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13 May 2017

Paula Radcliffe is wrong to fight for her world record – no athlete should be defined by a number

The running legend shouldn't sweat plans to reset athletics world records from before 2005.

By Ed Smith

In 1991, Martin Crowe, the masterly New Zealand cricketer, broke the national record by scoring 299 in Wellington. The experience stayed with Crowe for the rest of his life, but not in the way you would expect. In Crowe’s mind he hadn’t scored 299, he had failed to reach 300. Experience, at that stage of his life, was subordinate to numbers. The agony of scoring 299, Crowe suggested, contributed to the cancer he suffered, which eventually cost him his life.

By then, Crowe had seen through his earlier quantophrenia. Two years before his death in 2016, Crowe confessed that the number had burdened his adult life. “It [the 299] tore at me like a vulture pecking at dead flesh. I did not know how to let go, could never laugh at the absurdity of my anger. Ultimately it contributed to a dislike of myself . . . I was desperate to be liked and thought scoring big hundreds would suffice. I even thought one run would suffice. I was staggeringly naive to think so. I missed the entire point of life – how it should be appreciated.”

The real purpose of sport, Crowe implied, is not reaching a number; it is experience and enjoyment. Yes, numbers – time, distances, centuries – motivate athletes. But while the wrapper is numeric, the substance underneath is apparently more nebulous, and yet much more substantial. Athletes set off in pursuit of numbers but the lucky ones chase down something different: an accommodation with their own character and capabilities. The number, once achieved, melts into something more valuable.

I’ve been thinking about Crowe’s fierce honesty in the context of “resetting” athletics world records from before 2005. Superficially, the proposal to remove older records invites an argument about doping. It runs deeper than that. What is an athlete’s relationship with past achievements? And should any athlete, especially a “clean” one, allow himself to be defined by a number?

Anyone who has seen a graph of world record times will understand why athletics is considering this bold proposal, which has been put forward by European Athletics and will be considered by the sport’s governing body, the IAAF, in August. Steady improvement across the sport was undeniably altered by the development of anti-doping tests. In some disciplines, changes to testing led to drops in the average performance by as much as 5 per cent.

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Many world records, set when testing was more haphazard, are now viewed with suspicion. An extreme example is the women’s 400-metre record of 47.60 seconds, set by the East German runner Marita Koch in 1985. East Germany, we now know, indulged in institutional doping. Koch maintains she is innocent. For context, last year’s Olympic champion, Shaunae Miller, won gold in a time of 49.44 seconds.

In the absence of absolute proof, athletics is considering a blanket “reset” rather than a series of subjective judgements about which records can stay and which must go. It does not follow that all records before 2005 were achieved with drugs. Nor is it certain that all contemporary records are clean. But the debate does show that athletics is facing a fight for survival. The public has lost the trust that forms the foundation of all spectator sport. It’s unclear that resetting world records will solve that underlying crisis, but at least it shows some appetite for renewal.

Leaving the technical arguments to one side, some of the reactions are worrying. Paula Radcliffe, whose 2003 marathon time would cease to be an official world record, has reacted angrily to the proposal. “I am hurt and do feel this damages my reputation and dignity,” she said in a written statement.
Her sport had “again failed clean athletes”.

It is understandable that ­record-holders will have an intensely personal reaction. However, Radcliffe’s response is problematic, even if you don’t take any position on the specific legitimacy of her time. First, there is the question of the sport’s greater good. Second, the proposed across-the-board change, which happens to encompass an event in her own career, need not impinge so heavily on her “dignity”.

For what, exactly, is being taken from Radcliffe? Not her record, not exactly, because all records from that period would be similarly removed. The way history records certain events would change – the colour of the pen used to write Radcliffe’s name in the record books.

Yes, there are moral implications for a whole generation. But those implications exist anyway. If Radcliffe is innocent, she will know she is innocent, however people choose to rank her sport’s best races. Besides, is it healthy to be so defined by the status of a number first written down 14 years ago? What about the value she derived from the experience of running: discovering the depths of her resilience, the ability to withstand pain, her capacity to train and compete at the outer limit of her potential?

Paradoxically, the only way Radcliffe can achieve total victory over the record books is to downgrade their significance in her own mind, to retain the value of the experience while shrugging off the significance of the numbers.

Imagine this scenario: after a bitter 20-year battle, Radcliffe finally wins the argument and the status of her record is reinstated. A number would be firmed up once again; but the experience of the race as she lived it would not be improved. The main impact of the whole process would relate to the reduced time available for different challenges in the rest of her life. The personal risk here – investing time and energy in the status of a number – is the opportunity cost relating to the future, not the past.

“Being introduced as Mr X, former Arsenal player, and not for what he is today, that hurts,” Arsène Wenger told L’Équipe about the experience of meeting former players. “Being what you were is a suffering.”

This article appears in the 10 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning