The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

The Unbreakables

Jan 6th, 2010
5:45 pm PDT
Silke Gladisch, Marita Koch, Marlies Gohr and Auerswald of the East Germany

As we close out this decade and move into the next, the most excitement the sport has coming out of the “oughts” has been the record breaking exploits of Usain Bolt, and the altering of the 100 and 200 meter sprint lists by Bolt and Tyson Gay.

During the decade we also had a near record run in the 1500, record runs in the 5000, 10000, 110 hurdles, steeplechase , marathon, and decathlon. We also saw several near record performances in these events – all of which brings attention and excitement to the sport. Especially since our primary marketing plan seems to rest on the setting of records.

The women, unfortunately haven’t had the same degree of excitement thrown their way. Because they compete in a world forever altered by the same taint of drugs that we found hovering over the sport as we closed out this decade!

Drug use among women seems to create much greater changes/increases in female performances, and unfortunately for them there were two periods of time where rampant drug use (and suspected drug use) forever altered their record landscape. First was the 80’s where we know that the athletes of the Eastern Bloc used sport (and doping) to exercise athletic superiority over their “Western” counterparts. As a result, nearly all of the running and field event records are dominated by 1980’s Eastern Bloc performances. Those that aren’t were taken care of by the middle distance assault of the Chinese in the early 90’s.

What’s left for the women are a handful of distance events and some relatively new events like the pole vault and hammer. Leaving them pretty much out of the spotlight when it comes to the sports record breaking. After all women chasing marks like 10.49 (100), 47.60 (400), 1:53.28 (800), 3:50.46 (1500) these are daunting tasks for the average man, let alone a woman! Same for the field events where marks like 74′ 2″ (Shot), 251′ 11″ (Discus) sit after over 20 years.

As a result, we sit here in the 21st century with our women at a severe disadvantage compared to female athletes in other sports. Female swimmers are able to garner headlines, for example, as they challenge and break records in the pool, while stars like Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards have to be content with simply chasing victories. While I personally find the competition to be the heart of the sport, we live in a society where recognition seems to come only in the pursuit of records – something lacking for three quarters of the athletes in our sport.

I say three quarters, because not only are the majority of women’s records out of reach, but the majority of field events on the men’s side are also of the near unbreakable variety. We can debate until we are blue in the face which records may or may not be tainted, but the basic problem is this: for the better part of the past 30 years the sport has operated in the dark regarding performance enhancing drugs. From Ben Johnson & Charlie Francis, to Tim Montgomery & Victor Conte, those with the intent to dope have stayed a good two steps ahead of those trying to catch them – and our record books are greatly skewed as a result.

Now this isn’t a new topic. It was discussed in many circles prior to the start of the New Millennium with proposals for a new set of records to coincide with the turn of the century – New Millennium world records if you will. And there is precedence for this within the sport as back in the 1970’s we closed the books on “yard” records (100 yards, 440 yards, 880 yards, et al) in favor of all metric units – with only the mile being retained. This was done as by this period of time only the US still measured in “imperial” units, and the rest of the world had gone “metric”.

We’ve seen it done in the multi events, where changes to the scoring tables created inequities with “old” scores and “new” scores. And we’ve also seen it done with the javelin, where redesigns in the throwing implement itself created a severe change in the distances thrown with the new implement. So it is not a stretch to consider the possibility of a new set of records and all time lists for the sport – because we’ve been down this road before.

The thought near the beginning of the New Millennium was that it was time to “cleanse” the record books, knowing that a large majority of marks – records and all time lists – have been tainted over the years. None more so than on the women’s side of the ledger, where it seems at least three quarters of the marks are simply untouchable at this point.

While the turn of the century seemed to be a chronologically appropriate time, the change never occurred. And fortuitously so, in my opinion, as now would be an even better time to do so! Why? Well at the turn of the century we still didn’t have a handle on the drug issue – as evidenced by the litany of top level individuals that had to leave the sport during the “oughts” on the heels of drug related issues.

Now, however, we have better testing methods available to us. There are now viable tests for HGH and EPO, and we now have the ability to develop Blood Passports for use with blood testing. Blood Passports being the development of base blood profiles for athletes, which are then used at a later date to compare with future blood tests to determine changes within the system. Using eight different “markers” in the blood, they are used in various formulas and models to determine the probability that an athlete is doping. Using this methodology, we can now determine the use of both known and unknown (designer) drugs within an athletes system.

If used properly, this technology could be used to ensure the cleanest set of marks the sport has ever seen. Extensive use during the out of competition/training portion of the season to get accurate base profiles; combined with regular testing of the world’s most dominant athletes in the sport should be able to catch the drug cheats – like Tim Montgomery, Kelli White, Dwain Chambers, Kevin Toth and Regina Jacobs – that were able to go undetected with simple urinalysis.

Thus enabling the creation/implementation of a new set of records and all time lists based on a better testing methodology. The records list can be sold as one that now requires more stringent testing for ratification (pre and post). And can be sold to the public – including marketing to potential investors/sponsors of the sport as providing the highest level of competition possible with the cleanest set of athletes the sport has ever seen – based on the best testing available.

More importantly it will ensure a spate of record setting in the sport at a time when it sorely needs the positive exposure – and it will ensure that the women of the sport get their fair share of publicity as well. Not to mention that it will finally give the sport some “positive” exposure on the topic of drugs and testing.

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