Why you should be disturbed by the IAAF ruling on women’s world records

A few weeks ago the IAAF came out with a new ruling that limits the distinction of “world record time” in women’s races to races that only contain women. Read that again. Do you have a problem with it? I do.

I will not bother going into the ruling’s details (primarily because it’s so simply stated already) or the ensuing controversy. You can do you own research and read about those things with a simple search of Google news. If you haven’t already done that, go off and do it for 10 minutes. Then come back here.

Are you back? Good.

Unfortunately, the heart of what’s wrong with this ruling has gotten obscured by aspects that, while important (especially to record holders who are affected by the ruling’s retroactive application), do not constitute its essential wrongness. The ruling is not about the sport of running, or pacers, nor is it even about women’s inequality. Insofar as it attacks one of modern-day feminism’s foundational elements — namely, that there should not be a single “male-normative” standard that renders females as “the other” — it certainly touches on that area. But, again, for me this dimension does not fully capture its unfairness.

The IAAF’s ruling is about discrimination, pure and simple. It is the embodiment of the blindness that comes from being privileged and, when that blindness is combined with power, the institutionalized discrimination that inevitably results. Perhaps what amazes me most about the ruling is that, even considering how insidious and subtle its origins, its harmful effects are glaringly obvious. While I’m tempted to use certain aspects of Southern legal history to help throw light on why it’s so wrong, racial comparisons are a veritable tinderbox in any context. So instead I’ll look to the same “different but, you know, sort of equal” mechanisms currently being offered to gay people in lieu of real marriage equality:

“If a man is in the race — anywhere in the race — we’ll call her time a ‘world best.’ It’s a different distinction, but everyone knows it’s just as good as a ‘world record.’”

“If the people are of the same gender, we’ll call it a ‘civil union.’ It’s a different distinction, but everyone knows it’s just as good as marriage.’”

If you need a separate distinction to cover a different class of person, well then guess what? You’re not offering equality. You’re discriminating.

This problem is easily fixed, of course, via a choice of two remedies: either get rid of all pacers (in every race, at every distance, for every gender — all, every, none, pacers go away totally) or get rid of the “world record” distinction and just call everyone’s time a “world best.”

Or there is a third remedy, which is to ensure that of all the races recognized by the IAAF as venues for setting a world record, 50% of them are women’s only races. Until there is an equal opportunity for women to pursue world records, this ruling is discriminatory.

I’ve already gotten into one good-natured argument about this on Facebook. It’s a proposed topic on a podcast I cohost. But you know what? I don’t want to discuss its “drawbacks vs. merits,” pick apart the IAAF’s logic, talk about Paula Radcliffe running with a guy in London, or otherwise debate this with anyone. We live in a world now where everything is up for debate and in cases like this it is bullshit and it’s largely the reason behind why I no longer watch television news.

This is not up for debate because it is so obviously wrong. And if you are unable to recognize why it’s wrong, then I’m afraid that I cannot help you.

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