Do pacemakers have a place in athletics?

April 28, 2009

wanjiruPost-event news conferences in the age of the sound bite seldom disclose much beyond the predictable and the banal.

So intentionally or not, Sammy Wanjiru provoked consternation by straying from the accustomed script when he was invited to comment on the pacemaking after winning Sunday’s London marathon.

Wanjiru succeeded fellow-Kenyan Martin Lel as the London champion after a trio of pacemakers had hurtled through the halfway mark in 61 minutes 35 seconds, the quickest split ever recorded.

According to the pundits, including the BBC race commentators, a ruinous early speed cost the Kenyan champion any chance of a world record. Wanjiru was having none of that. Instead he complained they should have run faster and lasted longer.

“I told the pacemakers they were going too slow,” the Olympic champion said. “They were very tired. For me it was not very fast. I like the high pace. Maybe next time we can get a good pacemaker. And we can try again.”

Wanjiru was asked at what point in the race he thought the pacemakers should stop. “Thirty five kilometres,” replied Wanjiru, prompting an observation that they might as well continue for the remaining seven kms and attempt to win themselves.

The Kenyan’s comments reopened an old debate about the merits or otherwise of pacemakers.

Boston, the world’s oldest marathon, has never used pacemakers. The New York City marathon, another of the big city events comprising the five-race world majors series, dropped pacemakers two years ago.

The New York Road Runners club, who organise the New York race, the inspiration for the first London marathon in 1981, believe pacemakers remove an important element from the race.

They say that instead of thinking for themselves in the early part of the race, the elite competitors simply slot in behind the pacemakers and start racing in earnest only when they drop out.

Four years ago, British athletics celebrated to general applause the 50th anniversary of the first sub-four minute mile run by Roger Bannister at Iffley Road in Oxford.

There was one dissenting voice.

In a Guardian article, athletics journalist Pat Butcher described Bannister’s run, paced by Olympic team mates Chris Brasher (co-founder of the London marathon) and Chris Chataway “one of the worst things that has ever happened to athletics”.

“They paced him for close to three-and-a-half of the four-lap race. They weren’t being paid, but they provided the template for the disastrous situation we have now,” wrote Butcher. “… Its seminal contribution to sport has been to ruin middle-distance running worldwide.”

Pacemakers have become part of the scenery in middle and long-distance events, even though in the vast majority of cases no world record is being attempted.

They remove the need for tactical calculation in the first part of a race when athletes know in advance what the speed will be after 400 metres in an 800 or 800 metres in a 1,500 or after 21 kms in a marathon.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is looking at the issue of pacemakers before launching its new Diamond League next year. The series is designed to encourage head-to-head competition and expand the sport throughout the world.

“Do we need them?,” said one IAAF source. “The rules allow them but don’t encourage them. Is pacemaking old-fashioned?”

Informal discussions with those close to the sport suggest it is. A constant thirst for world records contributed to the cult of pacemakers. The downside has been the drugs culture which has blighted the sport in the endless quest to become faster and stronger. Any measures which promote genuine contests instead of paced world records are to be applauded.

PHOTO: Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya crosses the finish line to win the 2009 men’s elite event in the London Marathon April 26, 2009. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

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