Editorial | Collective punishment an affront to justice
We are forced again to invoke our often-used adage and time-tested principle: What is worse than formulating bad policy is implementing it.
The danger this time is the proposal by European Athletics for the global sport to wipe out all world records, for track and field events, set prior to 2005. The IAAF will likely vote on the idea at its congress next summer.
The intent of the suggestion will likely gain the sympathy of people who have an appreciation for the value of the painful, hard work of athletes who perform cleanly: an attempt at drawing a line under the scandals that wracked the sport in recent years over drug cheating.
In that regard, 2005 is not an arbitrary date. It marks the time when the global athletics authorities began storing athletes' urine samples for possible later testing for drug violations as technology develops.
But what European Athletics has proposed is not only a lazy fix, but a potential breach of natural justice that will likely lead to legal challenges by individual athletes and national associations, as well as suck world athletics into another prolonged round of arguments and doubt.
If the proposal is approved, nearly half of 146 current world records, it is estimated, would be wiped out by fiat. Some of these records do, indeed, draw suspicion for the fact that they are extraordinarily stupendous and were established at a period when the techniques for masking the consumption of performance-enhancing substances were often ahead of detection technologies. Moreover, drug-taking is sometimes not an individual enterprise, put part of a state-sponsored programme.
While cleaning the record books is a worthy and noble ideal, it can't morally be achieved by collective punishment, which would penalise those athletes who achieved records by dint of effort and without the help of banned drugs. That approach would be anathema to natural justice and bring the IAAF into disrepute.
We recognise that in the absence of samples for retesting or the availability of biological passports that mark contemporary athletes, this recalibration, as Lord Coe, the IAAF boss, puts it, will not be easy. That, however, doesn't mean it can't be done.
If the Europeans and the IAAF are serious, they can identify those records that, based on the development of human skills, appear too far off the scale, or the circumstance of their achievement deeply suspicious. These, then, could be subjected first to deep, forensic investigations and the findings placed before a review tribunal. But even this is not without jeopardy for the innocent.
Or, the IAAF, and other sporting bodies, might just mark records as pre- or post-2005, to signify those achieved under the new, more rigorous regimes and those before, thus leaving analysts and fans to make of it what they will, very much as they do when comparing athletes of different eras. Again, even this is not without consequences for the clean performers.
But this proposal for the wholesale and arbitrary expunging of records has echoes of dark periods of human history that the IAAF should not embrace.