Column: Deleting Track Records Would Set Dangerous PrecedentJune 22, 2017
In 1983, Jarmila Kratochvilova of the Czech Republic, then part of what was called Czechoslovakia, ran the 800 meters in 1 minute 53.28 seconds, a record that stands to this day. Kratochvilova was 32 at the time, an age when most short-distance runners are beyond their prime. That’s why a group of European track officials, in a move some are calling an attempt to “restore credibility” to their sport, recommended last month that the sport’s global governing body void all world records set before 2005. That was the year when track and field began storing blood and urine samples for use in sophisticated drug screenings.
Track and field has a long history of doping scandals that predates any discussion of the use of PEDs in popular U.S. sports. During the 1980s, sport in Eastern bloc countries, most famously East Germany, was used as propaganda to promote communism. Athletes were merely pawns in a tyrannical and corrupt political system. They had little choice but to participate in state-sponsored doping programs, even if they doubted the training methods of their coaches and government officials. To refuse was not only to risk a spot in the Olympics and other major international competitions, but the perks that came with winning and glorifying their nation – such as an apartment or car - would be unavailable to them.
The proposal to eliminate pre-2005 records would require the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to recognize only those records set by athletes who have undergone a strict regimen of drug testing. The proposal is problematic in a number of respects, not the least of which is its uniform and broad application that, if approved, will most certainly snare the innocent even if it exorcises the guilty. Although the legal system has adopted the concept of guilt by association – the driver of a getaway car can be convicted of felony murder if his associate kills someone during a bank robbery - it would be unfair to find an athlete guilty of “doping by association.”
Kratochvilova had a heavily muscled body for a female which raised immediate questions about whether her speed was achieved naturally or through the use of anabolic steroids. She has always attributed her physique and athletic success to her life as a farm girl, a fanatical training regimen - which is legendary in the track world - and large doses of Vitamin B12. If you’ve heard it all before, raise your hand.
While physical appearances and record breaking performances may cast suspicion in some quarters, track and field officials should be required to prove doping - beyond a shadow of a doubt – case by case, relying on incontrovertible evidence, prior to tampering with the record book. If the motion to delete records en masse is approved, legal challenges are inevitable. There is no proof that every record set before 2005 was aided by doping, just as there is no guarantee that every record achieved since then was unassisted by banned substances.
What if MLB decided to wipe out all baseball records between 1998, the year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa engaged in their epic home run battle which resulted in both players breaking the single season record, and 2006, when the league and the Players Association instituted the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program? There’s no doubt that a number of players, perhaps a majority as Jose Canseco alleged in his book, were using banned substances during that period. But not every MLB player was juiced. Should their records be wiped off the books as well?
It may be unfair to athletes who played by the rules to allow tainted records to remain. But it’s also unethical to wipe out the records of those who played by the rules. The IAAF will vote on the European proposal in August. Here’s hoping they do the right thing and vote no.