Controversy swirls around 2011 Boston Marathon

A new world record marathon time was set at this past weekend’s venerable Boston Marathon. Or was it? Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya ran the 26.2 distance in the fastest recorded time ever – 2 hours 3 minutes and 2 seconds, besting the previous record holder, Haile Gebrselassie, who ran the 2008 Berlin Marathon in 2 hours 3 minutes and 59 seconds.

World record marathoner?

Unfortunately for Mutai, however, there evidently was a slight tail wind. That, coupled with the fact that the Boston Marathon is a “downhill” course, (tell that to anyone who has climbed Boston’s Heartbreak Hill) disqualifies Mutai. This ruling came from the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF – which not only sounds totally made-up, but is a sucky acronym – it sounds like some incoherent, drunken salutation). The IAAF is the governing body for the track/running world (and, evidently for drunken salutations) and they have the power to summarily declare someone world champion – whether they are actually the fastest runner notwithstanding.

I was a little taken aback by this decision – I always just assumed, ignorantly it seems, that whoever ran 26.2 miles the fastest would be the world record holder. I never took into account the fact that points would be taken away if the course slanted downhill in a section, or if there was a tailwind. As it turns out, you don’t have to be the fastest runner to hold a world record. Which got me to thinking – will Mutai’s sensational Boston finish be recognized at all in the record book? In first place, perhaps, but with an asterisk – sort of like Barry Bonds but without the shrunken testicles?

How many different variables might be considered when determining whether someone is truly the world record holder? Should we now take into consideration the temperature during the race? The humidity level? Would it make a difference if the tailwind was out of the southwest or southeast? And what if there were a tail wind for only a portion of the race – how big must that portion be to disqualify a runner from being a world record holder? Should we consider whether the race is run at sea level or at elevation? Would it matter whether the runner is 5’9 or 6’2? Should we have separate world champions for flat courses, predominantly uphill courses and predominantly downhill courses? What if at the beginning of the race there were a light drizzle, but at mile four the sun came out, accented by high, wispy cirrus clouds, although this coincided with a brief uphill section and sudden rise in temperature, followed at mile six by more rain – heavier this time, but on relatively level ground, followed by 19 miles of rolling hills through an increasingly unstable weather pattern, alternating between drizzly and fair (barometric pressure fluctuating wildly), followed during the final mile by a steep downhill, counter-balanced by a 33 mph headwind? I’m just asking. It could happen.

Or… should we just say that the fastest guy gets the prize?

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