Saturday, April 23, 2011

Do world records really mean anything?

Monday's Boston Marathon was spectacular mostly for the 2:03:02 that Geoffrey Mutai ran, along with the 2:03:06 turned in by Moses Mosop. It often takes a remarkably unremarkable performance to show the true significane of another performance, so focus on Mosop's 2:03 instead of Mutai's 2:03.

Both were not, relatively speaking, the world's A-list marathoners on Monday morning. Mutai had run a 2:04:55 as runner-up in Rotterdam last year, but that time was only the fourth-fastest time ever on that course and, combined with the fact that he was a Kenyan, meant that just about no one had heard of him.

If you thought you had, you were probably thinking of Emmanuel Mutai, who was similarly more or less an unknown to fans despite having been a runner-up at both London and New York last year, given the way most North American running fans gravitate to a few East African runners and then whichever white guy or girl is an also-ran.

At any rate, Emmanuel Mutai won London on Sunday in a 2:04:40 which was more notable for the way he ran a 28:44 10k from 30k to 40k, disintegrating a field that included a 2:05:45 return-to-action by Martin Lel, who was second. Then Geoffrey went out on Monday to win Boston in 2:03:02, trailed closely by Mosop four seconds behind.

The debate ensued immediately as a lot of people thought a world record had been set, to which others responeded that it hadn't, at least not in official terms. The debate that has been going on recently is whether a 2:03:02 with a tailwind on the Boston course is superior to a 2:03:59 on the Berlin course, and whether the rules on records-eligible courses are hurting the sport.

The answer to the first question is more opaque than the answer to the second and also less interesting. It will always be unclear whether a 2:03:02 on Monday is superior or inferior to Haile Gebrselassie's 2:03:59 world record. Sports are fickle and fleeting in that performances are reflections what a particular person at a particular time in a particular place was able to do.

We could have the Gebrselassie of the morning of September 30, 2008 run the Boston Marathon course in Monday's conditions, or take Monday's Mutai and send him back to Berlin 2008, but even that wouldn't settle the question. Maybe Gebrselassie is uncomfortable and unsettled coming to America because of the distance and time difference. He probably doesn't run hills as well as he runs flats. Maybe Mutai doesn't run quite as well on flats, so the best he'd manage would be a 2:04:10 on a Berlin-type course.

To really answer this question farely, there's a lot more to talk about. What about the Gebrselassie of January 2008 who went out too fast in Dubai and ran a 2:04:53? What about the run that Samuel Wanjiru had at the Beijing Olympics in 2008? He ran a flat course, but in hot weather without pacemakers. Clearly, a lot of setting records is unfair, regardless of what the rules say. Even within the rules, we have unfairness that reflects conditions and circumstances.

The question of whether Boston is a slow or fast course reflects individual abilities with respects to uphills, downhills and a combination thereof and, for elite competitors, things like competition in the absence of pacemakers. Generally, no one has run that fast in Boston, but no one has ever had a tailwind either. Boston is disqualified as a world record course not only for being a net downhill, but also for being a point-to-point course where the effects of a tailwind in cool weather can produce stunning times.

Those rules are reasonable restrictions to keep someone from running 42.195 km on a highway in cool weather with a tailwind. If Boston is exempt because it is "obvious" that it is not a fast course, can other races apply for exemptions? If we're going to go down this route, won't world records essentially become maddening judged events?

A more interesting question which LetsRun broaches from time to time, is whether the obsession with world records is helpful to the sport or any sport. Clearly, the time will come when world records become less and less significant. Since I've been watching marathons, I've seen three world records in the marathon, which stood at 2:05:38 when I started watching: Paul Tergat's 2:04:55 and Gebrselassie's 2:04:26 and 2:03:59. Other world records have barely moved: Daniel Komen's 7:20 dates to 1996 and Hicham El Guerrouj's 3:26 dates to 1998.

World records don't always mean something. As a kid, I couldn't understand how, with players like Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, someone I'd never even heard of held the world record. What's more, Roger Maris only hit about 300 home runs in his career. Within running, usually with respect to women, many official records are meaningless while seemingly insignificant marks count as the "real" record: is Pamela Jelimo's 1:54 better than Jarmila Kratochvilova's 1:53? I think so.

Many career records are the product of longevity, while single-season or single-game marks reward freakish conditions. Considering that not everyone considered Gebrselassie to be the best marathoner in the world in the first place, why does he suddenly become a better competitor than Mutai? Mutai ran a solo 2:03 downhill with a tailwind, Gebrselassie was paced to a 2:03 on flat ground. Mutai ran a minute faster.

No matter what, we are going to compare the two, along with races like Martin Lel's 2:05:15 from London 2008, where he outkicked Wanjiru and Abderrahim Goumri. To allow world records to dominate the conversation is ridiculous, and we've always known that. Conditions, competition and victories are always taken into account, which is why Moses Mosop will never really be able to say that he is better than Gebrselassie.

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