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Marathons: A world record for unfairness

Paula Radcliffe of Britain crossed the finishing line of the women's event of the 38th Berlin Marathon on Sept. 25, 2011 in Berlin.ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Paula Radcliffe hasn’t tested positive for steroids, taken a shortcut on a course, or cheated in any other way. But the legendary British marathoner recently had her two best times removed from the list of world records anyway, because of an odd rule change. Radcliffe’s offense? Both times came in races that included men. Radcliffe remains the women’s world record holder – her former third-best time of 2:17:42 is now the official record – but not with the time she earned.

The decision by running’s governing body is unfair to Radcliffe, and out of line with the way other sports have handled records when rules shift. For instance, when swimming voted to ban certain high-tech suits in 2009, the sport didn’t retroactively invalidate records set under the old rules.


In the case of the ban on men, though, the rule change itself is also perplexing. The worry is apparently that if female runners are allowed to use men as pacesetters, it somehow taints their own times. Records can now only be set in women-only races, or races where women start far enough ahead of men that they don’t mix. But that loses sight of why men’s and women’s records are separate in the first place, which is to account for biological difference. Having a pacesetter might provide women runners an advantage, but it doesn’t alter the fact that they still crossed the finish line, under their own power – and with both their X chromosomes intact.