This week, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) decided to change how it recognizes world records for women’s road racing by requiring future records to be run in women’s only races. In doing so they established two categories of records. Those that will be called “world records” will be from races in which women competed alone, without men in the field. World record times that are run in races in which men also competed, whether or not they had anything to do with the women’s race, will be called “world bests”. Presumably this was done with the intention of creating a level playing field and eliminating the effects of the assistance of male pacers in a race. This really makes little sense, since pacing in and of itself is not prohibited. We see pacing employed for world record attempts by men and women both on and off the track all the time. Like with Haile Gebrselassie’s heavily paced marathon world record attempts, there is nothing preventing a similar record attempt by women in which they had other women as pacers. We simply haven’t noticed it yet on that scale. The fact is road race records, like track records, are frequently achieved as a result of having others share the burden of pacing and pulling the runners along for a portion of the race. Does it really matter what gender they are?
Outside of major national, area, or world championship and Olympic competitions, there are few women’s only road races available for female competitors to make record runs. Moreover, championship events by their nature are usually aimed at pure racing and winning medals and not running fast times. World records in distance races are almost never set in championship events since it is about winning and no one is usually willing to sacrifice themselves as pacer for a fast time. Furthermore, this decision completely ignores the financial realities of setting up (paying pacers) record attempts and the significance of performance incentives from sponsors and contracts that reward athletes for running world records.
Even more ridiculous is the decision to retroactively penalize the current world record and national record holders for which their record times were run in mixed gender races. As women’s marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe has stated, she did not request the male paces in her record run, nor was she necessarily assisted by them. Their presence was at the discretion of the race organizers.
The IAAF has made a terrible decision that completely misunderstands the realities of how and where world records in road racing are run. With this decision, unless there is a sudden increase in the number of female only road races or races specifically set up for record attempts (which is logistically no small feat) one could easily anticipate a long term negative effect and even stagnation in women’s road racing world records.