Inside Athletics

When is a record not a record?

Collis Birmingham’s victory at the Marugame Half Marathon over the weekend in a swift 60:56 poses some interesting questions for Australian athletics’ record books.

Athletics Australia lists the national record for the distance at 60:02 by Darren Wilson in Tokyo in 1997, which eclipsed Steve Moneghetti’s 60:06 set on the same course four years earlier. Birmingham sits number three on the Australian all-time list behind them, but his performance in Muragame came on a course that complies with the current IAAF rules regarding how downhill a course can be (1 metre drop per kilometre of race distance), while Tokyo does not. Moneghetti also has a 60:34 run to his name, again on the downhill Great North Run course.

So according to the IAAF, Birmingham is the Oceania record holder, but according to Athletics Australia he is not the national record holder.

In a way it’s the opposite to the farcical situation that existed in the discus where until Benn Harradine threw 66.37m in 2008, Ringwood Athletics Club and Victoria both had discus records in excess of the national record, by recognising a performance of Werner Reiterer that Athletics Australia never accepted.

But the difference with road running with the downhill rules for records, as opposed to a result merely not being ratified, is that it is a recent construct. In fact, the IAAF only started recognising world record in road events from 2004 (before that they were world bests). Is it right to now exclude the ‘records’ of the past, set when such rules were not in place?

If it is, then Australia’s greatest marathoner, Rob de Castella, would lose his national record in the marathon, with Steve Moneghetti getting the crown. The latter’s 2:08:16 on a legal course in Berlin would replace Deeks’ 2:07:51 run on the hilly, but net downhill Boston. (Boston also fails the rule about having the start and finish of the race separated by less than half of the race distance – the benefit of a net tailwind led to Geoffrey Mutai running 2:03:02, 36 seconds faster than the current world record, on the course in 2011).

In the most parochial and jingoistic of moments I’ve even heard some suggest that Steve Hooker should be considered the world record holder in the pole vault, because the pegs the bar sits on were longer, and hence the bar didn’t dislodge as easily, when Sergey Bubka jumped 6.14m. The fault with that thinking is, of course, that Bubka didn’t touch the bar in the slightest in his world record jump.

But is Bubka's 6.14m the world record, or the 6.15m he jumped indoors? The IAAF changed their rules in 2000, to count performances indoors as being eligible as world records (not just world indoor records) but didn’t make this ruling retrospective. But Australia did accept this ruling regarding indoor performances – the records show that Steve Hooker’s 6.06m indoors in Boston is the national record as well as indoor record – he would otherwise share the ‘outdoor record’ (if such a thing existed) at 6.05m with 2001 world champion Dmitri Markov.

So what can we make of Collis Birmingham’s performance? At a minimum, it was a quality win in front of a field full of depth. And it bettered his ‘personal best’ of 61:25, set at the Great North Run, which ironically was run on a downhill course.

What performances do you think should be recognised as the Australian half marathon and marathon records?

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