Athletics: Time stands still for the record

Athletics may wipe the achievement slate clean for the Millennium.
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The Independent Online
THE MESSAGE that came back from the leader of the opposition's office was short and sharp and definitely not for quoting. Sebastian Coe, double Olympic gold medallist, former Conservative MP and now William Hague's right-hand man, has always been at the forefront of the campaign against drugs in sport, but his forthright response to a radical German proposal to scrap all world records in the interests of a new drug-free Millennium smacked of more than the personal pride of a man who broke eight world records in his time.

"People might say: `well he would say that, wouldn't he?' But it's not just me. Take Daley Thompson or Haile Gebrselassie, if you suggested to them that their records be thrown out, they would feel pretty aggrieved. I know I was turned over by athletes who were on drugs, but, on the big occasions, I was able to stitch them up when I was clean and they were on drugs. You can't just rewrite history like that."

The idea, put forward by the head of the German Athletics Federation, Professor Helmut Diegel, and to be debated at the next council of the International Amateur Athletic Federation in April, is for all world records to be frozen at midnight on 31 December 1999. The records would remain in the books, simply consigned to their own time and place. Instead, all the marks set at the world championships in Seville next year would be carried over into the next millennium as new records, even if they were below the existing record.

"I want to give all athletes new motivation to keep clear of drugs," Professor Diegel said. "I'm not naive enough to believe that there will not be a degree of cheating in the new millennium. The problem in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties was that a lot of the records were drug- related but there were no positive cases because testing was not good enough or because there simply was no testing. We have a unique chance to solve the problem in the year 2001, to stop all the discussion about which records were drug-related and which were not because there are alot of prejudices about the whole thing." Not least against the GDR, whose doping was systematic and state-sponsored.

Diegel's proposal, described by Primo Nebbiolo, head of the IAAF, as "fascinating", would lessen the impact of investigations into the German courts which are slowly revealing the extent of the doping regime in the eastern bloc countries and, says Diegel, damaging the image of the sport. "It would be economically sensible as well to put those records behind us because it would make the competition more interesting for athletes and spectators if there was a real possibility of new world records being set."

The recent death of Florence Griffith-Joyner highlighted the difficulties of sifting fact from fiction. The American still holds two world records, for the 100m and 200m, both set in Seoul in 1988 and widely perceived as drug-assisted, though there were no positive tests. Yet, last season, the great American sprinter Marion Jones came within a fraction of beating Flo Jo's records without resort to illegal methods and could do so within the next year. That, say critics of Diegel's proposal, is the best way to erase tainted records, not by using history as an artificial aid.

Twelve of the records set in the 44 Olympic events survive from the 1980s. Eleven of them are women's records and all bar Griffith-Joyner's sprint records and the heptathlon record of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, also set in Seoul, were recorded by eastern bloc athletes, all in the Eighties. Some, like the javelin record of Petra Felke, are starting to cause huge embarrassment to the sport. Felke's record of 80 metres is still 10 metres further than the best in the world by another German, Tanja Damask, last year. In the men's discus, the best throw in 1998 was still four metres short of the record set in 1986 by Jurgen Schult. Coe, the first athlete to address the International Olympic Committee congress on the subject of drugs, has some sympathy for the holders.

"I'm getting tired of the McCarthyite witchhunt which is going through the sport at the moment," adds Coe. "I'm very suspicious of anyone who uses the word `suspicious' with regard to records unless there is irrefutable evidence, either through the admission of an athlete or a positive test. The vast majority of records on the books were set clean and I don't think a blanket ripping up of the record books is really the answer. Toughening the stance against drugs and standardising protocol are far more key areas."

The view is echoed by David Hemery, newly elected chairman of UK Athletics, who will represent British athletics at the IAAF council meeting next year. Hemery, himself a world-record holder, will meet Professor Diegel next weekend at an informal gathering of federations from Germany, Scandinavia and Britain. The fight against drugs will be on the agenda. "I will be interested to hear the proposal from Professor Diegel personally," Hemery said. "If you expunge all the records before a certain date, the implication is that everyone before that date was cheating, which is a huge injustice to the athletes who were clean. The most important point is how to get a level playing field for future athletes and that has to be through better testing and through educating athletes. Getting them to ask themselves what sport is all about. What is the point of matching chemist against chemist?"

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