3rd May 2017

Rewriting athletics records: precedents and knee-jerks

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) will consider a proposal from European Athletics to re-write the world and European records lists at its Council meeting in August. IAAF President Sebastian Coe said that the proposal represented a chance of “winning back credibility” in athletics – a recognition that systemic Russian doping has affected the credibility of athletics. European Athletics commissioned a report (PDF below) into the idea in January, which concluded that the main aim behind its Proposal was to ‘regain public trust’.

The Proposal

The proposal (PDF below) suggests that senior-level records can only be set by athletes who have had a specified number (to be agreed) of doping control tests in the previous 12 months; and part of the doping control control sample for any record performance is stored and made available for re-testing for a ten-year period. Also, European Athletics recommends that if an athlete is sanctioned for a doping offence in the future, recognition of any records held by that athlete will be withdrawn, even if there is no proof that the doping offence affected the record setting performance.

European Athletics’ Proposal heavily emphasises that it a ‘record’ is ‘a record of performance by a governing body’, and that ‘there may be better performances that are not recognised because they do not meet the prevailing conditions’. However, it concedes that ‘a change in recognition conditions made by the governing body means that previous records that do not meet the new conditions are no longer recognised’.

It recommends that athletes whose European record is withdrawn for not meeting the new criteria should be referred to as a Former European Record Holder. When a record is withdrawn, a successor will not be appointed, but ‘a limit should be set for a new record to be established at a future date’.

As such, the IAAF will have a number of decisions to make at its August meeting when considering European Athletics’ Proposal. It will have to decide:

• How many anti-doping tests are required on an athlete over a 12-month period for a record to stand;
• Whether those athletes whose records to not meet the new criteria should be listed as Former European Record Holders in lists of athletics records;
• When a record is struck from the list, what limit should be set for a new record to be established, and what happens if that limit is not met.

However, it appears that European Athletics’ suggestion that senior-level records can only be set where an athlete’s sample for that record performance is stored and made available for re-testing for a ten-year period may be problematic, due to previous rules on Statutes of Limitation. A Statute of Limitations is intended to encourage bodies to pursue cases within a reasonable time period, but also to protect defendants who may have lost evidence and therefore the ability to defend themselves against a historic charge.

The 2015 World Anti-Doping Code, which came into force on 1 January, increased the Statute of Limitations from eight to ten years. This meant that anti-doping organisations could open new cases against athletes within ten years of the alleged offence taking place. Prior to this, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) International Standard for Laboratories (ISL) required all athlete samples held by laboratories to be anonymised after eight years.

‘If the Testing Authority has arranged for storage of the Samples for a period from three (3) months to eight (8) years, the Laboratory shall ensure that the Samples are stored in a secure location under continuous chain of custody’, reads Article of the 2012 version of the ISL, which was in force until it was replaced by the 2015 ISL. ‘If consent has been obtained from the Athlete and provided that the Samples are made anonymous, the Samples may be retained by the Laboratory for research purposes. Samples used for research purposes shall have any means of identification removed or the Sample shall be transferred into a container such that the contents cannot be traced back to a particular Athlete.’

As such, if the IAAF and European Athletics wish to implement this aspect of the Proposal, they will need to wipe all records set prior to 2007, as any samples held prior to that will have been anonymised. The proposal is already unpopular with athletes that hold world records. If this aspect is implemented, it is likely that the proposal will become even more unpopular.


Athletics is not the only sport to have faced allegations that certain world records have been unfairly set. In 2009, the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA) banned all bodysuits from 2010 onwards, following the development of non-permeable skinsuits, which critics alleged provided an unfair advantage by aiding buoyancy.

By 24 August 2009, over 130 world records had been broken by swimmers wearing non-textile suits, including 23 world records set at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. ‘Men’s swimsuits shall not extend above the navel or below the knee. Women’s swimsuits shall not cover the neck or extend past the shoulders, or below the knee’, reads the amendment to FINA’s Requirements for Swimwear Approval (FRSA), which came into effect in 2010.

FINA allowed the world records set using the bodysuits to stand. As can be seen from this list, a number of world records set during that time period still stand. At the time, it was debated whether an asterix should be added to records set using the suits, but that option was discounted. However, this is an option that the IAAF and European Athletics could consider for records set where the required controls were not in place.


As might be expected, European Athletes’ plans have not been popular with those athletes that hold world records. ‘Governing bodies have a duty to protect the clean athlete’, wrote Marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe on Twitter. ‘Here, they again fail those athletes. We had to compete against cheats, they couldn’t provide us a level playing field, we lost out on medals, moments and earnings due to cheats, saw our sport dragged through the mud due to cheats and now, thanks to those who chose to cheat, we could potentially lost our World and Area records’.

Colin Jackson pointed out that even if his European record of 12:91 in the 110m hurdles at the 1993 Stuttgart IAAF World Championships is wiped, he will still have a gold medal. Jackson also set a world record of 7:30 in the 60m hurdles a year later, which also stands to be wiped.

The Proposal also may not have the desired effect of restoring credibility to athletics. Fifty percent of 7,105 adults questioned in a YouGov poll in the United Kingdom feel that the proposals go too far.

Concluding logic…

This article by Ross Tucker explains the logic behind European Athletics’ proposals, which has been sidelined through media coverage of the reaction of outraged athletes, albeit justifiably outraged. A series of graphs show that annual top times in distance events have recently got slower – especially since 2005.

In August 2015, The Sports Integrity Initiative showed how Russian athletes had been getting slower since 2005, especially in distance events and especially after the introduction of the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) in 2009. It is a generally accepted facet of human development that as time marches on, athletes get bigger, faster and stronger. So the fact that times have got slower – especially in distance and female events where doping is known to have the most benefit – suggests that something may be amiss.

‘Anti-doping organisations spend a large amount of money on testing – perhaps more room needs to be made for detailed results analysis and targeted testing of athletes who recorded unusually fast times, or finished a close second to a known doper, but well ahead of the rest of the field’, we concluded in our 2015 article. This  is a concept worth considering, but it is difficult to apply it to the rewriting of the record books proposed by European Athletics.

‘To act without an admission by the athlete or competition judges (of, for example, a doping offence or a manipulation of the performance) would mean decisions based on subjective evidence’, European Athletics rightly points out in its Proposal. ‘This would defeat the purpose of trying to make the records clearly fairer and thereby discredit the whole project. Moreover, because of the inherent arbitrariness of the process, European Athletics and possibly Member Federations could be subject to legal action.’

However, as things currently stand, legal action does looks likely from disgruntled world record holders, who legitimately argue that their records are being unfairly wiped due to the unfair actions of their competitors. In effect, they argue that they are being punished for an offence they did not commit. You don’t need to be a lawyer to realise this goes against basic legal principles.

You may also like...

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This