By Trevor Hall, Ph.D, Special to                                                                            

Recently, some in Athletics/Track and Field have suggested that all current world records be wiped out and new world records take their place. They argue that most of the current world records were set by athletes who used performance enhancing drugs (PED) during the 1980s and 1990s, before the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) began random drug testing in the early 2000s. A review of the current world records for men and women reveals that since the advent of WADA and random drug tests, there have been no new world records set in men’s field events or women’s sprint, except the 4 x 100-meter relay. However, recently there have been new world records set in men’s sprints and women middle-and long distance. What does this mean?

The first world records were officially ratified during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when more accurate stopwatches were developed. Since then, the sport has undergone numerous changes. At one time, distances were measured in yards; now they are in meters. Hand-timed world records gave way to fully automatic times that measured speed to the thousandths of a second. Despite these new changes, Athletics/Track and Field did not wipe out existing world records. Over time, the old world records gave way to world records set in meters and using automatic times.

The major problems with the current world records are found mainly in women’s sprints and men’s field events, including a few throwing and jumping events for both women and men. These world records are so fast, long, or high that current athletes cannot approach these marks. First, the women’s sprint world records are: the 100-meters is 10.49, the 200-meters is 21.34, the 400-meters is 47. 60, the 800-meters is 1.53. 28, the sprint-hurdles are 12.21, and the 4 x 400-meters relay is 3.15.17. All of these world records are so fast that no woman has approached them for decades. The same is true for the jumps, except pole vault, and most throws.

On the men’s side, all the world records in the field events were set in the 1980s and 1990s, before WADA began random drug tests. The shot put, discus, hammer and javelin world records are all so far, that modern-day Olympic and World Championships are won with much shorter throws.  

As stated above, most world records set during the last two decades of the twentieth century (1980-2000), are suspected of being drug tainted. The mysterious youthful death of the woman’s world record holder in the 100 and 200-meters, as well as irrefutable evidence of mass doping of Communist-block men and women invites legitimate questions. During the Cold War, the governing bodies in Athletics/Track and Field turned a blind eye towards the abuse of performance-enhancing-drugs (PED’s) by Communist and non-Communist athletes. There is no doubt that many current world records are tainted!

However, even during the Cold War, when drug cheaters dominated the sport, there were a few world record holders who did not use PED’s. Some clean athletes developed new techniques in their events. In my opinion, the most famous clean athlete of the 1970s and 1980s was the American intermediate hurdler, Edwin Moses, who raised his voice against drug cheaters, while he was competing. Mr. Moses revolutionized his event by taking 13 strides between hurdles, while other hurdlers began the race with 13 strides and then switched to 14 strides, at the end of the race. Pictures of Mr. Moses, in Track and Field News, show he remained slender while many other world-record holders transformed from slender men into gigantic, muscle bound, behemoths.

Why Have Women’s Sprint World Records Lasted So Long, while Male Sprinters Have Recently Broken So Many Records? 

Women are different from men, and this becomes more pronounced when women and men take performance-enhancing drugs. As stated above, almost all the women’s world records in the sprints date back to the Cold War pre-WADA years. Pictures in Track and Field News show most women world record-holding sprinters had extremely masculine builds—a sign of performance-enhancing-drugs. But it should be noted, some women do have naturally high levels of testosterone. Today, the fastest women are not built like men. Even with better running spikes, faster tracks, improved coaching, better diet, and advanced weight-lifting techniques, today’s fastest women still cannot approach the world records. That is the problem in a sport where spectators like to see athletes set new world records.

The men are different from women, and the men’s world records in the short and long sprints, have been broken over-and-over since the advent of WADA and random drug testing. First, Asafa Powell of Jamaica has broken the world record in the 100-meters many times, while his countryman, Usain Bolt, has shattered the world records in the 100 and 200-meters. However, the 400-meter world record, set in 1999 is still on the books, but the 800-meters world record was set in 2012. Why the startling difference between the men’s and women’s world records in the sprints?

Usain Bolt rewrote the record books in the short sprint and set his world records in 2009. Bolt has been drug tested so many times that he has become the poster boy of clean running in Athletics. Yet, the flamboyant, former world record holder, Carl Lewis and a few, mainly English, tabloid journalists still question if Mr. Bolt is really clean. The real question is: why does a drug-free Usain Bolt run so fast? His world records of 9.58 in the 100-meters and 19.19 in the 200-meters are so fast that they seem out of-reach to everyone–even to Mr. Bolt himself.

How do I explain Mr. Bolt’s tremendous speed? First, Mr. Bolt is 6’ 5” –very tall for a sprinter. In the past, coaches would have told Mr. Bolt “You are too tall to sprint, run the 400-meters.” Bolt’s height may explain his super speed. A look at Mr. Bolt’s races show he is not a normal sprinter—he is really a quarter-miler—who has the world’s greatest sprint coach, Mr. Glen Mills. According to Mr. Bolt, his coach told him that he had to run a second event, in addition to the 200-meters. Mr. Bolt looked to the shorter 100-meters, while Coach Mills wanted him to run the 400-meters. The men came to a compromise. If Bolt could run a very fast 100-meters, then he could run the short sprint instead of the 400-meters. Mr. Bolt ran a few very fast 100-meters, and the rest is history.

A look at Mr. Bolt’s races, shows he has an average start, and a “not so fast” first 50-meters. However, his last 30 meters are very fast, in both the 100- and 200-meters. Bolt makes up for his lack of great speed over the first half of races with tremendous quarter-miler strength and an excellent sprint technique at the end of races. Mr. Bolt runs the 100-meters like a quarter-miler–he starts slowly, and then increases his speed throughout the 100-meters. The normal sprinter has an excellent start, followed by a very fast drive phase over his first 50-meters. In the last 20-meters, normal sprinters are not accelerating, instead they actually are decelerating.—but not Mr. Bolt, who maintains his speed at the end of the race.

Like the unusual Mr. Bolt, the world record holder in the men’s 400 meters has an unusual sprinting technique. Mr. Michael Johnson, the 400-meter world record holder ran 43.18 in 1999, at the World Championships in Seville. Mr. Johnson also held the world record for the 200-meters, before Mr. Bolt broke it. Mr. Johnson had an unorthodox upright running technique, which has not been replicated by other sprinters, male or female. Johnson’s short piston-like strides used his tremendous upper-body strength, and excellent sprint technique to run very fast, with little wasted motion. Because of their height and/or upright running technique, one can explain the short-sprint world records of both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Bolt.

No world record holding woman sprinter was very tall like Mr. Bolt, nor executed the unorthodox running technique of Mr. Johnson. Maybe, if a woman sprinter with Mr. Bolt’s height and/or Mr. Johnson’s revolutionary running style enters the sport, we will see super-fast times. Testosterone-based, performance enhancing drugs permit world-class women to run super-super fast, but since men have naturally higher levels of testosterone, they are now running faster than drug abusers of the past. Once again, better spikes, faster tracks, and improved coaching, diet, and weight lifting allows the fastest drug-free men of today to run faster than drug abusers of the Cold War. Finally, Mr. Powell, Mr. Bolt, and 800-meter world record holder Mr. David Rudisha all eschewed running at American universities, and chose to remain in Jamaica and Kenya, respectively, where they ran far fewer events than they would have if they went to America on athletic scholarships.  


Instead of nullifying all current world records and starting anew, it may be wiser to have two sets of records—the pre-WADA and post-WADA world records. Simply, add PW or pre-WADA to women’s and men’s world records that were set before ca.2000 and are suspected of being tainted. As stated above, this is what was done when the world records went from yards to meters, from hand-held times to fully electronic times, and were set at high altitudes. Two different sets of world records would tell the world that WADA and its random drug tests have made a difference in cleaning up Athletics/Track and Field. If the sport wiped out all present world records it would be saying that WADA and random drug tests and biological passports are meaningless.  

In the world of “real-politics,” the nations with multiple world record holders want the current world records to stay, while those with few world record holders want to wipe the slate clean and start all over. While I am not Solomon, Athletics/Track and Field should not throw out the little track baby with the dirty bath-water.

*Trevor Hall is an Associate Professor of History and Political Science who lives in Jamaica. He holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, and is a Penn Relays Champion (1972) and All-American Triple Jumper (1975). He coached the 1988 Olympic gold medalist, Paul Ereng (800-meters) for Kenya. Professor Hall is a consultant in African History, Portuguese Culture, and Athletics, and can be reached at [email protected]


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