Thursday, June 21, 2007

New Era for Track & Field Records?

If you're a track and field purist, you might want to avert your eyes because you might not like what you're about to read. There's been talk again of scrubbing the record books clean, establishing a new set of records for the sport and/or (as Garry Hill, editor of Track & Field News, suggests), "going to a bifurcated system... [to] give the sport back its thrill of the world record chase."

The other day Track and Field Superfan suggested a slight rewrite of some of the records. Now David Woods of puts in his two cents (and, if you track purists are still with us, this is your last chance to get out while the getting is good):
"A convenient way to amend some records is to change weights of implements (shot, discus, hammer) or to raise heights of women's hurdles."

I have long-thought it would be a good idea to go the rest of the way in the gender-equalization of events and implements. Women have come a long way (literally and figuratively) from the days when the longest Olympic event for them was the 800m run. That was in 1972. In 1976, the patriarchal oligarchy of the IOC graciously allowed women to run another 700m and compete in their very own 1500m run. Women scoffed at this paltry distance and asked for more. Over the next few years, they got more. Few aficionados can forget Joan Benoit's victory in the inaugural Olympic women's marathon in 1984. Female pole vaulters were considered to be a newsworthy curiosity as recently as 2001. Now, even the 3000m steeplechase – a grueling event long feared even by the toughest male distance runners – is fair game for women. Why not go the rest of the way? There's such a little way to go:

Add another 10m to the women's hurdles sprint, or, even better, reduce the distance in the men's race to an even 100m (perish the thought!). The 110m hurdles is a holdover from the days of the imperial 110 yard hurdles anyway. Let's toss out that archaic thinking.

Raise the height hurdles in the 100m, 400m and 3000m steeplechase for women's events to the same height the men use. Standardize the weights of the field-event implements (shot, discus, hammer, javelin) so that women throw the same weight as men do. Finally, do away with the heptathlon and introduce the world to a women's decathlon. (Did I leave any events out?) That should do it. Women are fully capable of adapting the rest of the way. Why shouldn't they be given the opportunity to try? Men could adapt to certain new realities, too, as long as they make sense for the sport.

That would kill two birds with one shot put: equalize the sport for women and do away with most of the tainted records in the women's books. As for the "iffy" records in the rest of the events and in all of the men's events?

That's a tough call. I'm no purist by any stretch of the imagination, but I can't see changing the weights of the implements just for the sake of scrubbing records. A coordinated effort needs to take place, one that finally levels the playing field. A bifurcation (splitting the records into two millennial eras) makes okay sense, but I'm not crazy about the idea. Besides, until we can outsmart the dopers, it'd be an exercise in futility anyway. The new "set" of records would quickly get tainted, too.

Setting new standard distances and weights that are coordinated with current standards makes more sense to me. Even in these here United States of Imperial Measurement Systems, the tracks are 400m. Doesn't it make sense to make even-lap distances the standard? The mile run was the blue riband during the imperial-measurements era (remember running 4 quarters and being a "miler" in the good old days?). In the metric era, the 1500m wore the crown so awkwardly that the 100m has replaced it as the premier event in track. 1500m runs are an awkward 3.75 laps. That doesn't sit well with symmetry-loving track fans. Speaking of symmetry, a 4000m race would equal 10 laps of a 400m track. In this digital age, races run in increments of 10 laps make a whole lot of sense. If we're going to run around the circumference of a rounded rectangle (oval is a misnomer), shouldn't we start and finish at the same place? That makes more sense than the 12.5 laps of a 5000m run.

Anyway, many of you are probably thinking I checked my brain at the door today, but the Powers That Be in athletics (Gianni Merlo, chairman of the IAAF press commission, for one) are the ones suggesting change in the first place. Certainly we can be more creative than simply erasing the chalkboard and pretending that we've started over. Let's change the weight of a shot from the imperial 16 lbs. (7.26 kg) to 6kg and let both men and women use the same implement. Women currently throw a 4kg shot, so 6kg roughly splits the difference between the two and is a nice, round number.

In the early days of modern track and field, a variety of distances were run during competition, including races of 2000 yards, 1.25 miles, 1.5 miles, 1.75 miles, and more. These were all distances that were compatible with a 440 yard (1/4 mile) track and would allow races to be run in whole-lap increments. Lets' do the same for our current 400m standard track. It doesn't take a genius to suggest this idea (and I'm just the non-genius to do it!): 400m, 800m, 1600m, 4000m, 8000m, etc., are all whole-lap distances. Once we make real, common-sense changes like these, then we track and field nuts can sit back and watch a flurry of new world records! Talk about reenergizing the sport! That makes perfect sense to me. Let me know what you think.

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