Many athletes declare a preference for Olympic gold over a world record. Biennial world championship medals, up for grabs in Stuttgart next month, have lost their rarity value. To adapt a phrase, 'Men (and women) make (athletic) history, but they do not do it under circumstances of their own choosing.' In winning medals, the virtue added is through accepting this lack of control: the date of performance cannot be carefully selected to suit personal form; there are no willing pacemakers ready to sacrifice their own performance to a world record bid; and Olympic golds come more rarely than records - most records are broken more frequently than every four years.
But some are more durable than others: Seb Coe's 800m mark is now 12 years old; Pietro Mennea's 200m record, set in 1979, remains unbeaten; Lee Evans's 400m time was only bettered 20 years later; and Bob Beamon's long jump record lasted 23 years before Mike Powell surpassed it in the Tokyo world championships two years ago.
Three of these long-lived records were set at altitude in Mexico City. If there is one circumstance that can be chosen to assist the achievement of world records in the speed-dependent events, it would be thin air. Triple jump and 100m records set in the Mexico Olympics also proved durable.
Carl Lewis's ambition was to break Beamon's record without the assistance of altitude. It was Powell who did so, but both had a different advantage. The track was harder than athletic regulations allow, but on it sprinters could achieve greater speed on the runway, as they can in thinner air. Lewis also benefited from the Tokyo track in setting the present 100m world record.
Engineering records is no simple matter, though. Ambitious organisers chose the Italian Alpine resort of Sestriere for its altitude and offered a Ferarri Testarossa as an incentive to athletes. Despite some good times, most attempts there have been foiled by excessive wind speed - either obstructive or rendering illegal assistance.
Drugs are another source of illegal assistance. Ben Johnson's drug-assisted 100m records set in 1987 and 1988 were retrospectively erased, but there can be no definitive cleansing of the record books. Six women's world records were set in 1988, and only one - in the new triple jump event - is more recent. Since Johnson's demise, performance levels have also dipped in the men's throwing events, except for the redesigned javelin. Many records are at present acquiring an undeserved longevity.
Athletic record-breaking is now done mainly by men on the track, and by Sergei Bubka in the pole vault. Ahead of the rest, Bubka has broken the world record 15 times, in centimetre increments. With bonuses available on each occasion, Bubka has a clear strategy. Apart from the high jump, where the margins are smaller (and similar successive record- breaking was achieved in the 1960s), no other event offers the same degree of control over athletic output.
On the track the realisation of record-breaking form also requires incentives. These include: 1) Competitive conditions: for example, the men's 400m hurdles record has been broken in four of the last seven Olympic finals. In Stuttgart, Sally Gunnell could be pushed to new figures in the women's event.
2) Personal rivalry: Seb Coe and Steve Ovett drove each other's performances on, much as Steve Cram and Said Aouita did.
3) Particular venues: As much to do with organisers' judgements in assembling a field and pacemakers as the stadium itself. Bislett styles itself 'the world record track' for the number of records achieved there. Stockholm could also stake a claim, and Ondieki's compatriot Richard Chelimo had marginally improved the five-year-old 10,000m record there five days earlier.
4) Barrier-breaking: greater fame and significance attaches arbitrarily to particular athletic targets. Roger Bannister's sub-four minute mile is the classic case, but John Walker's sub-3:50 mile, Steve Cram's sub-3:30 1500m, and Said Aouita's sub-13min 5000m are all renowned moments of recent athletic history.
But will barriers go on being broken? Will we ever see a sub- two hour marathon or a 3 1/2 -minute mile? Ondieki's margin of improvement was not unusual for his event; in the last 20 years four others have achieved something similar. The next arbitrary 'barrier' in the 10,000m will be 26 minutes - an unimaginable target at present. Athletic improvement in all events, barring that directly accountable to technical change, is slowing down. The athlete, at least, needs no reminder that human capabilities are finite.
Men's 200m Pietro Mennea 19.72sec 1979
Women's 1500m Tatiana Kazankina 3min 52.47sec 1980
Men's 800m Sebastian Coe 1min 41.73sec 1981
Women's 800m Jarmila Kratochvilova 1min 53.28sec 1983
Women's 3,000m Tatiana Kazankina 8min 22.62sec 1984
Women's marathon Ingrid Kristiansen 2hr 21min 06sec 1985
Men's triple jump Willie Banks 17.97 metres 1985
Men's mile Steve Cram 3min 46.32sec 1985
Women's 400m Marita Koch 47.60sec 1985
ALL THE OTHER RECORDS
100m: C Lewis 9.86 (1991); 400m: B Reynolds 43.29 (1988); 1500m: N Morceli 3:28.82 (1992); 5,000m: S Aouita 12:58.39 (1987); 10,000m: Y Ondieki 26:58.38 (1993); Marathon: B Dinsamo 2:06:50 (1988); Steeplechase: M Kiptanui 8:02.08 (1992); 110m hurdles: R Kingdom 12.92 (1989); 400m hurdles: K Young 46.78 (1992); High jump: J Sotomayor 2.44m (1989); Pole vault: S Bubka 6.13m (1992); Long jump: M Powell 8.95m (1991); Shot: R Barnes 23.12m (1990); Discus: J Schult 74.08m (1986); Hammer: Y Sedykh 86.74m (1986); Javelin: J Zelezny 95.54m (1993)
100m: F Griffith-Joyner 10.49 (1988); 200m: Griffith-Joyner 21.34 (1988); 5,000m: Kristiansen 14:37.33 (1986); 10,000m: Kristiansen 30:13.74 (1986); 100m hurdles: Y Donkova 12.21 (1988); 400m hurdles: M Stepanova 52.94 (1986); High jump: S Kostadinova 2.09m (1987); Long jump: G Chistyakova 7.54m (1988); Triple jump: Y Chen 14.97m (1993); Shot: N Lisovskaya 22.63m (1987); Discus: G Rensch 76.80m (1988); Javelin: P Felke 80.00m (1988)
THE OTHER MEN'S RECORDS
100m Carl Lewis 10.86 1991
400m Butch Reynolds 43.29 1988
1500m Noureddine Morceli 2.28.82 1992
5,000m Said Aouita 12.58.39 1987
10,000m Yobes Ondieki 26.58.38 1993
Marathon Belayneh Dinsamo 2.06.50 1988
Steeplechase Moses Kiptanui 2.02.08 1992
110m hurdles Roger Kingdom 12.92 1989
400m hurdles Kevin Young 46.78 1992
High jump Javier Sotomayor 2.44m 1989
Pole vault Sergei Bubka 6.13m 1992
Long jump Mike Powell 8.95m 1991
Shot: Randy Barnes 23.12m 1990
Discus Jurgen Schult 74.08m 1986
Hammer Yuri Sedykh 86.74m 1986
Javelin Jan Zelezny 95.54m 1993
100m Florence Griffith- Joyner 10.49 1988
200m Griffith- Joyner 21.34 1988
5,000m Kristiansen 14.37.33 1986
10,000m Kristiansen 30.13.74 1986
100m hurdles Yordanka Donkova 12.21 1988
400m hurdles Marina Stepanova 53.94 1986
High jump Stefka Kostadinova 2.09m 1987
Long jump Galina Christyakova 7.54m 1988
Triple jump Yolanda Chen 14.97m 1993
Shot Natalya Lisovskaya 22.63m 1987
Discus Gabriele Rensch 76.80m 1988
Javelin Petra Felke 80.00m 1988Reuse content