Medals are owned, records are borrowed.

That is how Carl Lewis replied to a Twitter comment about how he and Leroy Burrell are coaching athletes that are breaking their records.

The quoted mantra about the significance of medals in comparison to the “borrowed” world records is often repeated by the great athletes who were fortunate enough to experience what it’s like being at the top of the podium and on top of the world.

I wanted to reply by saying that you cannot borrow records anymore if you’re a female sprinter, but I bit my tongue. I didn’t want to be that one guy who always brings up doping.

***

There was a lot of excitement on social media in light of the recent NCAA indoor Championships where college athletes broke numerous records, including a couple of world records. The depth of performances made it one of the best indoor meets of all time. In many ways it even overshadowed the recent World Indoor Championships in Birmingham.

The kids are getting faster and stronger. Teenagers are now equaling performances that were reserved for Olympic finals just a generation ago. This is in no small part made possible by better tracks, better footwear, better dieting, better coaching & science, and also by the fact that athletics is now a full-time profession.

But something is not right. If you closely examine the times and performances, you will see that only men are threatening the world records of non-technical track events, whereas women are getting nowhere close.

So as I watched the likes of Sydney McLaughlin run an incredible time of 50.36 in the 400m at just 18 years of age, I was once again reminded of the sad reality that she and her competitors will probably never have a chance of breaking the 400m world record.

It’s the record I despise the most because a) it’s so laughably outrageous, and b) it’s in my favourite track discipline.

Elliss and Mclaughlin
Kendall Ellis and Sydney McLaughlin, paving the way for a new generation of sprinters. Will they ever run 48 seconds? The last sub 49s time was run in 2009 (48.83 by Sanya Richards-Ross).

Maybe one of these young talents can read this and get that extra bit of motivation to break the record. Trust me, I will be the first one to congratulate them, but I’m afraid that chances of it actually happening are about as high as the sun rising up in the west tomorrow.*

***

Track fans like myself get really excited when a female athlete dips below 50 seconds in the 400m. It’s the mark of a true athletics prodigy. Getting close to or under 49 flat is a sign of greatness.

The world record stands at 47.60 … I get a tingle of anxiety just thinking about that number.

I listed through the record books and found out the following:

Since the world record was set on October 6, 1985 (32 years ago), there have been 9 clockings below and including 49.00s by 5 women (excluding the world record holder Marita Koch).

chart
Best yearly performances in the women’s 400m. The trend line (pale linear red line) indicates a gradual regression. Click on the image to view full resolution.

49.00 is 2.86% slower than the world record of 47.60 …

If we look at the men’s event, you have to run 44.30 to be within 2.86% of the world record of 43.03, set on August 14, 2016.

There have been 21 clockings below and including 44.30s by 10 men in the last 1 and a half years (excluding the world record holder Wayde van Niekerk)

You don’t have to have a degree in statistics to figure out that something is seriously wrong here. In a highly competitive sport like track & field, there shouldn’t be that big of a drop-off from the top athletes of the past to the top athletes of the present. Especially when it only happens to one gender.

Men's World Leading Times in the 400m
Best yearly performances in the men’s 400m. The trendline (pale linear blue line) indicates a gradual progression. Click on the image to view full resolution.

It’s true that there is going to be a time when the athletes will reach a plateau in every discipline (unless the sport openly embraces doping and bio-engineering) and I think it’s obvious that men are already reaching for the ceiling in most sprint events, nudging the bar further by fractions of percent at a time.

But I cannot accept the fact that women ran under 49 seconds for 9 straight seasons (1978-1986) — right before out-of-competition drug testing was introduced. The performances before 1987 should be annulled in my opinion, simply because the testing was laughable by any standards. We all know that doing so wouldn’t solve the problem because people were still doping afterwards, but it’s likely that women weren’t able to use the most potent stuff anymore. And they must have been taking something truly potent to achieve those unreachable times.

Not to mention that all of the fastest times in the eighties were achieved by the East Germans, Czecho-Slovakians and the Soviets. And we know that the East Germans used CMDT (branded as Oral Turinabol), sponsored by the government. The drug that apparently significantly promotes muscular endurance — which is paramount for success in the 400m.

***

Even if some of the best results after 1986 are tainted, I still believe that Marie-José Pérec is a much cleaner example of what women are actually capable of. In my regard, her performance at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics is the true world record in the 400m.

 

Revised All-time Top 10 (Post 1986)

RANK MARK COMPETITOR DOB NAT POS VENUE DATE
1 48.25 Marie-José PEREC 09 MAY 1968 FRAFRA 1 Atlanta (USA) 29 JUL 1996
2 48.63 Cathy FREEMAN 16 FEB 1973 AUSAUS 2 Atlanta (USA) 29 JUL 1996
3 48.65 Olga BRYZGINA 30 JUN 1963 URSURS 1 Seoul (KOR) 26 SEP 1988
4 48.70 Sanya RICHARDS-ROSS 26 FEB 1985 USAUSA 1 Athina (GRE) 16 SEP 2006
5 48.89 Ana Gabriela GUEVARA 04 MAR 1977 MEXMEX 1 Paris (FRA) 27 AUG 2003
6 49.07 Tonique WILLIAMS-DARLING 17 JAN 1976 BAHBAH 1 Berlin (GER) 12 SEP 2004
7 49.10 Falilat OGUNKOYA-OSHEKU 05 DEC 1968 NGRNGR 3 Atlanta (USA) 29 JUL 1996
8 49.11 Olga NAZAROVA 01 JUN 1965 URSURS 1sf1 Seoul (KOR) 25 SEP 1988
9 49.16 Antonina KRIVOSHAPKA 21 JUL 1987 RUSRUS 1 Cheboksary (RUS) 05 JUL 2012
10 49.26 Allyson FELIX 18 NOV 1985 USAUSA 1 Beijing (CHN) 27 AUG 2015

*Though it has to be said that Allyson Felix split a 47.7 in the third leg of the 4x400m final at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, so it appears that not all is lost for the ladies just yet. It’s unfortunate that she couldn’t get anywhere near that time in the individual 400m. At the very least she proved that she had sub-49 in her legs.