In Depth

Should track and field erase its record book?

With track and field's record book still littered with suspicious marks from the steroid-tainted 1980s, some say it's time to wipe the slate clean. Are they going too far?

Bold measure proposed to deal with steroid-tainted era

Florence Griffith-Joyner's head-turning times in the 100 and 200 in 1988 still stand as the women's world records. But that would change if a radical idea is implemented. (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

Google "women's 800-metre world record" and you get a grainy video from a 1983 track meet in Munich.

It shows the fastest 800-metre race ever run by a woman. And the most dubious.

At age 32, a few weeks before winning gold at the IAAF world championships, Czechoslovakia's Jarmila Kratochvilova ran two laps of the track in a blistering one minute 53.28 seconds. In the 34 years since, no one has seriously threatened her record.

In fact, since the turn of the century, only one other woman has gone under 1:55 (Kenya's Pamela Jelimo ran a 1.54.01 in 2008). At last year's Olympic Games, unbeatable South African Caster Semenya dominated the field with a time of 1:55.28 — a full two seconds slower than Kratochvilova.

Watching both runs, you can't help but notice that even the muscular Semenya seems small compared to Kratochvilova's chiseled body back in 1983.

Kratochvilova has always insisted her record is legitimate, achieved free of any performance-enhancing drugs. She recently told the New York Times, "I have never taken banned substances," attributing her physique to rigorous training and vitamins.

In the years since the fall of communism, many documents have emerged chronicling the rampant state-sponsored doping programs run by former Eastern Bloc countries. But, despite widespread suspicion, no evidence has definitively linked Kratochvilova to performance-enhancing drugs.

That may not matter if a radical idea is accepted.

'Revolutionary' measure

There is a push by some European track and field officials to erase all world records set before 2005 — the year the IAAF, the sport's world governing body, began storing blood and urine samples for possible re-testing.

"What we are proposing is revolutionary," European Athletics Council president Svein Arne Hansen told reporters in May. "Performance records that show the limits of human capabilities are one of the great strengths of our sport, but they are meaningless if people don't really believe them.

"We want to change the concept of a record and raise the standards for recognition [to] a point where everyone can be confident that everything is fair and above board."

The plan will be presented to the IAAF at a meeting in August, and IAAF president Sebastian Coe has indicated his support for it.

"I like this because it underlines that we have put into place doping control systems and technology that are more robust and safer than 15 or even 10 years ago," he told reporters. 

"There will be athletes, current record holders, who will feel that the history we are recalibrating will take something away from them, but I think this is a step in the right direction and if organized and structured properly we have a good chance of winning back credibility in this area."

If the proposal is accepted, 74 of the 145 current track and field world records would be erased. Besides Kratochvilova's mark, the list includes the women's 400-metre, high jump, long jump and discus throw records — all set by Eastern Bloc athletes in the 1980s. U.S. sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner's 100- and 200-metre runs would also be wiped, along with fellow American Jackie Joyner-Kersee's heptathlon record — all set in 1988.

Going too far?

The push to rewrite the record book has garnered support from one of the most prominent and controversial players in the world of doping and sports.

You may remember Victor Conte from the so-called BALCO scandal that rocked baseball and track earlier this century. In 2009, he was sentenced to four months in prison for his role in getting steroids into the hands of a number of high-profile athletes — including baseball star Barry Bonds and track standout Marion Jones — through his California-based business, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative.

Conte says it's not just the pressure to compete against contemporaries that drives athletes to use performance enhancers, but also the burden of chasing a history of drug-aided results. That's especially the case in women's track, where many records from the drug-infested 1980s and early '90s still stand.

"Forcing the current, modern-day athletes to compete against records that are 30 years old, achieved almost certainly using drugs, is simply unfair," says Conte.

"[Today] you have faster tracks, better spikes, better nutrition, better training. So when you're running 10 metres slower 30 years later, something is wrong."

British marathoner Paula Radcliffe, who holds the women's world record, is among the athletes who have voiced their opposition to the idea of wiping the books clean.

The question is, how far do you go?

"It seems like a pretty blunt approach," says Paul Melia, head of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports, which oversees anti-doping efforts in the country.

Instead of clearing the record books, Melia suggests an "asterisk" period to mark the era when track and field didn't address doping as thoroughly.

"But to go back and just strip everyone of their achievements and performances before an arbitrary year like 2005 because we are not sure who was doping and who wasn't? That seems unfair to the athletes who were playing by the rules and doing it right who didn't know what future criteria would be held against them," Melia says.

"It doesn't seem to me to be a very fair solution."

Bruce Kidd, a professor at the University of Toronto and a longtime part of the Olympic movement, agrees.

"I think there are too many fairness and legal issue to unilaterally obliterate records. How can you prove those record holders were in fact doped?" he asks.

"What I'm saying is not perfect, but I think you leave them in and you encourage people to pursue them. Nobody ever thought that Jesse Owens's long jump record would be beaten, and then Bob Beamon did."

'I am going to fight'

Predictably, many athletes who would stand to lose their records share Kidd's sentiment.

Britain's Paula Radcliffe, who still holds the women's marathon world record she set in 2003, said track officials are once again "failing" clean athletes with this proposal.

"They could not provide us a level playing field, we lost out on medals, moments and earnings due to cheats, saw our sport dragged through the mud due to cheats, and now, thanks to those who chose to cheat, we potentially lose our world and area records," she said in a statement.

American Mike Powell's 1991 long jump record, which knocked Beamon from the books, would also be threatened.

"I've already contacted my attorney," Powell told the BBC. "There are some records out there that are kind of questionable. I can see that. But mine is the real deal. It's a story of human heart and guts, one of the greatest moments in the sport's history.

"They would be destroying so many things with this decision without thinking about it," he added. "It's wrong. Regardless of what happens, I am going to fight."

'Clean' era?

Kevin Sullivan, a former Canadian middle-distance runner whose career straddled the proposed 2005 cutoff, says scrutinizing old records is a good idea.

"There are records on the board that have clearly been attained through performance enhancement, despite those record holders claiming they have never taken banned substances," says the three-time Olympian who holds four national records. "There is too much evidence to say otherwise."

But Sullivan points out a major problem with wiping the record books clean of performances from before 2005: such a move assumes that the last 12 years have seen athletes competing on a level playing field, free of performance-enhancing drugs.

"We know that's not the truth," Sullivan says. "Go back and look at how many Olympic finalists from 2008 or 2012 have been retroactively banned, had records taken away."

Indeed, track and field and many other sports continue to struggle to keep pace with cheaters.

Just last year, Russia's entire track and field team was banned from competing at the Rio Olympics after a widespread, state-orchestrated doping scheme was uncovered. The ban remains in effect for the upcoming IAAF world championships, though 19 Russians will be allowed to compete in London as "neutral" athletes.

In the meantime, the IOC is re-testing hundreds of samples taken at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics using the latest technology. So far, about 100 athletes have been sanctioned for using banned substances detected by those re-tests.

All of this in the supposedly "clean" post-2005 era.

"Wiping away world records doesn't solve the issue of performance-enhancing drugs," Sullivan stresses. "There's no one that can say they are going to take a record away and that it's going to be replaced with a clean one.

"It's too difficult to make that statement."


Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC