Third Man in


The world’s best marathoners will toe the line in the next month for two of the world’s most elite marathons: the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Oct. 9, and the ING New York Marathon on Nov. 6. Spectators can expect stacked fields, but no women’s world or national records will be broken in either race. 

The International Association of Athletics Federations recently ruled that records set in women’s road racing are only valid if the field is entirely female, which eliminates most road races except for the World Championships and the Olympics. The IAAF’s reasoning is that women who have the opportunity to race men, or use men as pacers in mixed-gender events, have a distinct advantage over women who race only against women, and therefore the latter group of women are genuinely faster. World records set in mixed races will only be awarded the title of “world best.”

The new women’s marathon world record is Paula Radcliffe’s 2:17:42, set in the 2007 London Marathon, not her 2:15:25 from the 2003 edition (then a mixed race). Radcliffe’s 2003 time would have garnered a 12th place finish in the men’s marathon at the 2004 Athens Olympics.  

Retroactive rulings such as this one are not only unfair to the athletes who have had their accomplishments and titles taken away, but pose larger problems for the sport. Under these new rules, the American record—previously held by Deena Kastor with a 2:19:36 time in the 2006 London Marathon—is now held by Joan Benoit Samuelson for her run in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, a whopping five minutes slower. According to the updated record books, American women haven’t progressed in the marathon in the past 27 years. 

Road racing is a mind-numbing sport, which is precisely the reason it receives so little media coverage. The IAAF ruling will only turn off what few fans and what little media coverage it has. For practical reasons, most road races are mixed. Women won’t be eligible for world record incentive prize money and races will become purely strategic, where athletes run at an “honest” but not tortuous pace, and then see who can out-sprint who in the final 800 metres. There will be no incentive—monetary or titular—for women who try to break records. 

This rule has not been applied to similar men’s records. Most men’s track and road races are rabbitted, meaning another elite runner controls the pace for most of the run, stepping off the track for the final few laps. Nearly every world record attempt in a variety of distances has employed at least one—and often multiple—rabbits. Two weeks ago, Patrick Makau broke the world record in the men’s marathon, but it was not a solitary effort; he was surrounded by a dozen pacers, and only ran the final few miles by himself. Men don’t break world records on their own very often, and demanding that of women—in a sport that has little female depth—is unfair. 

Amid all of the recent doping concerns in the sport, taking away women’s accomplishments, and in the process confusing fans, shouldn’t be the IAAF’s first priority. When New Zealander Kim Smith crosses the line in New York aiming for a “world best” pace, I’m going to count it as a world record.

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