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Restoring Paula Radcliffe's marathon record was the right move

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  November 9, 2011 04:17 PM

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The decision today by international running authorities to restore Paula Radcliffe's world record marathon times was a victory for common sense. Now they should take the next step, and undo the unnecessary rule change that triggered the controversy in the first place.

The sport’s governing body had abruptly invalidated Radcliffe's records this summer, under a Draconian new rule that mandated that women's running records could be set only in races that didn't also include men. Unfortunately for Radcliffe, her two best times were both set in mixed-sex races — including her world record of 2 hours, 15 minutes, and 25 seconds at the 2003 London Marathon.

The retroactive ruling struck a nerve, leading to a chorus of protest that forced authorities to reverse their decision. "We realize that these performances were excellent performances," International Association of Athletics Federations council member Helmut Digel told the Associated Press today in explaining why the IAAF backed down.

But while Radcliffe is getting her records back, the no-men policy is still scheduled to take effect next year. That means that no future women’s world records can be set if there are men on the same course at the same time.

Backers argue that the new rule is only a matter of fairness: allowing women to run with male pacesetters, the thinking goes, gives them an unfair advantage that they wouldn't have in women-only races. But that seems to miss the point of records, which are supposed to recognize individual accomplishments, not protect a particular category of races. As the Globe editorialized earlier this year:

The worry is apparently that if female runners are allowed to use men as pacesetters, it somehow taints their own times…. But that loses sight of why men’s and women’s records are separate in the first place, which is to account for biological difference. Having a pacesetter might provide women runners an advantage, but it doesn’t alter the fact that they still crossed the finish line, under their own power — and with both their X chromosomes intact.
It would be one thing if the sport were outlawing pacesetters for all runners. But instead, the rule basically says that men can continue to use male pacesetters, while women can’t. It wasn’t fair to apply that restriction retroactively to Radcliffe — and it isn’t fair to apply it to female runners in the future, either.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig/File: Britain's Paula Radcliffe after winning a race in 2009.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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