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What price a "World Record" ?

What price a "World Record" ?

Open letter by: Andy Milroy

Andy is a International Ultrarunnning Association Executive Member and long standing runner and statistician, living in the UK
16 May 1998

As a long time observer of long distance running I have watched with interest the reaction to Tegla Laroupeís controversial 2:20:47 run at Rotterdam. I am concerned at the way she was paced all the way by two male runners. Such pacing does provide considerable aid, aid that was not available to other runners in the race, particularly the other female runners.

What was different about Laroupeís Rotterdam run, as compared to the use of pacemakers in other big marathons, was that she was paced over the later, more difficult stages of the race, which must have been a distinct advantage especially when she fell behind her record schedule.

So where does the concept of fair competition stand in this situation? Athletics is an individual sport; it is the individual that is credited with the world record, it is the individual who stands on the rostrum. And yet if a performance is achieved by unfair pacing, not available to others within the race, then surely we are then into a `teamí situation. We have individuals being forced to race against a team or teams of people, with all the additional physical resources available to them.

How important is it to achieve a `world recordí? Is it worth sacrificing the concept of fair competition on which Athletics is based, and on which it has been based for over a century at least?

It is not just the runners within the Rotterdam race that were affected. Laroupeís mark will be placed on the year rankings above marks that were made by female runners who were not paced throughout the race as she was. If another women, later in the year, runs 2:21 without full-race pacing, she will be denied 1998 No. 1 status by an aided mark.

The comment has been made that no woman was capable of pacing Laroupe at the speed she needed to run to break 2:21. Such a comment overlooks that fact that for whole race pacing, there is no man capable of pacing a male athlete to a world marathon best either! Why should a female runner receive preferential treatment, particularly with presumable world `recordí bonuses on the line.

Thus we have a situation whereby elite male runners as well can justifiably claim unfair competition. Will the elite male runners demand similar help in future - perhaps from relays of pace makers ? Is the Laroupe performance the thin end of the wedge?

One final thought. There is another very important message implicit in Laroupeís aided performance. What kind of message is it giving to young female runners? That they need the support of male runners in order to succeed?


Updated: 10 May 1998

I have attempted to refine my initial proposal, following imput from various people. If women's roadracing is going to develop fully, it needs to be seen clearly in its own right, not hidden as it is so often at present.

The pacing controversy further undermines what status women' road running has. The proposal would be a major step forward in the sport. It already has a proven track record - it works; major international road races already use this system.

The letter has had very good coverage. It has appeared now on FOUR major running websites: Ultramarathon World, Runners'World online, Runner - the South African site and now Coolrunning Australia. RW had a weekly poll on the subject and 46% thought the mark was tainted in one of the biggest polls they have ever had - so it is controversial. Locally (UK), it will be letter of the week in next week's Athletics Weekly in the UK.

Copies of the letter have also been sent to Hugh Jones, Secretary of AIMS, who intends to use the letter at the next AIMS Council meeting.

Copies of the letter have also been sent to Pierre Weiss, General Director of the IAAF, and Otto Klappert, Chairman of the IAAF Road Running Committee.

My solution:

A Better Deal for Women Road Runners

Tegla Laroupeís run at Rotterdam has raised considerable controversy about the problems of validating womenís performances in a mixed road race. Making decision as to whether a runner is, or is not being paced is often extremely difficult; assessing the intent of two runners through their actions. However, on reflection, there is another, easier way to resolve this problem.

When women came into the sport of road running in the seventies, they entered menís races, and the races became mixed. Generally because numbers were low, that made a lot of sense. However now that womenís road running is fully developed, it is time to re-think this.

In the typical womenís race, the leading women are buried deep in the menís field, and it is difficult for spectators to pick out the womenís positions.

I feel it is time to raise the profile of womenís road racing, to give the leading women in the race a chance to be in the limelight, as opposed to also rans running literally in the shadow of men.

This year is the IAAF Year of the Women. It would be appropriate therefore to raise the profile of womenís road running. This could be done quite easily by arranging for the womenís race to start before the menís event. [The length of time between the two starts would vary according to the distance of the race.] This system is already used successfully in major international road races.

Women runners would be able to see each other, and would be seen by spectators. The womenís race would be a main attraction, instead of a side show.

Such a practice would provide many of the benefits of the all women races, hopefully without provoking the response that has led to the decline of such races in the States. [I gather they have been the target of male runners alleging sex discrimination.] It would also add greatly to the road side interest in races around the world, giving spectators two clear dramatic spectacles to enjoy, instead of one and a confused puzzle.

Such a proposal has another major bonus. Provided the gap between the start of the womenís race, and that of the menís race was adjusted correctly, there would be no chance of male runners interfering in the womenís race, and pacing any of the female runners. Thus the status of womenís road records would become greatly enhanced.

What about those female runners who wish to run socially with families and/or friends, and do not seek the cut and thrust of competition? Well, any women who did not want to seek line honours, or records, could enter the general race, where they would be classified along with the male runners, with their gender noted. Such performances would not be eligible for record purposes.

Surely it is time for womenís road running to come out of the shadows, and for them to get the credit on the road their achievements deserve. The sport of women's road running can only benefit from the wide spread adoption of this proposal.


This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010


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