A Column By Len Johnson

A friend, whose views I always respect, mentioned recently that he was only “sort of happy” that Alex Rowe had equalled Ralph Doubell’s Australian record for 800 metres.

Like me, my friend was delighted that an Australian had finally run as fast as Doubell did in that glorious run in Mexico City which yielded both an Olympic gold medal and an equal world record. The medal lasts forever, the world record lasted almost five years but, as its life-span stretched into a fifth decade, it seemed the Australian record would live forever.

It still might, of course, for Rowe has only equalled the record, not broken it. Given that, however much it seems inevitable now, further improvement is not guaranteed, this prompts the intriguing thought: could Doubell’s record last 50 years. Or even longer, albeit now as a shared one.

What my friend had in mind was the difference in quality between the time-equal performances. Doubell’s 1:44.40 won him an Olympic title, Rowe’s saw him finish seventh in the Monaco Diamond League in a race in which no fewer than five men ran 1:42.

As you may recall, I have some sympathy for this argument. Last year I devoted a column to the proposition (advanced by another friend) that records should only go to those winning races.

Without endorsing the idea, I went through the Australian record list, revising it to recognise only winning performances. There was surprisingly little change. Of what change there was, some merely saw the record revised rather than change hands.

The column still provoked passionate reactions. One coach messaged that I had written many good columns (praise he had never communicated in the past, strangely enough), but this was not one of them.

Now, it is time to declare my hand. A record is just that, a statistic, a measuring tool which measures quantity. How fast? How high? How far? As such, it is an objective measure. Vagaries such as wind, conditions in general and altitude aside, records form as reliable a basis as we have for comparing performances across different countries, continents and eras.

Quality of performance is another matter altogether: an entirely more subjective affair. We can say one athlete has equalled, or bettered, another athlete when he or she equals or betters their performance. That is just comparing numbers.

It is manifestly not the same to say one athlete is the equal of another just because they have produced an equal, or superior, best performance. Many athletes have run faster than Emil Zatopek or Lasse Viren, or Mo Farah, for that matter: few of them possess an equal set of achievements.

Then there is the old records versus medals argument. A preponderance of either can make up for a lack of the other – hence Ron Clarke is one of the all-time greats despite never winning an Olympic gold medal; Mo Farah likewise despite never (yet) setting a world record.

Generally, though, medals trump records. In the column already referred to, I recalled an interview with Brendan Foster in which the great Great Britain runner gave a pithy summation of an athlete who had recently run faster than him over 10,000 metres, but he clearly did not rate as his superior.

Foster’s expurgated retort went: “I mean, (first name withheld) [copulatory expletive delted], (surname withheld)!

Enough said (or withheld).

Ralph Doubell still sits atop our list of great Australian half-milers, as he should. His was a wonderful performance from an athlete who produced world-class performances consistently from 1967 (when he was World University Games champion, a more prestigious title then that now) until 1970.

Three times Doubell ranked in Track & Fields News’s top 10 for 800 – ninth in 1967, when he beat the No.1 ranked runner to win the universities title), first in 1968, the year he won the Olympics, and sixth in 1969.

Sure it is a tougher world these days, but Alex Rowe has done none of these things (though he may yet do all of them). He has equalled Doubell’s time, but he would be the first to agree he is not Doubell’s equal.

One statistic Rowe and Jeff Riseley do have over Doubell is that they have run 1:44 more often. Each has done it twice; Doubell only did it once, as did 1982 Commonwealth Games champion Peter Bourke, the only other Australian to break 1:45.

It is a similar quantity versus quality story at 1500 metres. Eleven Australians have now run faster than Herb Elliott, but none can match his achievement of winning an Olympic final by 20 metres in a world record time.

Ralph Doubell was 23 years and eight months old when he won the Olympic race in 1968. Alex Rowe was just 11 days past his twenty-second birthday when he equalled Doubell’s record. Injury robbed him of the chance to run in the Commonwealth Games, a race which would have been to his liking.

Presumably, Rowe will get plenty of chances to build on his achievements. If he does nothing more, though, he is still the man who equalled a record which had defied all other Australians for almost half a century.

Equal to is a significant achievement in itself. Equal? That would be something else again.