July 2010COLOR ME CONFLICTED when it comes to the matter of the recent rash of “World Records” and whether or not they’re good for our sport. I’m speaking of a trio of impressive sprint things that will never find their way into the official recordbooks: Asafa Powell with an auto-timed 100 yards, Tyson Gay with a 200 on the straight, Usain Bolt with a low-altitude 300 (see p. 26 for news stories).
When I was learning the craft of being a hardcore track & field journalist at the knees of legends like the Nelson Brothers, R.L. Quercetani and Don Potts, one thing that was drummed into my head was that our beloved sport should never turn into a circus, and that World Record parameters were sacrosanct.
Before a time or distance could get the much-sought-after “WR” appended to it, not only did it have to be made under stringent conditions, it also had to be in a real event. The line of thinking was that if the sport had to resort to gimmicks to attract attention, then perhaps it wasn’t a real sport worthy of the attention. That’s certainly a credo I’ve tried to foster in my tenure of stewardship here at T&FN.
But our sport has changed. Back in the days when World Records happened at regular pace, we could afford to be cavalier about giving short shrift to events that might not be on the official roster. Even when the IAAF declared yard-distance races (other than the mile) obsolete in the ’70s, it didn’t seem a big deal. There were still plenty of disciplines left in which people could reach the apex.
And make no mistake, reaching the apex is what it’s all about. No matter how much T&FN might value competition in its World Rankings, or how much the IAAF is striving to set up head-to-head matches for its new Diamond League, the currency that keeps the sport alive is World Record setting. So I worry, is selling tickets/making headlines with odd-event all-time bests passing off counterfeit money?
In an era (both athletically and socially) where style often trumps substance, would the general sporting public even notice if track enhanced its offering by running more different distances? Is there a point where they’d get tired of Usain Bolt setting yet another WR at yet another distance? I’m guessing no.
Historically, let’s look at one of the sport’s first big draws, Paavo Nurmi. Fresh off the heels of his ’24 Olympic heroics, the Flying Finn barnstormed the U.S. indoor circuit for four months in ’25, running at least—the historical record is unclear on the precise number—68 (!) races. In his first 12 days on the boards he set 7 WRs at 5 different distances. And they weren’t all cheapies, as some bettered his own outdoor standards.
All told, he set WRs at a mile, 1¼M, 1½M, 1¾M, 17/8M, 2M, 2¼M, 1500m, 2000m, 3000m & 4000m.
How bad could it be if Bolt had as many WR opportunities as that? Mr. About-Face is thinking not bad at all.