For the record
Doping suspicions make it difficult to take track marks seriously
Updated: Tuesday August 24, 2004 8:22PM
Welcome to track and field, the last remaining glamour event of the Athens Games, where world records are as safe and secure as a newborn. Only one new world record was established during the last two Olympics -- Michael Johnson's in the 200 meters at the '96 Games. And there's good reason for this trend. Thanks to a 30-year doping epidemic in the sport, from state-run programs in Eastern Bloc countries to the current designer drug scandal, the track and field record book is a useless, bad joke.
If you flip on the TV, you're likely to catch Olympic athletes running, jumping and throwing against ghosts, chasing world records mostly frozen in time. And in some cases, those marks were set years ago by athletes suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs.
A case in point:
Women's 400: There isn't a woman alive capable of running down East German Marita Koch's time of 47.60-seconds, set in 1985. Oddly, her record stands despite credible, documented evidence -- down to specific details of alleged steroid dosage and frequency -- that Koch was part of a systematic doping program run by the former German Democratic Republic.
Looking closer to home, shot putter Randy Barnes, the '96 Olympic gold medallist, has twice been busted for drugs, most recently getting a lifetime ban in 1998. And yet he's still written up as the world record-holder with a throw of 75 feet 10 1/4 inches, set in 1990.
What to do about it? Throw out the record book and start over. That's the opinion of author and doping expert John Hoberman -- and he's not alone. To buy into his premise, of course, you must first view the sport as having evolved into some kind of "gigantic biological experiment" and accept that this pharmacology has already pushed some athletes to near their physical limits in some events.
Rightly so, Hoberman blames sporting officials for turning a blind eye to the doping mess. Now he's calling on them to set up a Committee on Anomalous Performances to scrutinize all the record-breaking or improbable performances. He also wants track and field to declare its current world records to be historical artifacts and start over.
"I don't see any way a serious sports official can tell a woman to run after 47.6 [Koch's record in the 400]," says Hoberman, a University of Texas professor and author of Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodisia, Doping. "A lot of the world records go back to the steroid-soaked '80s. Some of the data is so overwhelming that you wonder why people haven't acted before.
"You have to understand, of course, this is not an area where you come up with university-level proof for everything. It doesn't work that way. So people who sit around waiting for impossible evidence of that quality are aiding and abetting."
Fact is, tainted or not, records still stand. The International Amateur Athletic Federation, the world-governing body for track and field, continues to follow a six-year statute of limitations after which time it won't take down records for doping offenses, and the organization previously shot down a proposal to start anew with world records.
"I think one is right to say some of these records are pretty suspect," acknowledged Dick Pound, the World Anti-Doping Agency chief. "It's astonishing to see how many of the 20 best times are from 15 or more years ago. I think when you had the state-sponsored doping programs there were a lot of records that were drug assisted, for sure. The Soviets and East Germans. Basically, the Warsaw Pact countries.
Pound isn't inclined to push for a new record book, which he did in weightlifting after the Seoul Olympics. Instead, he said folks already understand that records don't mean much any more.
And often, nobody knows for sure who the cheaters are, record holders or not. American athletes and coaches for years pointed accusatory fingers at Eastern Bloc countries, the Chinese and anyone affiliated with a state-run sports system, but the U.S. may have been just as underhanded as evidenced by the BALCO and other doping scandals. American sprinter Tim Montgomery is the world's fastest human by virtue of his 9.78 100-meter world record -- but he's caught up in the BALCO scandal and facing drug suspension.
"You can't trust anybody, and that is why this whole drug issue is so confusing and frustrating,"' says Dave Martin, USA Track and Field's marathon development chairman. "You can't trust the coaches. You can't trust the agents. And you can't trust the doctors. So the whole thing reeks of unfairness."'
That leaves athletes to turn a leery eye on the competition and wonder if they aren't tracking down ghosts, racing against performances enhanced by drugs. Only maybe it isn't worth fretting, because the value of a world record isn't what it used to be.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.