virtually crush all opponents resistance and set records at the same time with great ease. And I doubt both of them, it’s just that Bolt isn’t American thus it’s more possible for him not to be a test mouse.

    • Tim says:

      I have tried to be clear between statements of fact and speculation. Where I have speculated, I don’t think I have presented it as anything other than just that – speculation – and I have asked readers to draw their own conclusions.

      At no point do I say the IAAF should wipe out all records from the 80s. I merely point out that it is surprising that so many records of that era have not been broken – and in some cases have not even been neared. And I would ask the IAAF to look at wiping out records where athletes have clearly used drugs. Sorry if that isn’t clear.

      Your explanation about political and national pride is no doubt accurate, but irrelevant in the context of whether records are legal. Cheating is cheating. Whether it is the individual at fault or the national system doesn’t matter. The truth is that most of the records in women’s athletics are held by eastern Europeans, but I would point the finger as much at Marion Jones or Flo-Jo – indeed, even more so, as they were not pawns in any Cold War scenario but cheats, plain and simple. (I should say ‘alleged cheat’ in the case of Flo-Jo, but you can probably guess what my opinion of her is.)

      I cite the one case – Marita Koch – where there is documentary evidence of systematic doping. It is a shame that the IAAF chooses to allow this record to stand, denying those athletes who have come after her the accolade of “world record holder”.

      For everything else, I am recording the facts of dates and times, and repeating only what has been widely reported. I then ask readers to draw their own conclusions. The nature of records in any sport is that they are made to be broken. The lack of new WRs in women’s athletics is a statistical oddity. Could some of these be legitimate. Of course- in fact, I am sure that some are. But so many? It seems dubious, even if there is no firm evidence. (And when you compare the longevity of women’s records to men’s, the difference is striking.) Can you accept that possibility?

      On the specific Bulgarian athletes you mention, I have little reason to doubt Kostadinova – her event is extremely technical and more one of mental than physical strength. Donkova I cannot comment on, having watched her only fleetingly.

      Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely not saying that all the long-standing records are illegal. Indeed, as I said in my post: “I have no doubt that the longevity of some world records comes from the superhuman performances of once-in-a-lifetime athletes.” But I would certainly question Flo-Jo, Koch, Kratochvílová, the throwing events and the Chinese distance athletes – particularly the latter because they came and went so quickly and competed so infrequently outside of China.

      My belief is the IAAF should expunge Koch’s time from the record books. If there is clear evidence to find any of the others guilty of doping – you will forgive me, but I do not know the details of every case! – then expunge those records as well. They certainly should not wipe them all – the presumption of innocence should still apply until guilt is proven. But to turn a blind eye denies contemporary athletes of all nations a fair shot at a world record. And fairness is all that any sports fan or competitor really wants, isn’t it?

      For sure, athletics is not the only sport with either doping or other ethical issues. As a cycling fan, I am (sadly) more informed about the pharmacology of doping and the sport’s dodgy ethics than I have any desire to be. You will find I have written elsewhere long and often (and with a sad heart) about doping in cycling. But women’s track and field is one area where the record books appear – and I stress the word “appear” – to be more tainted than in many other sports. In many respects, athletics is similar to cycling in that they require a combination of incredible strength and endurance which lends itself to a doping culture. But at least both sports are more diligent in their testing these days (although far from perfect).

      (I know I haven’t covered all your points, but I think this reply is long enough!)

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