October 6, 2000


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Phantom timings, fantasy distances

Rohit Brijnath

For a moment in Sydney 2000 you wondered, were these women impostors? Were they merely impersonating great athletes? Was all that muscle they wore a hoax, was all that harsh training they spoke of mere rhetoric? Were the bodysuits they donned that promised to cut their timings, some technological hocus-pocus?

Sydney it seemed had turned its back on the first word of the Olympic motto. CITIUS? Faster? Not this time folks. Here, on the track at Stadium Australia, in front of a 110,00 people, the operative word was slow. We'd waited four years, travelled across continents, for this!

*In the 800m Maria Mutola is 3 seconds outside the world record;
*In the 1500m Nouria Merah-Benida is 15 seconds outside the world record;
*In the 5000m Gabrilea Szabo is 11 seconds outside the world record;
*In the 10,000m Deratu Tulu is 46 seconds outside the world record.

Forget CITIUS, what about FORTIUS?

*In the women's shot put Yanina Korolchik throws over 2m less than the world record.
*In the women's discus throw Ellina Zvereva throws more 8.40m less than the world record.

I mean, this is stirring stuff.

I mean this is all on initial scrutiny a trifle alarming. Sure standards fluctuate, sure timings become irrelevant in the chase for Olympic gold, sure distance runs are more a tactical pursuit.

But surely too faster and stronger are the natural by-products of a increasingly competitive age. Runners race in space-age spikes, their calorie intake is measured minutely by nutritionists, their stride pattern is dissected on computers, their oxygen intake is measured in laboratories, their minds are moulded by psychologists, their training schedules are a matter of science, there is nothing left to chance. And, of course in the throws no distance is enough ... since you cannot fathom your opponent's form you must throw your very best.

But still this?

It's confusing, it's startling. It's why it all needs a second look, and when you do realisation dawns.

Perhaps there's something wrong with some of these world records, perhaps the runners are chasing phantom timings, possibly the throwers are chasing fantasy distances.

World records are unique moments on the track. Everything must be perfect. The sun and stars in perfect alignment, the track fast, the weather fine, the wind blowing in the right direction at the right speed, the pacemaker hitting the right speed, the body responding generously.

World records are also testimony to athletic genius. Still, they are broken, for men and women improve, always. Still it's a wonder isn't it that if there's just one men's world record that stands from the 1980s, there are 11 in the women's section. And that's not even counting events like the walks.

What, have women been slowing down in the 1990s, are the best of the female species becoming poets and writers and doctors? Or, and this is tricky, is there more to world records than a unique moment and athletic genius? Like say, a few milligrams or whatever of nandrolone?

Take Marita Koch, the East German whose 400m record of 47.60 still stands, 15 years after it was set. Even Marie Jose Perec, a long-legged runner of freakish brilliance never came close to the record, at one point claiming to have held the world record saying that Koch's record was insurmountable, illegally obtained. (Of course, it's a delicious irony that this year Perec turned to Koch for coaching advice).

Take the East German team whose 4x100m relay record of 41.37 has stood too for 15 years. The American area record is .10 slower, and .10 is a fair distance in a sprint. Take the Czech Jarmila Kratochvilova, whose 800m record of 1.53.28, remains untouched 17 years after she ran it.

Were these honest timings, maybe these women themselves don't know. To be fair some of the East German scientific research was path-breaking, responsible for altering established attitudes towards training; to be fair, they also experimented widely with performance-enhancing drugs, to the point where some young athletes themselves were unaware of what they were being fed. If a 11-year-old is told that blue pill in her hand is a vitamin, when it's a steroid, how is she to know the difference.

But drug use was and is hardly an Eastern Bloc prerogative. The women's 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m world records for instance are held by Chinese runners, and coincidentally all three set in China.

There is no denying that that Qu Yunxia (3.50.46 in the 1500m in 1993) and Wang Junxia (29.31.78 in the 10,000m in 1993) were gifted runners, coached by the infamous Ma Junren who fed them turtle soup and a caterpillar elixir. But Junxia's breaking of the 10,000m world record by a staggering 41.96 seconds was outrageous, and coupled with subsequent revelations of widespread drug use in Chinese sports (especially among its swimmers) was enough to spark suspicion.

And finally there is the 100m. Can you remember how far Marion Jones was ahead of the rest in Sydney, about 5 metres maybe, clocking 10.75 to the second place Ekaterini Thanou's 11.12. Well, if Marion ran that race against Florence Griffith Joyner, when she set her world record, she'd be at least 3 metres behind because Flo-Jo was as quick 10.49. Does it seem possible? Look at the record books.

Flo-Jo was fast. Flo Jo's sudden change in muscle structure was fast too. Flo-Jo's decision to retire just before random testing began was pretty fast as well.

There exists the possibility that we are being grossly unfair to these women, that every suspicion has not enough accompanying evidence, that every pointed finger is painted green with envy, that these were women of substantial and extraordinary gifts, that few, if any, tested positive.

It's just strange that in a decade and more this assembly line of gifted women has stalled. And it's not that drug use has come to a standstill either. Shot putter C.J.Hunter is reported to have failed three drug tests, not to mention the dozen and more athletes whose names the US is refusing to reveal.

What it does is make a mockery of the Olympics, where Tulu in the 10,000m and the Szabo in the 5000m actually run superbly to break the Olympic record, but are still metres and metres and metres behind the world record.

The fact remains that there are athletes who have set world records and later tested positive, but since the test was not on the day the record was set, it stands. It is ludicrous.

It's time almost you think to bring out the record book, pour a litre of gasoline on it, and set it afire. And start afresh. With the rule that if anyone ever tests positive anywhere, anytime, they cannot hold a world record.

It's not the solution, but it's a start.

Rohit Brijnath

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