Following the Ottawa Marathon a couple of weeks ago, I got a message from a Canadian correspondent, who was irked at what she described as, EPO cheat Asmae Leghzaoui winning the women’s race, and being paced all the way, by her husband/coach. She posed the question, is (that) legit?
A few days later, my Aussie colleague Mike Hurst published an interview with Derek Clayton on the 40th anniversary of Clayton’s ground-breaking marathon, 2.08.33 in Antwerp. Clayton, who had also been the first man under 2.10 ended the interview with a heartfelt, …you’ve got a thing in track and field now that I’m dead set against – pacemakers… It is ruining it…because it is about racing, it’s not about times.
Under the current doping regulations, having served her ban, there is nothing to prevent Legzhaoui competing, if race organisers want to invite her. Indeed, one Stateside organiser told me a couple of years ago that he deliberately invited Legzhaoui, just after her ban expired, because it would increase publicity for his race.
But there is little solidarity on this subject, except in the case of UK sprinter Dwain Chambers, who continues to be barred by a cartel of organisers from the major track meetings in Europe, including ones in his home country. The only difference seems to be that Chambers admitted drug-taking, thus attracting the ire of the establishment. Go figure!
However, there is a similar ethical question about pacemaking, to which we attach far less importance than drug-taking.
There used to be an IAAF law which stated that everybody in a race should be in there to win, and that they should put in a fair effort to do so, ie ‘honest competition’. This law dated back to the days of race-fixing, which we presume doesn’t happen nowadays, but which used to be widespread, for a variety of reasons, in the late 18th/early 19th century when gambling on foot-racing was rife.
Back then a lot of racing was head-to-head, ie, the real thing, just two people on the track; and when, as often happened, one of the runners gave up, frequently ‘falling insensible’ to the track (in the popular jargon of the day), the other athlete stopped running, since he (there were few ‘she’s’ back then) had won. And get this, the time was immaterial. No one cared.
But over the years, we have become subject to the tyranny of the stopwatch, to the extent that, if someone were to win one of the best mile races you ever saw, with six guys or gals separated only by a tenth of a second, but with a finishing time of, say, ten seconds outside the world record, Joe Schmuck the Journo would inevitably write, ‘J. Doe Wins Slow Mile’.
Because it is one of the major drawbacks of track and field athletics that victory is no longer enough. That secondary measure of excellence, the stopwatch (or the tape measure) has given us the world record chase. Which the vast majority of the time ends in failure, therefore disappointment.
Back in 1984, when the post-LA Olympics tour was winding its way around Europe, one of my colleagues got recalled by his newspaper editor, who said he was tired of reading headlines like, ‘Coe/Cram/Aouita Fails to Break World Record’. So, somebody had got the message even back then.
But it had got so bad by the turn of the century that we had the extraordinary situation of Hicham El Guerrouj being paced in world championships and Olympic Games. The least of the indignities about this was that the Moroccan federation sacrificed a young miler in order to provide a springboard for El G’s finishing sprint. I wrote about this with such distaste that when El Guerrouj won his Olympic 1500/5000m double in Athens, without so much as the smell of a colleague’s shirt to assist him, El G’s coach, Abdulkader Kada came up to me after the Games, and said acidly, “I hope you’re satisfied now”.
But there is a more serious debate here, and it is about the pacemakers themselves. Because that law about ‘honest competition’ was quietly dropped around 30 years ago when my illustrious compatriots, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett were being paced to world records every other week, or every other day in some cases.
On very rare occasions, and some people will recall Tom Byers in Oslo 1981, a track pacemaker will hang in and win, but in the other 99 cases out of 100, the pacers will drop out, and be paid handsomely for their services, and frequently paid more than the race backmarkers.
But these people are effectively being paid to lose! How can that be ethical?
As far as marathon pacing goes, at least in Haile Geb’s world records, he has had to run the final few kilometres by himself, since clearly no pacemaker is going to be nearly as good as the world record holder. And Paula Radcliffe’s world record 2.15.25 also passes muster. But in many cases, it is different for women. Men can and frequently do pace female friends, colleagues and spouses all the way to victory and very fast times. And a sack full of greenbacks.
This seems palpably unfair to many of their competitors, who run their own race. There is also the question of intimidation or worse by male pacemakers. I was at the finish of a central European city marathon a half dozen years ago, when one woman came in fourth, limping and bloodied from a fall. A close friend who had been following the race on a bike related how she had been pushed to the ground when she began to contest the lead with a woman who was being paced by more than one male friend. The paced woman, who may not have seen the push, duly won the race, and her ‘helpers’ denied everything. There was no video record of the alleged incident, so the result stood. And an injustice was perpetrated.
It is difficult to police the whole of a marathon course, as Rosie Ruiz and several other cheats have proven over the past 30 years of mass marathons. And they are just the ones who got caught afterwards. But something needs to be done about paced women, especially if they are in a close race. How about banning pacing after 30 or 35 kilometres, for example?
How about banning pacemaking altogether?
The rationale for that can be encapsulated in just two words – Filbert Bayi. Back in early February 1974, a couple of hundred or more of us were preparing to run in the British Universities cross country, when news came through overnight from New Zealand that Bayi had taken apart Jim Ryun’s 1500 metre world record while winning the Commonwealth title. It was to be shown on TV in the early afternoon. Despite the proximity of the race, scores, if not a hundred or more crammed into the student union of the University of Surrey, to watch what turned out to be masterclass in metric miling.
Bayi zipped round the first lap in 54.9sec, already well in the lead, and kept going. It was John Walker’s breakthrough race, and the future Olympic champion and first sub-3min 50sec miler whittled away at Bayi’s lead until, on the final bend, the burly Kiwi was on the shoulder of the tiny Tanzanian. In 99 cases out of 100, when you lose a lead like that, the pursuer bursts past to victory. This was the exception. Bayi tore away again, to win in 3.32.2, breaking Ryun’s record by almost a second. And he had led every step of the way!
Despite appeals from viewers, the video of this race has yet to find its way onto Youtube. But Bayi’s mile in Kingston, Jamaica the following year is on there. Bayi employs the same tactic against similar world class opposition. With the same result.
It is a video that every aspiring middle distance runner should watch regularly; and attempt to emulate.
And the IAAF should address a situation which, like doping is bringing our sport into disrepute.