Friday, May 26, 2017

Submission to European Athletics on Rewriting the Record Books

Submission to European Athletics on Word Record Proposals
Roger Pielke, Jr., Professor and Director
Sports Governance Center
University of Colorado Boulder
26 May 2017

European Athletics has proposed a new set of criteria for the validation of world records in the various disciplines of athletics (track and field). A world record will be recognized by European and world officials if and only if it meets the following three criteria:
  1. The performance is achieved at competitions on a list of approved international events where the highest standards of officiating and technical equipment can be guaranteed
  2. The athlete has been subject to an agreed number of doping control tests in the months leading up to the performance
  3. The doping control sample taken after the record is stored and available for re-testing for 10 years.
Because the IAAF began storing blood and urine samples in 2005, many have interpreted the new policy to mean that all records established before 2005 would be erased.

I wish to applaud European Athletics for initiating an important discussion about the credibility of world records in athletics. Here I offer a critique of the proposed new criteria. I argue that an evidence-based understanding of the problem being solved is needed before seeking to implement solutions. In this case, there exists a lack of evidence in support of the efficacy of proposed solutions, most notably evidence to suggest that athletics completions take place on a solid foundation of anti-doping regulation.

So what is the problem to be addressed, anyway?

European Athletics offers three “main reasons” why action is now needed (PDF):
  • To ensure that today’s generation of athletes are not chasing records set in completely different circumstances
  • To restore credibility to the European (and World) records list 
  • To regain public trust 
Let’s take a closer look at these reasons for action one at a time:

1. Difference circumstances

If there is one constant in the circumstances under which elite athletics take place, it is change. There is no stasis – in the rules that govern competition, in the technology used in sport or in the efforts to contravene and enforce the rules.

For instance, the IAAF recently approved new rules governing shoe technology, presumably in response to the new Nike shoes that allegedly provide Nike athletes of today an advantage that other athletes and all past athletes did not have.  The IAAF rulebook is a living document and athletes compete under the rulebook in place when they compete.

The intent of the European Athletics rules changes is no doubt to focus on doping in particular. The science of doping and anti-doping regulation is constantly changing. For instance, athletes who competed in 2005 did so under a Prohibited List with about half the substances on it as compared to athletes who compete in 2017.  WADA’s methodological guidelines for the detection of substances changes over time periods longer than a 10-year statute of limitations – Athletes who competed in 2005 are accountable under scientific detection methods available to 2015, whereas athletes who compete in 2017 are accountable under scientific detection methods available to 2027. The science of anti-doping regulation will advance between 2015 and 2027 (and so too will the science of doping and evading detection).

Elite athletes of different generations will compete under different circumstances. This is unavoidable. Drawing a line in 2005 – or 1990 or 2017 – is arbitrary. Sure, it can be done, but it would not address the concern of athletes competing in different circumstances.

The elephant in the room is a presupposition that records set prior to some arbitrary date are more “credible” than those set afterwards. This is a testable proposition, and the subject of the next section.

2. Restoring credibility

There is no doubt that some records of the past were achieved by athletes who broke rules that prohibited doping or, if rules were not broken, used the assistance of substances that were subsequently banned. Strong circumstantial evidence for this conclusion can be seen in the following graph created by the Financial Times.

If past records were achieved through the use of prohibited substances then the historical record of record-setting suggests that 1989 offers a clear point of demarcation for women’s events, but that no such clear date exists for men.

Another approach to establishing credibility would be to demonstrate with evidence that the prevalence of doping among elite athletes was significantly higher before some date, after which records could be considered less tainted than those which came before. 

Unfortunately, data that would provide evidence for trends in the prevalence of doping among elite athletes has not been collected.  Data that is available from rigorous studies suggest that doping prevalence among elite athletes in recent years in athletics could exceed more than 40% of all athletes (see de Hon et al. 2014 and Ulrich et al, in press).

In the absence of data on doping prevalence, efforts to establish “credibility” risk being seen more as window dressing and public relations, rather than evidence-based, rigorous and trustworthy. Credibility will best come from evidence, not exhortation.

3. Regain public trust

Similarly, it is not clear that public trust has been lost or even if was ever there in the first place. As one study concludes: “Despite the vast amount of literature available on doping in sports, little is known about how the general public actually thinks about doping.”

Further, it is not clear if public trust in the integrity of sport is affected more by evidence that athletes break rules or revelations of scandals among athletic administrators.  As suggested above with respect to doping prevalence, efforts to influence public opinion related to athletics records and, more generally, athletics integrity, will benefit from actual evidence of public opinion, what shapes it and why it matters for sponsors, fans and athletes.

Bottom Line

A decision to reset the record book related to athletics can be justified for any number of reasons. However, if the goal of such a clearing of the slate is to create more of a level playing field for verifying records over time, then the proposed approach by European Athletics remains premature, for reasons argued above.

An alternative approach would be to first address issues of integrity in sport by improving WADA and anti-doping regulation. Central to such improvement is to place anti-doping efforts on a more solid foundation of evidence and science.  In the absence of such improvements to anti-doping regulation, efforts to rewrite the record book will be undercut by the very first, inevitable scandal to occur in the coming years. Doping remains prevalent in sport, and creating a new record book won’t change that fact.

If and when anti-doping regulation is placed on a more solid foundation, then the time might be right to discuss a new era of performance and achievement.  Until then we should let past records stand as an indication that the work of anti-doping reform remains to fully be done.  


Post a Comment