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.

11 Responses

  1. I’ve expressed ambivalence about the rule. The only reason I have is that consideration should be given to the notion that the only way for a woman to run, say, a 2:15 is with the help of a man.

    I’ve seen people (Christopher McDougall for one) cite that IAAF rule as an example of sexism/19th Century/few-woman-on-the-IAAF-board thinking. I’ve yet to hear from a woman respond to the I-need-a-man view. That’s what I wanted to have on the show. I’m not a woman so I wanted to hear what the women on the show think.

    I realize that it’s easy enough to man (no pun intended) the barricades and chant “Discrimination!” but I think the issue warrants more. Do we do away with separate starts even though they’ve significantly (in my view) enhanced women’s marathons (as, I hasten to add, have the elimination by certain Majors of pacers (even female pacers for the women)) which an early field of women in the NY Marathon protested by sitting down when their 10-minutes-before-the-men start was used by NYRRC?

    In the end I feel a bit uncomfortable thinking that a woman can be good on her own. But she needs a man to be great.

    • No one’s “chanting discrimination,” a phrase I find condescending with its connotations of mindless groupthink. I’m simply pointing it out when it’s right there in front of us. Any of my three suggested remedies would suffice, with the third being the most desirable and transparently fair if IAAF insists on enforcing this rule. But gender-split races across the board will happen when pigs fly.

      It’s never a good thing when a governing body whose role should be to promote fairness and competitive excellence instead takes a regressive rather than progressive stance — removing opportunities rather than providing them. That’s what’s happening here.

      “Notion.” Your word. I gather you require empirical evidence in your line of work before a ruling is made.

      I could go on, but with repeated responses we’d be in a debate and that’s precisely what I will avoid. For me, there’s no ambivalence. For you, there is.

      No more comments from me on this thread, although anyone else is welcome to, as usual.

  2. Absolutely, your point on the inherent discriminatory mindset to this ruling is well made.

    Additionally, since this rule takes place January 1st imagine the ridiculousness should a 2:14 be run tomorrow by a woman in Chicago, and following conversation take place between a dad and his daughter. Girl: “Dad, isn’t that a world record?” Dad: “Yes, honey, until January 1st, at which point it becomes merely a ‘World Best’ since the winner today was accompanied for a portion of her race today by a male”. Girl: “What happens January 1st then to the women’s world marathon record?” Dad: “Well, it becomes 2:17:42 to reflect Paula Radcliffe’s fastest male-unaccompanied race result.” Girl: “But Dad, you said that Paula has the world record with 2:15:25.” Dad: “Yes, but that was a mixed race where men were present, so that race merely becomes the #2 Women’s World Best.” Girl: “So, women’s achievements mean nothing if men are ANYWHERE in a race? It’s not as though the ‘pacer’ men are carrying them, pushing them or blocking the wind for them! By equivalent logic should they have another categorization for races when the temperature is below 60F? This rule is stupid!” Dad: “I agree.”

  3. Not sure i understand; if women do not need men to run faster, won’t they eventually run the same WR times in womans only races?
    Personally i think your third remedy sounds the fairest…i would certainly be in favor of that kind of thing. On another note somewhat related…when the prize monies at road races are split 50/50 between sexes, that, of a sort, is not particularly fair to elite men, as mens fields tend to be deeper and more competitive.


    …oh sorry, I was just chanting, is that ok? Also I wanted to make a comment.

    I’m sure one could argue for ages about how and whether male pacers/the presence of men anywhere in a race (like, seriously, IAAF?) affects women’s performance, but for me it really comes down to this:

    “Until there is an equal opportunity for women to pursue world records, this ruling is discriminatory.”

    Yep. Change the rules if you must, citing sport science; rob Paula of her record if that’s what floats your boat; but depriving women of 90% of their chances to set a “legitimate” “record” (I made that number up, but how many women-only races are there really?) is just blatantly discriminatory.

  5. For me it’s not even about the number of women only races. It’s more about the fact that it sets women’s distance running back overall. It’s one more unfair rule that women must abide by while men get to continue with no such restrictions. Besides, men have pacers too-from pace cars to rabbits- and get to keep their records. The ruling is unfair, especially the part about it being done retroactively. To me that is ridiculous.

  6. Bad rule change. There aren’t an equal number of women-only marathon races. Track races are fine — no problems there. The big women-only marathons (World Champs and Olympics) are rarely going to be fast races.

    What happens to the NRs too? Does Benita’s 2:22 from Chicago no longer count as an NR?

  7. “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.”

    Isn’t this what having a separate woman’s field or awards does? Just sayin’.

  8. thanks for zeroing in on the issue. I’ve seen so much non-sense about “she ran fast that day so count it”. The IAAF already has all sort of rules about the course. So rules are already part of the game. However, it seems this rule places an extra burden on women attempting records.

    In plain terms, Men can have any pacer they like. Women cannot. Simple unequal implementation of a rule. That’s the issue.

    I am sympathetic to Joe’s point about women needing men to pace.I think some creative pacing could provide more opportunities for women pacers. (Could a pacer jump in the middle of a marathon for 10-20k?). But that doesn’t change the underlying fact that is rule is not fair.

    Personally, I vote for not having world “road” records. There are simply too many variables in road racing to claim that one time is certifiable best of all.

  9. on second thought, i find myself more in agreement that this is not a good ruling. What would men think if Junior or Masters records were not accepted if set in Open competition? “Masters only” races..hah! Yeah, the ruling treats women as Other. Alan Webbs amazing 3:53 HS record was set in Open competition with the benefit of older faster “pacers”. So its a bit akin to women using men to pace them in mixed races. Add to this the fact that there will never be an equitable number of womens only races…as Julie said this will happen “when pigs fly”

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