Getting Rid Of The World Records Is Stupid Unless They're Never Replaced

Getting Rid Of The World Records Is Stupid Unless They're Never Replaced

Getting rid of track and field's world records would only accomplish its goal without bringing them back.

Jan 5, 2017 by Dennis Young
Getting Rid Of The World Records Is Stupid Unless They're Never Replaced
World records are part of the fundamental appeal of track and running. They represent a seductive idea that is realized almost nowhere else--a literal measurement of the upper limit of human potential. They're also the cause of a lot of the dysfunction in the sport today: emphasis on marks instead of competition, a lottery-like economy that pays out huge incentives to a few rather than stable wages to many, and doping.

A few of the current world records were set with pharmaceutical assistance beyond what was then or is now allowed. That indisputable fact has led to varying calls to expunge the entire record book; the latest to do so is International Sports Press Association president Gianni Merlo. It's not a new idea. German officials called for a records reset in 1999, ​Track & Field News ​has long campaigned for a post-2000 set of world records, and UK Athletics called for a reset last year, a move that I think was extremely cynical at best.​

Getting rid of the world records ​would ​solve a lot of problems in track and field. Performances like Wayde van Niekerk's 400m world record in Rio are transcendent, but they're so rare that they can't sustain the sport. Pursuit of that transcendence results in a lot of boring track and field in between the bright spots, and everyone would be better off with more of a focus on competition. And, the theory goes at least, without doped-up world records for athletes to pursue, doping would decrease. (Of course, convicted dopers frequently say that the reason that they did it is that they were convinced everyone else was cheating, not that they were going after a mark.)​

I am fine with getting rid of the world records. Usain Bolt's 100 meter final in Beijing nine years ago (!) is still just as beautiful without it being a "video game time." Head-to-head competition is the only thing that can sustain the sport for seasons at a time.

But if you wipe the slate clean only to write on it again, then it's pointless. All of the structural problems that the current world records have will quickly return. The idea that the old, dirty world records are the problem, and the new ones will be clean is preposterous. As of 2016, entire nations were doping their athletes, and IOC board members were running anti-doping agencies. And as long as there are absolute marks to be pursued, the possibility of a pharmaceutical arms race is always there. Getting rid of the world records permanently might, but probably wouldn't, end that arms race. Resetting the world records practically guarantees that someone will try to innovate his or her way to one, and that innovation might be scientific and beyond what is legal.