Thursday, April 21, 2011

In track, the record isn't always the fastest time

[The following post is authored by Associated Press sports writer Jimmy Golen, who is a graduate of Yale Law School and an adjunct professor at Boston College - we look forward to more of Jimmy's excellent commentary on our blog -- MM]:

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If you shoot a 58 in a PGA Tour event, that’s a new record. It’s less impressive if it happens in CVS Charity Classic than the U.S. Open, but it’s still a record.

Home runs in the thin air of Denver’s Coors Field still count the same as the ones hit at sea level in Boston. And records set by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens still stand (see Bud Selig's comments from today about Bonds and his records), even though there’s reason to doubt that they were achieved honestly.

In track and field, though, the fastest time is not always the record time, as those who followed the Boston Marathon this week learned when Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya ran the fastest 26.2 miles in history.

Mutai’s time of 2 hours, 3 minutes, 2 seconds was almost a minute faster than what had been – and likely will remain -- the world record: a 2:03:59 run by Haile Gebrselassie in Berlin in 2008. Likewise, Ryan Hall’s 2:04:58 was 40 seconds faster than the American record set by Khalid Khannouchi nine years ago. But because the finish line in Boston is 459 feet of elevation below the starting line in Hopkinton, times set on the historic course are ineligible for records – no matter much uphill running there is between them. Boston is also a point-to-point course; the international and U.S. governing bodies prefer loops, because if you finish near where you start it doesn’t matter how much time you run with the wind at your back, you have to go about the same distance with it in your face. It’s like “What goes up, must come down,” except horizontal.

Those who follow running say this is an accepted part of the culture. When someone breaks the record in the 100 meters, for example, the first thing the crowd will do is look to the anemometer to see if it was wind-aided, much like a football fan looks for a penalty flag before celebrating a touchdown. So it is not uncommon for a world record to be different – slower -- than the “world best,” and the running community has accepted this.

The goal of these rules is to certify only records set in regular competition, not “tricked-up” courses designed specially for fast times. It’s possible, as a scientific exercise, to pick a 26.2-mile section of the interstate that runs slightly downhill, wait until the wind is blowing in the right direction, and fire the starting gun. It is likely that the 2 hour barrier could be broken, but that would put the record out of reach of future, real marathons. And that is what the IAAF is trying to avoid.

It’s hard to argue that wind wasn’t a factor in Mutai’s run. The tailwind at the start was announced at 21 mph. Anyone who’s run Boston when the wind comes in from the Atlantic Ocean knows that it’s a time-killer. And the fact that another runner, Moses Mosop, also beat Gebrselassie’s time – and two more men broke the Boston course record – gives a sense of how much the wind might have affected the race. That doesn’t taint the competition because it affects all competitors equally. But when you start measuring one race against another, which is the goal of a record book, it can be like comparing apples and herring.

Still, there is some inconsistency in the governing bodies’ position. They will certify races run with “rabbits,” who are hired to run a fast and steady pace and even shield the top runners from the wind. Gebrselassie’s Berlin win in 2008 was set up for him to break the record, and he did. Runners insist that this is a much bigger advantage than a tailwind, or a 459-foot drop in elevation. The IAAF also allows Boston times to be used to meet Olympic qualification standards, and USA Track and Field will let Hall into the Olympic trials based on Monday’s run.

In the end, there’s something just plain odd about saying that the Boston Marathon, long considered one of the toughest races in the world, is too easy to be eligible for a world record. Only three times before in history had a world record been established in Boston, all of them before the IAAF refined the rules about eligible courses. So while it has long been known that a time run in Boston would not count for a record, no one seems to have worried much about it because it was unlikely to come up. Then Mutai blistered the course on Monday. B.A.A. officials said they would apply to have the record certified, even though it’s clear the IAAF can’t do that without changing its rules. Rob de Castella, who won Boston in 1986, called on the governing bodies to recognize the record; this could be done either by grandfathering Boston in or by refining the rules to allow courses that go both up and down to have a larger drop in elevation.

In the meantime, we are likely to see a repeat of the debate that surfaces whenever the bright-line rules of a sport conflict with what we might more intuitively consider the right outcome. We saw it with the Tuck Rule, and with Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game. A lot could depend on which feat the running community views as the real record and how the times are described in common parlance.

One thing is clear: the B.A.A. isn’t going to change its 115-year-old course to suit the IAAF. As executive director Tom Grilk told the AP the day after the race: "If somebody wants to put up a dome and chase Swifty, the rabbit from Wonderland (dog track), around, God bless them. We'll keep doing what we've been doing for 100 years: Firing off a gun and saying, 'Go.'"