In May, the running world was inspired by Eliud Kipchoge’s performance, where he f lirted with what was previously believed to be impossible – breaking the twohour barrier in the marathon.
But perhaps we shouldn’t have been so in awe as, in a sense, the mark had already been broken. Paula Radcliffe did it 14 years ago.
At the 2003 London Marat hon, Radcliffe lowered her own world record from the previous year by nearly two minutes to 2:15:25 . Today, t hat stands as over two per cent better than the second fastest time ever (2:17:01, run this April by Mary Keitany). According to reputable analysis done a few years ago in the Journal of Applied Physiolog y, Radcliffe’s world record translates to 1:59:55 by a man.
This is arg uably the g reatest single performance in history – of any sport. And that it took well over a decade for any athlete to come within two minutes is a testament to how improbable this time remains. A cynic would even say that it’s unbelievable.
And it looks like the skept ic s a re get t i ng their way. This summer, Radcliffe’s legacy-defining run, one that is perhaps more impressive than Bannister’s sub-4:00 mile and certainly more so than Dennis Kimetto’s 2:02:57 men’s marathon record, could be erased from the record book.
The iaaf, at hlet ics’ global governing body, is aggressively moving to expunge pre-2004 records. The sport is drowning in a cloud of uncertainty about the depth and breadth of its doping problem. And the iaaf is unravelling, as new allegations of corruption continue to surface – with it often tied to doping coverups. The organization is giving fifa a run for its money as the dirtiest sports body in the world. That’s impressive. So, in an act of desperation, presented as boldness, iaaf president Sebastian Coe is aligning with the argument that the sport needs the sleight wiped clean. He thinks this will bring back fans. He feels it should start with all records set before modern doping control methods were put in place. It’s the sort of fix you concoct with a group of friends in a bar, after a few pints. It’s only standing up as a solution with the iaaf because the right way to do this isn’t pleasant, and requires integrity – never this organization’s strong suit. There are two major problems with the world record nuclear option.
First, the iaaf is deceiving itself if it thinks that there is no longer a doping problem. Right now, Kenya and Ethiopia, the two main powerhouses of distance running, are badly in need of legitimate infrastructure to monitor the problem (and there is a problem, potentially a catastrophic one). This isn’t the right moment press the reset button on the sport and begin reestablishing world records.
Secondly, by gutting the sport of its great achievements, and Radcliffe’s in particular, you are merely selectively revising history. By this logic, Lord Coe should probably also hand back his pair of Olympic gold medals from his running days in the 1980 Games. Who knows what he and others were up to back then.
Yes, Paula Radcliffe’s 2:15:25 marathon is unbelievably fast. Yes, it’s the greatest performance in sports history. And yes, we have to believe she was just better than everyone else, and clean in doing so. She ran the impossible time, and we should be focusing on running down that time through innovation and finding the next Paula Radcliffe. As she has argued, we should put real effort into figuring out who was dirty and who should be actual role models, and move on to celebrating the sport. If that means deeper investigations into our icons and instant lifetime bans for current cheaters, so be it. And, on an institutional level, if that means doing away with the organization that fostered such corruption, let’s get it over with and start anew. It’s time for real action and making tough decisions, so we can move on to something people will actually care about, like breaking 2:15 .
ABOVE Paula Radcliffe at the 2003 London marathon on her way to a world record