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An open letter to Seb Coe: close the record books of the past and start fresh

International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) President Sebastian Coe addresses a press conference following a two-day IAAF council meeting on December 1, 2016 in Monaco. Photo by Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images
by Gianni Merlo, AIPS President, La Gazzetta dello Sport

LAUSANNE, January 3, 2017 – Dear Lord Coe, just over a month ago you launched an online portal for reporting suspicions of doping. It is the latest move in the fight against doping - a step that is not easy, but one that is necessary. The problem will be the investigations, looking into the tips. Who will follow up on the anonymous suggestions and the whispers?

CLOSE THE BOOKS – If the fight against doping has come to this point, if it is as difficult as we all agree it is, then I think that the moment has arrived to close the world record books in athletics and open new ones.

Why? Because what we can see emerging is so many Olympic champions being stripped of their medals, their records. Given the doubts of the past that plague the sport, I think it would be healthy to begin a new era of athletics that would give new hope to coming generations.

A NEW PATH – I have always been in favour of the suggestion to close the record books in world athletics and open new ones. The first to point out this path in athletics were German officials at the end of the last century. The suggestion was to archive the previous records, many of which were perhaps tainted by doping, and start the new millennium with a clean slate.

Unfortunately, the powers and hard-liners of sport were against it, putting forward ancient arguments which hid within them the desire to maintain the status quo, and in doing so not clean up anything at all.

The excuse was that clean records can’t be cancelled out, meaning that the dirty ones were effectively being covered up. It is an old trick that changes nothing.

CONGRESS 2009 – At the IAAF Congress in 2009, as Chairman of the Press Commission, I put forward the German officials’ idea once more, explaining that the closing past record books could also have a valid technical explanation. Due to the fact that a number of the rules across disciplines had changed – such as that of disqualifying an athlete after the first false start in the sprint – it would be possible to start from scratch and on solid ground because the race conditions themselves had changed.

TWO WORLDS – In addition to this, the regularity of races with the so-called ‘rabbits’ or ‘pacemakers’, which changed the face of middle- and long distance races, also has to be established once and for all.

It is now almost impossible to set a world record during the Olympic Games or World Championships - the sole exception was in the 800 metres at the Olympic Games in London. Currently, two very different worlds from a technical point of view exist from the 800 metres upwards, depending on if the race takes place in a meeting of the Diamond League or at the World Championships and Olympics. In the former, pacemakers are allowed, while in the latter, arguably the most important events, they are not, the dynamics of which overturns the technical meaning of a specialty and a race.

It is as if there were two different regulations in a football match depending on the tournament – unthinkable.

However, at the Congress in 2009, IAAF president Lamine Diack argued that Sebastian Coe and Sergey Bubka’s records could not be cancelled, that it would be mere heresy. The national federations and officials stayed silent, which brought us to the aberrations that have emerged in recent months.

THE BRINK – The fanatic quest for records has brought athletics on the brink of the destruction. It is time to change the direction.

Usain Bolt will be not remembered for his records, but for what he has achieved in every race, for his behavior. People remember Jesse Owens not for his world record, but for the symbol he represented.

Now, in women’s disciplines, there are records from the 100 meter races to the 800 meters that are hard to explain, that call for suspicion. In the era of athletics from 1980 to 2000, anti-doping measures were nowhere near the level they are at now.

It is better to rewind and restart, if we want the sport to be really and fully credible.

THE EXAMPLE – There is already a positive example that can speak in the favour of radical change. To date, the javelin record book has often changed for safety reasons and there have been no calls for protest from purists. Therefore, it is difficult to see why the opening of a new era in other disciplines would create issues.

I am in favour of radical change starting at a national level, in order to give new generations the chance to dream and compete cleanly.

Past champions will have their place in the Hall of Fame and their victories would not be cancelled out but, in the meantime, a radical, much needed clean-up will have taken place.

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