The Biggest Lie in World Sport? – Womens Track World Records

Genzebe Dibaba’s world record breaking run among the glitz and the glamour of Monaco last month was special. It was the first female sprint/middle distance world record broken in 22 years, breaking Yunxia Qu’s hotly disputed time set in the early 90s. The world records for the 100m, 100mH, 200m, 400m and 800m all date back to the ’80s or earlier. Of the women’s field and combined events, all six disciplines competed in throughout the ‘80s have world records set in that decade. The validity of these records has long been shrouded in doubt. Why haven’t they been beaten? And why haven’t the men’s events experienced similar issues? After all, male sprinters have hardly been paragons of cleanliness. And what impact is this having on the sport, and its popularity?

The sanctity of the record book is a touchy subject because of the implication that the sport’s immortals cheated. But in athletics’ modern history, a doping scandal has never been far around the corner. In the past couple of months, we have had the rather unsavoury treatment of Mo Farah following allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar. Then, we had the Sunday Times report via an IAAF whistle-blower that showed blood-test data revealing a third of medals, in endurance events at the Olympics and World Championships between 2001 and 2012, were won by athletes who recorded suspicious tests. This was followed by the IAAF initiating action against 28 athletes where retested samples from the 2005 and 2007 World Championships highlighted “adverse findings”. The athletes have remained nameless and the majority are retired. Seb Coe, favourite to win the impending IAAF presidential election, believes a declaration of war has been made against his sport. Track and field is in turmoil. The 2015 World Championships in Beijing start in 5 days.

I was fanatical about track and field as a child. Both my parents were aspiring athletes and I was obsessed with it from as early as I can remember. We had videos of the ’92 and ’96 Olympic Games and I would watch them over and over. I would watch the Golden League religiously on a Friday night. Somewhere along the line I lost interest. I still watch the World Championships and the Olympics, but the Diamond League or the National Championships? They don’t appeal to me anymore. When researching this piece I noticed that 3 different men have gone sub 44 seconds in the 400m this year already. I hadn’t even heard of two of them.

As time passed, I wised up to the realities of the sport. I can remember back to Tim Montgomery’s season in 2002 when he regularly beat world record holder Maurice Greene in the 100m after being decidedly mediocre in the years previous. Turns out that every victory interview where he was thanking God, he should have been thanking the scientists over at BALCO. It pissed me off. I went to Crystal Palace every year to watch these guys run, putting money in their pocket. Then came Marion Jones, Dwain Chambers, Tyson Gay and too many more. Now I’m a downright cynic. I sat in the Olympic Stadium and watched Taoufik Makhloufi win the mens 1500m gold so comfortably, over a second and a half between him and second place. I couldn’t enjoy it. He’s never tested positive for anything but he had come from nowhere, I don’t believe that he’s a clean athlete, although I hope he is. It’s a horrible mindset to have but it’s only natural after all we have seen. Justin Gatlin is running the quickest times of his career over 100m and 200m at the age of 33 and the wrong side of 3 failed drugs test. Possible? Yes. Plausible? Not in my opinion.

Tim Montgomery & Marion Jones

For the best of the bunch in men’s track events, it seems the world record ledger remains an open book. You have Bolt’s records for the 100m and 200m from Berlin in 2009, the 800m record went in 2012 to David Rudisha, the 110mH went in ’06, ’08 and again in 2012. Of the 21 men’s track and field events, only the Discuss and Hammer records date back to the 1980’s.  Even for those that haven’t been broken in over a decade, we are at least seeing present day athletes getting close. Sadly, to the women’s elite, it is shut tight. From 100m to 800m it has been a closed book since the 1980s.

BALCO founder Victor Conte, has estimated that drugs can help a man lower his 100-metre time by two-tenths of a second, compared to four-tenths of a second for a woman. When men take steroids, a pituitary-gonadal feedback loop limits excess production of testosterone. Women, by contrast, begin to show male characteristics: decreased body fat, leaner muscle, facial hair, deeper voices, male pattern baldness. As US distance runner Joan Nesbit Mabe puts it, “a man can only become a faster man. A woman can become a man and get faster. They have a double boost.”

The truth is, we’ll never know the identity of the woman with the most natural speed in history. Mabe, who competed in the 1996 Olympics, wonders how fast she could have run if she’d taken drugs. She said “When I go to heaven, they’re going to tell me where I really finished in the world.”

In 1983, Jarmila Kratochvilova, a previously mediocre 32-year-old Czech middle distance runner, set a world record in the 800-meter run in 1:53.28 seconds. Soon, Kratochvilova was the cover girl for Track & Field News and the subject of a profile in Sports Illustrated. It wasn’t her fast time that attracted all the attention. Rather, it was her broad-shouldered, flat-chested physique, which looked more like a middleweight boxer’s than that of a middle-distance runner.

Jamila K
Jarmila Kratochvilova
Before Kratochvilova’s run, the 800-metre record had fallen 23 times since World War II. It has not been broken since, and now stands as the oldest world record in track and field. It won’t be broken at the World Championships in Beijing at the end of August. The fastest time run for the whole season last year was over four and a half seconds slower than the WR mark. That may not sound like a lot but in track terms for a quick race like the 800m that is astronomical. Comparing it to the men’s event of the same distance, four and a half seconds is equivalent to either breaking David Rudisha’s world record, or not even qualifying to compete in Beijing. When you consider all the developments within the last 30 years in athletics – the evolution of the running spike, the tracks and the outfits to optimize performance, sports science and nutrition –  it is very hard to believe that 32 years later, not only can nobody beat Kratochvilova’s time, they can’t get anywhere close to it.
The 400m time is equally suspicious. In Canberra on 6 October 1985, Marita Koch blitzed the 400m in 47.60 seconds. Watching it now on YouTube, it remains a stunning sight to behold. Running in the unfavourably tight second lane, Koch sets off like she is running a 200m race and just keeps going, as though she is immune to the natural brake fluid of lactic acid.
Marita Koch
Marita Koch

In 30 years, no other female 400m runner has broken 48 seconds. The last time someone ran under 49 seconds was in 2009, by Sanya Richards Ross, who dominated her event for the best part of a decade. That time in 2009 was 48.83, still well over a second slower than Koch’s WR. In 2014, only two women broke the 50 second barrier.

Koch’s untouchable time stands as a legacy of the track and field machine of the Eastern Bloc – a machine that was found to be turbo-charged by a systematic doping programme when documents of the Stasi secret police force came to light after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They unearthed a letter from Koch complaining that a compatriot was being given stronger doses of the steroids because her uncle was president of the pharmaceutical company that fed the East German athletics regime.

The 100m and 200m records are just as untouchable. In 1988, Florence Griffith Joyner aka Flo Jo, won double gold at the Olympics in Seoul and broke both records in that same season. After the Olympics, she just as suddenly retired, at the peak of her powers at 28 years old and right before international track and field expanded its drug testing procedures. In 1998, she died after suffering an epileptic seizure. Her best time before 1988 was 10.96; an incredible .47 seconds difference between that and her World Record time of 10.49.

Flo Jo

Because testing has improved in the last 20 years, athletes doping up on Cold War-strength drugs would get caught today. Marion Jones used a “designer steroid” altered by chemists to make it undetectable. It wasn’t powerful enough to produce a world record. Jones approached Flo Jo’s times in the 100 and 200 but never surpassed them. We are not seeing any signs that the world’s top female sprinters are getting closer to breaking her records.

Perhaps the strangest and most suspicious of all are the performances of “Ma’s army”, athletes trained by the controversial Chinese distance coach who claimed his runners performances were being boosted by the consumption of turtle blood.

Ma’s athletes included Wang Junxia who holds the 3000m and 10000m world records, and Qu Yunxia, who’s 1500m WR Dibaba has just broken. Even if Qu and Wang were clean (which is almost certainly untrue) there is another excellent reason for disregarding their times set at the 1993 Chinese National Games. Both Qu and Wang broke the existing 1,500m record there, certainly a feat within the realm of possibility, but when you move up to the 3,000m the performances become outlandish. During the heats and final of the 3,000m, five athletes beat the world record a total of ten times! In the 10,000m Wang and Zhong Huandi also broke the world record by running over a minute faster than they ever did before or since. Valid times? No – a lethal combination of blood doping and the fact that the track was short. Shortly before the 2000 Olympics, China withdrew 27 athletes from their Olympic team, including six runners trained by Ma who had tested positive for EPO.

Disgraced coach Ma Junren
Disgraced coach Ma Junren

But what does all this mean? For one thing, it is grossly unfair on those female athletes who compete in these disciplines. The newer events, such as the pole vault, triple jump and hammer, are free from these issues; the vault and hammer were introduced at the 1999 World Championships, and the triple jump a little earlier in 1993.

There is nowhere near as much money in athletics as there is in other individual sports like tennis and golf – athletes usually fund themselves through sponsorship deals, government support, grants and part-time work. In 2012 only half of American track and field athletes – who were ranked in the top 10 in their nation – earned more than $15,000 a year from their sport. When you consider that the prize for breaking the world record at the World Championships is $100,000 – this issue becomes all the more significant. Is it fair that Yelena Isinbeyeva was able to break the world record 28 times in the pole vault (a discipline introduced post 80’s), earning countless reward money in the process, whilst the likes of Alyson Felix and Carmelita Jeter in the sprint disciplines can’t get anywhere close? Not only is there a disparity between the potential reward for men over women in the sport, there is also that disparity within the women’s events. That seems grossly unfair on those affected to me.

One of many for Yelena Isinbayeva

The issue is more wide-reaching than just financial reward, though. Is the popularity of the sport for women being adversely affected by these out-dated and out-of-reach records? The female events certainly receive less publicity than the men. In the Guardian’s write up of the Monaco Diamond League meeting, Dibaba’s world record run wasn’t mentioned until the 13th paragraph, with Mo Farah finishing 4th and a reasonably quick 100m time from Justin Gatlin dominating the story.

The imbalance needs addressing, but there is so much to be done in a sport that is losing all its trust and credibility fast. How much longer before viewers regard what they see not with awe but with a suspicion that they are being scammed? Perhaps we are already there. One senior figure says he believes the past few weeks have been the most challenging the sport has faced – worse even than the aftermath of the Ben Johnson bust and the Balco affair. “We’re in freefall,” he warned, “and, if there is not greater transparency and increased testing and retesting of samples, then it will hit the bottom. I believe that large numbers of athletes and coaches are clean. But everyone is cynical now. Someone has to do something quickly or our sport is dead.”

Over to you, Lord Coe.


6 thoughts on “The Biggest Lie in World Sport? – Womens Track World Records

  1. The issue is more wide-reaching than just financial reward, though. Is the popularity of the sport for women being adversely affected by these out-dated and out-of-reach records? The female events certainly receive less publicity than the men. In the Guardian’s write up of the Monaco Diamond League meeting, Dibaba’s world record run wasn’t mentioned until the 13th paragraph, with Mo Farah finishing 4th and a reasonably quick 100m time from Justin Gatlin dominating the story.
    Doesn’t that rather answer your question? Clearly the record had little to no effect on the reporting as even when broken it didn’t rank a high mention. Sprints will always dominate the reporting as will home athletes, a broken record in the mens 1500 would probably have been down at the same position.


    • It’s a fair point and agreed homegrown athletes will always dominate the headlines here. Was simply attempting to highlight the lack of attention on Dibaba given how improbable the record breaking run was (based on how little it has happened in the womens disciplines in recent times) and that is a bit sad in itself. Thanks for reading – at least I know I held your attention until the end!


  2. Hi Kieran, enjoyed reading this and for the most part I agree with what you say. However tusting the ‘job’ to His Lordship Wee Sebby Coe………….. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could launch him at the end of a hammer wire!!


  3. Hi Kieran,
    I was searching the web anting to interpret the history of world records in athletics (track and field) over the last thirty years or so, and why are they so different for men than for women? I agree with you some athletes of both sexes seem to have happily gone on drug taking during this period. I also agree drugs may have a much more significant on women than men but this alone does not explain the differences. The men have continued to break records but women have not since the nineties. What are the reasons for this? Is the crucial drug element that assists women now easily spotted by drug testers? Can you suggest where further information can be found.
    The reason for my interest if that I an interest in analyzing statistically the available data (for example, year best in each year t in the 400 metres).
    Any help you could provide would be much appreciated.


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