How fast would the world records be without performance-enhancing drugs? This is a question debated frequently by those convinced that most of today’s distance-running world records are made possibly only by the use of drugs such as erythropoietin (EPO).
“There is no way anyone could run under eight minutes for two miles,” someone might say, or regard with disbelief the hordes of African runners running marathons in 2:07 or faster. Modern performances are simply too fast to be credible to some fans of the sport.
Their disbelief is fueled largely by the dominance of East African runners and the relegation of European and North American runners, with the odd exception, to the status of literal also-rans. For example, three Ethiopians and two Kenyans ran 26:52 or faster for 10,000 meters at a recent meet in the Netherlands, a time that no Western-born runner can even approach. The American record, for example, is 27:13.
However, what makes clear that the overwhelming majority of today’s performances are drug-free is the quality of those performances which are certainly drug free.
An 18-year old running a 13:44 5,000 on a dirt track today seems impossible, but this was what Canadian Bruce Kidd managed in the 1960’s. American Jim Ryun ran a 3:55 mile as a high school student in 1965. Two years later, Ryun ran 1500 metres on a dirt track in 3:33 at the age of 20.
Forty years later, with advances in training and track surfaces, Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj’s world record of 3:26 seems a natural progression.
Examining longer distances, Australian Derek Clayton’s 2:08:34 marathon from 1969 was a world record that lasted for 12 years. In 2003, paced the entire way on a flat course on a perfect day, Kenyan Paul Tergat ran 3 minutes and 39 seconds faster than Clayton. In between, Moroccan Khalid Khannouchi had debuted in 2:07 as an unknown runner working as a dishwasher.
Clearly, records are made to be broken, at least most of them. There are some women’s world records that defy explanation and possibility.
Jarmila Kratochvilova of the former Czechoslovakia ran a 1:53 800 in 1983. By comparison, the fastest time of this decade has been 1:55, and roughly 60 of the 100 fastest women’s 800 times were recorded prior to 1990.
The most notorious distance-running performance of all is Wang Junxia’s 10,000 world record of 29:31. Junxia broke the world record for 5,000 meters during the race and had an astonishingly brief career on the world stage. No other woman has ever run under 30 minutes, making it plausible that Paula Radcliffe’s 30:01 at the 2002 European Championships is the true world record.