Thursday, 20 October 2011

History Stands

Two or three years ago, some paper-pusher in the Department for Education or some other such administrative body in charge of exams decided that it was time for another rule change. Successive UK governments like to fiddle with our exam structures every now and then to put their stamp on education, and usually I couldn’t care less. But this one was different.

In summer 2005 I collected my A-level certificates, ridiculously satisfied to have achieved the highest possible set of results: four As. My school could offer a maximum of four A-levels per student, so I chose four subjects I enjoyed and was good at, worked hard at those four and got good grades in all of them. My CV would forever proclaim this clean sweep of school-age academic testing. I may not have collected any shiny plastic trophies, but academically I was top dog.

Until that paper-pusher moved the goalposts and added an A* grade to the A-level scoring system.

Now my CV looks good, but not great. I ‘only’ got As. Hypothetically, when the current cohorts of A-level students filter into the job market, their performances could be unfairly measured against mine. I did the best I could within the rules I was given, but now the rules have changed I’m retrospectively disadvantaged. How is this fair?

It isn’t. But it doesn’t matter. I have an MA now, so my A-levels are pretty irrelevant. Hopefully anyone looking critically at my CV would have some awareness of the rule change, if they were to care at all.  But imagine if a comparable scenario was played out on an international scale, affecting achievements which are recorded in history books and have huge sums of money associated to them. Imagine the greatest athletes in history being downgraded by retrospective rule changes. Sadly, right now, we don’t have to imagine.

The IAAF, athletics’ governing body, recently changed the rules for female distance records. Essentially, world records will only be certified in women-only races, on the basis that mixed races or races with male pacemakers offer some sort of ill-defined advantage, loosely generalising that women run faster in the presence of men. Aside from the fact that this is pretty sexist and to my mind based on flawed logic, there’s an even greater injustice afoot.

Outrageously, the rule is being applied retrospectively, disqualifying Paula Radcliffe’s phenomenal marathon world record of 2:15:25, achieved in London in 2003, and establishing her merely amazing 2:17:42 in London in 2005 as the official world record. Paula ran the 2003 race with pacemakers (whom she hadn’t asked for), although consciously not running behind them (which might have been considered drafting, entirely legal but not Paula’s style), at the pace she wanted to achieve (without giving the pacemakers any instructions).

Paula ran 2:15 with her own legs, in her own way, in a world-beating and record-shattering time. She strived and sweated and worked harder than anyone else on the planet to do it. The IAAF, on the other hand, whom I imagine to be cooped up in some gleaming corporate headquarters, have ruled that her time wasn’t achieved according to some new standards they invented eight years later, and so are quite happy to wipe it from the record books, belittling the months and years of work it represents. It’s worth noting, of course, that Paula is still the world record holder, in fact she has run the three fastest female marathon times ever, including the disqualified 2:15.

Check out the 'News' section of
Looking forward, this is bad news for women’s marathoning. Relatively few women-only races or women-only starts exist, limiting the potential for faster times. Berlin is a prime example – the men’s world record has repeatedly been broken there, but it doesn’t have a women-only start. There will never be a female world record achieved on what is possibly the fastest marathon course in the world. This will create a messy two-tier system of ‘world best’ and ‘world record’ times, possibly subdivided again to exclude courses like Boston which don’t meet IAAF qualifying standards of elevation and layout. A cynic might say that this is a ploy to push up the standards of IAAF championships and the Olympics - races which are usually run for podium places, not necessarily for fast times...

Paula and Nike are mounting a campaign against this decision, with a massive groundswell of public support from the running community and beyond. I have no hesitation in adding my voice to it. 

Do you think I could convince them to have a go at the A-level thing too?

History stands.


2011 to date: miles: 1023.17, parkruns: 6, races: 6, miles biked: 155, metres swum: 1225

1 comment:

  1. I saw this and thought it was absurd as well. The only reason Paula Radcliffe had a male pacemaker was because there were no women fast enough to pace her. My understanding is that pace-making has more to do with having *somebody* to run alongside, or follow etc, than what sex they are, so the claim that women run faster in the presence of men is bunkum.

    Also, has the IAAF considered male runners who use pacemakers on bikes, as happened in the recent Berlin marathon?

    The guys at the Marathon Talk podcast (I think it was episode 90 or thereabouts) pointed out this ruling paves the way for endlessly derivative records - world best for women with a male pacemaker, world best for women with no pacemaker, world best for someone on a downhill course, world best on an uphill course.

    I'm glad Paula Radcliffe's fighting it.