11:17 AM EDT, September 21, 2011
Why not have a women's marathon world record category for days with 39 percent humidity?
Or another one for days when the sun shines more than two hours?
Or one for courses with fewer than six turns? More than 11? That run across the 49th parallel?
Or one for days when the wind is southerly, so we will -- like Hamlet -- all know a hawk from a handsaw?
No more than the international track federation's recent hair-splitting decision about women's world marathon records, which serves only to make everyone but figure filberts shake their heads and say, "Whaaaah?''
It's a move that could only have been made by an organization that doesn't know its public relations ass from its elbow.
The international federation (IAAF) honchos have ruled that women's world records can be set only in all-women's competitions, so there will be no possible advantage from having faster men pace the women.
And it will recognize two sets of times: one, "world record," for single gender races; one, "world best," for mixed races.
(To which I say, what if a race has a transgender runner?)
And to make it worse, the directors of the World Marathon Majors (WMM) -- Chicago, New York, London, Berlin, Boston -- and the Association of International Marathons (AIMS) issued a statement Tuesday essentially throwing their support behind a decision which is guaranteed to make road running less comprehensible to the general public.
Bank of America Chicago Marathon director Carey Pinkowski joined the lemmings of this acronym soup by declining comment on the statement.
It would be like Major League Baseball saying home-run records can be set only in parks with a center field fence at least 430 feet from home plate. (Of course, baseball already has made its records meaningless by facilitating dopers with a blind eye for years.)
I already needed a slide rule, an abacus, my son's high school graphing calculator, a topographic map, a protractor, a GPS and a wind gauge to explain to readers why the fast times at this year's Boston Marathon were meaningless for record purposes because it is a point-to-point course with an elevation drop exceeding the allowable standard.
(And that idea actually makes sense, even if it doesn't account for the possibility that changing meteorological conditions can give runners a tailwind for an entire loop course, or tailwind for half and no wind for the rest. Anyone who doesn't think the wind can shift that abruptly needs to spend a year living near Lake Michigan.)
Want to diminish an already shrinking audience for track, field and road running?
Just ask advice from the IAAF, the body charged with promoting the sport.
The same IAAF that throws up its hands over the issue of all the track and field records set in the anything-goes doping era before Ben Johnson's 1988 bust at the Seoul Olympics and the mockery of the sport's records by Chinese women runners in the mid-1990s, before the extent of their doping became clear.
Nineteen such records still stand. Most will outlive those who set them. (Sadly, Florence Griffith Joyner's in the 100 and 200 meters alrready have.)
The rationale for leaving those records in place is, "We can't rewrite history."
So what is the IAAF doing with the marathon? Rewriting history.
Paula Radcliffe's fastest marathon time, 2 hours, 15 minutes, 25 seconds, set at the mixed 2003 London Marathon, no longer his the world record. Her third-fastest time, 2:17:42, set at the 2005 London Marathon, when the leading women raced separately from the men, now is the world record. Her second fastest time, 2:17:18 at the 2002 Chicago Marathon (then the world record), also does not count.
"I think it is a decision that is going to be hard to fully enforce," Radcliffe told Runner's World in an interview posted Tuesday. "Look at how many national and area records are set in mixed races. I also think it is a little unfair to set it like that retroactively."
Even as they kowtowed to the IAAF, the officials of the world's leading marathons recognized the idiocy of the situation in a way that made their acceptance of it even more idiotic.
This is what their Tuesday statement also said:
a) The vast majority of women’s road races throughout the world are held in mixed conditions.
b) The current situation where the fastest time is not now recognized as a record is confusing and unfair and does not respect the history of our sport.
Like the IAAF, those marathon officials want to have two sets of records: one mixed, one women-only. Unlike the IAAF's "world record" vs. "world best" distinction, they would call them both world records.
Right. That will certainly make everything less confusing.
Following that in the statement is this butt-kissing line: "WMM and AIMS congratulate the IAAF for introducing world road records and for continuing to support road running through its labelling scheme."
The marathon officials apparently think that by playing nice they will get the IAAF to reconsider.
In two years.
Which brings me back to the (presumably) farcical propositions I made for other record qualifiers.
Last I looked, the IAAF allows pace-setters, known as rabbits, in track races, runners who do a lap or two and then drop out. Their job is to facilitate world-record attempts.
And they also allow pace-setters in marathons, where these well-paid athletes drop out well before the finish. (Dosn't track have an honest effort rule?)
Other athletes can draft off those pace-setters, which lessens both the physical and psychological burden of running fast.
Yet I don't see any asterisk next to Roger Bannister's historic sub-4-minute mile, even though Bannister had help from two rabbits.
All the world's major marathons already have vehicles following the women's leaders during a race. They could furnish evidence of whether a woman is getting unfair aid (such as fetching drinks) from a designated male pace-setter or simply falling in behind a stranger who happens to be running the same pace.
And some would contend that men trying to keep up with the fastest women actually impede the women during a marathon.
"In my two mixed races (2002 Chicago and 2003 London) it was not my decision, rather the race organizers', to have male runners with me, and in each case I very consciously ran alongside them rather than ever behind," Radcliffe said in the Runner's World interview. "Indeed, in London, I was actively racing the two guys. Furthermore, I fully believe that I would have run pretty much the same time that day alone with the crowds and motorbikes."
So where are we now?
Well, if a woman runs 2:17:41, everyone will have to say it is a world record but not a world best because Radcliffe ran faster at both London in 2003 and Chicago in 2002 but those records didn't count after 2011 because some people who spend their lives playing with decimal points in dimly-lit rooms valued an unattainable standard of statistical purity over the real world appeal of their sport.
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