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Debate over women’s records still simmering

Uta Pippig was paced by male runners during portions of the 1995 Boston Marathon, when she won the women’s title.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Uta Pippig was paced by male runners during portions of the 1995 Boston Marathon, when she won the women’s title.

Trading the lead on Boylston Street in last year’s Boston Marathon, Kenyan Caroline Kilel and American Desiree Davila provided a perfect image for women’s distance running. They raced to the finish in full view of cheering spectators and television cameras. They showcased competition in its purest form. They were not flanked or obscured by male pacesetters. And fans crowded along the homestretch, distance running aficionados and officials delighted in the duel.

“It was perfect,” said David Katz, an international road race official on site for the event. “It was a boxing match and that’s what we want. We want races. This is a road race and not a time trial.”

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But what should be the simplest, most straight-forward of sports competitions rarely unfolds and finishes like the race between Kilel and Davila. At least, not when world records and pacesetters are in the mix.

So, last August, the sports governing body, the IAAF, took a controversial turn and ruled that records in women’s road racing will count only when earned in women’s-only events. Women’s only events include races where there are no male participants or where women start well ahead of the men. Officials worry male pacesetters provide elite female runners with an unfair advantage and threaten the overall integrity of the sport.

When Kenyan Mary Keitany set the half marathon world record (1:05:50) in February 2011 with a male pacesetter, it raised eyebrows and helped prompt action. Keitany broke the existing record by 35 seconds. Over 26.2 miles, New York City Marathon director and IAAF road racing commission member Mary Wittenberg said women paced by men run “about two minutes faster.”

But the controversy that followed the decision was about more than math. The new rule called into question what defines world-record performances. Paced or not, record-setting women put in the necessary training and cover the course on their own two feet. And pacesetters have long been a part of the sport and record-setting moments for both men and women. Members of the IAAF plan to revisit the decision and Wittenberg hopes the governing body will change the rule “so we can recognize world record performances in mixed gender and women’s only races.”

Late last year, the governing body clarified that the rule would not be retroactive, keeping in place Paula Radcliffee’s 2:15:25 women’s marathon world record in mixed competition at the 2003 London Marathon and Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36 American record in mixed competition at the 2006 London Marathon. Still, the new rule continues to stir debate.

“It’s misguided,” said agent Ray Flynn, who counts Kastor as one of his many clients. “Once you’re allowing pacemakers in a race, whether they’re male or female, then it’s something you can’t control very well. You can’t just selectively say these set of pacemakers are OK and these set of pacemakers are not OK … Many of the people who make the rules don’t have very much vision. They’re reactive in their regulations and rules, rather than proactive.”

An equally damaging complaint may be that the new rule confuses the public. Last year at Boston, the technical reasons behind why Geoffrey Mutai’s time of 2:03:02 counted as a world best but not a world record arguably received as much attention as the result itself. If conditions align and a woman breaks Radcliffe’s world record in a mixed race, the discussion afterwards likely will be dominated by IAAF rules and pacesetter debates. And that will take away from actual performance.

“It’s like getting into baseball statistics where you say, ‘It’s the first home run in a Wednesday game when the sun was at 45 degrees,’” said Davila. “If we’re going to qualify all these different things with the record, it’s going to start becoming silly. I feel like it kind of takes away from it.”

Added Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray: “The more rules that are imposed that make it more difficult for people to perform or receive due recognition, the less interested people become.”

Road racing has always been about unpredictable weather and the challenges of different courses, particularly in the marathon. And at the very highest levels it has involved pacemakers. While Boston does not use rabbits, the Berlin Marathon famously or infamously does, depending on who’s asked. When Patrick Makau set a world record (2:03:38) last year in Berlin, the race featured six pacemakers for an early lead pack of five. The pacemakers ran in a “v” formation, providing plenty of support, mental and physical, for Makau’s effort.

So, it’s easy to understand why critics of the new women’s world record rule reacted swiftly and loudly with charges of unfairness. The outcry was loudest when it originally appeared Radcliffe’s world record would become a world best. That said, the IAAF’s hyper-concern over men pacing women to records continues to bother many, not least of which because there are still-standing track and field records from the doping era. The rule making and record honoring of the IAAF can seem arbitrary at best and discriminatory at worst.

Just because one woman can’t pace another to a time that would break Radcliffe’s record, why should men who can be excluded? Why not regulate pacemaking more strictly for everyone if the IAAF wanted a truly level playing field?

“If a male is pacesetting a male and he’s pushing them through, eventually the male who is doing the pacesetting has to drop back or drop out,” said Katz, also a member of the IAAF Technical Committee. “Otherwise, he can probably break the record himself. But with a male pacing a female, they are always running down pace. A male pacesetter is not in the same race with a female. And, technically, a person who is not in the same race can’t be pacing you.”

Joan Benoit Samuelson, the former world record holder in the women’s marathon, disagrees with the ruling and the reasoning behind it, as do other top female marathoners. They see many scenarios where women in mixed races run fast without the aid of pacemakers.

“If you look at any of the men’s races where world records are set, they’re flanked by pacers,” said Samuelson, who points especially to Berlin. “So, my feeling is that if an individual has a certain level of fitness, then he or she should be able to run with whomever can run with them. She’s doing it on her own two feet. Whoever is running with her or beside her should not be of significance.”

Added US Olympic marathon trials winner Shalane Flanagan: “It’s tough because it really limits women now. Let’s say you don’t even have a male pacesetter, but there just happens to be men in the race. Then, it’s not going to count? It’s just upsetting because it’s a very rare opportunities where it’s all women.

“I’ve been in races where I’ve run through the half and there’s a bunch of men that are around me and I get just as competitive with them as if it were a women. There’s a difference between pacing and being competitive. There’s absolutely a difference. It’s just so hard for them to somehow draw a line.”

Flynn would prefer a more “carefully considered” rule that restricted pacemaking, rather than eliminate the whole category of mixed races from women’s world record contention. After all, images of elite runners surrounded by a wind-breaking. V-shaped, phalanx of pacemakers on a fast, flat course doesn’t look good for the sport whether it’s with male or female runners. Others advocate side-by-side records with the fastest times in women’s only and mixed races recognized. And many were in favor of such a system before the IAAF announced its women’s-only decision.

It is expected that the IAAF will eventually recognize side-by-side records, though it could take some time before that comes to pass.

“Nothing is written in stone,” said Katz. “It’s an evolving process The only thing written in stone is the people who’ve won championships.”

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