As the athletics and wider sporting worlds prepare for today’s release in Munich of the “wow factor” report - the second part of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Independent Commission investigation, as trailed by its chairman Richard Pound - debate over what to do about dubious track and field records has intensified.
On the eve of the follow-up to November’s revelations of state-supported doping in Russia allegedly involving senior International Association of Athletic Federations officials, including former President Lamine Diack, one which Pound has said could lead to a widening of the field of investigation to countries such as Kenya, European Athletics has issued a document which, among other initiatives, suggests a “review” of all European records.
"The recent scandals have reopened the discussion about the legitimacy of certain records in our sport," said European Athletics President Svein-Arne Hansen in a “position statement” entitled Integrity in Athletics.
"These link us to a past in which neither we nor the public can have full confidence.
"Over the years different approaches for addressing this question have been proposed but the issue is very complex and so far nothing has happened.
"It is clear that now the situation is different.
"We will set up a special project team in the coming months to look again at what is best for the sport and possibly a new approach to records in Europe that could be an example for the IAAF and our Member Federations.”
The European Athletics suggestion comes two days after the release of UK Athletics’ kite-flying effort entitled "A Manifesto for Clean Athletics"which proposed, inter alia, to delete every current world record from the books and start all over again.
UK Athletics chairman Ed Warner said the intention was “to provoke debate and take a cattle prod to the IAAF to find ways to create a better sport.”
Among those disagreeing with the UK Athletics records proposal was one of the three Britons - along with Colin Jackson and Jonathan Edwards -to hold either an indoor or outdoor world record, namely Paula Radcliffe, whose time of 2 hours 15min 25sec, set in the London Marathon, has stood since 2003.
“Without doubt you are going to punish innocent athletes,” she told The Guardian. "So why do it again when they have already had to compete against cheats during their career?”
Personally, I think Radcliffe is right, and that the idea of wiping everything off the book and starting afresh is misguided and unfair.
Given the recent torrent of horrendous news to do with how track and field appears to have been betrayed at the highest level – and I am just guessing that the “wow factor” mentioned by Pound is not going to emanate from a revelation that, other than what we have already heard, everything is tickety-boo – there will surely be someone somewhere soon who will tug on the string and send the old “why not level the playing field by letting everyone cheat as much as they want to?” kite soaring into the winter sky.
That line of thought is the spiritual twin of the “wipe the slate clean” approach espoused by Warner and Co.
This week, England’s sporting community has been set pondering by a bill introduced to Parliament from Labour MP Toby Perkins which seeks something new to play before events involving English competitors or players instead of the (British) National Anthem.
As UK Athletics contemplates playing fast and loose with the rules, it is time to contemplate another English tradition – Blackstone’s Formulation.
This is the fundamental principle of English criminal law laid out in 1765 by jurist William Blackstone: “All presumptive evidence of felony should be admitted cautiously; for the law holds it better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer.”
Any proposed re-formulation of world – or European – records pre-supposes that there can be such a thing as a clean world or European record holder. Otherwise there is no point.
And sweeping away those who hold a rightful place on the lists, along with those who may not, is a futile gesture towards the natural feelings of cynicism and anger that have been stirred by recent revelations of corruption within track and field.
The question back to Svein Arne is: how is it different? What have we learned about any world or European record?
If we have evidence that it is achieved through wrongdoing, then of course let it be struck from the records.
But to operate in any other way effectively brands everyone a cheat. And on what presumption do we proceed into a future where every subsequent record, AD rather than BC, is genuine?
The direction of thinking as far as European Athletics is concerned is not entirely clear, although there has already been some speculation on social media that a new set of records - perhaps European Athletics records as opposed to European records – could be set up.
It’s understandable, as the ground shifts threateningly underfoot, that administrators of athletics want to stabilise one of the key sets of fixed points within the sport.
But while a European notion of proliferation, rather than wholesale replacement, looks more palatable, it is almost as bad. As the old raft of European records is allowed to drift away into history, any rightful inhabitants will be wrongly diminished.
You might as well extend the practice established for safety reasons in the men’s and women’s javelin, where the implement was re-balanced to increase downward movement after East Germany’s Uwe Hohn had pushed the world record to a spectator-imperilling 104.80 metres in 1984.
Forget about the 100 metres sprint. What about a world record for the 90m sprint? Bang goes the nine-second barrier! Let’s bring the men’s shot down to six kilograms – and watch it fly!
Not such a bright idea, perhaps…
Final thought. Does Blackstone’s Formulation hold good in the matter of Russian athletes being denied the right to compete in this year’s Rio Olympics because of the corrupt practices that have come to light within their administration?
Hmm. While evidence of systemic cheating has already been uncovered within Russian athletics, we have not – yet – seen evidence that all competitors have been compromised, as were the wretched generations of East German athletes in the 1970s and 1980s.
So innocent athletes stand to be punished for the sins of others.
And yet, as is not the case with all the latest furore over world or European records, this projected punishment stems directly from evidence of wrongdoing, and is governed by the wish to prevent clean athletes from other countries being compromised once again.
At the risk of sending Blackstone into a spin, there is a genuine case for an Olympic ban on Russia if those tasked with overseeing change of practice fail to be satisfied. While there are Russian athletes who are innocent, the Russian system is guilty and cannot be allowed to profit any further. Can it?
Unlike the UKA proposal on records, this really is debatable.