A record is a record – or maybe not

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If a tree falls in a distant forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?

Yes, or perhaps no. The answer depends, as I have been informed by an anonymous internet authority, on the definition of sound. If sound is defined as vibrations that travel through the air, the answer is yes. But if we choose to perceive sound as the sensation we experience when our ears detect the vibrations, then the tree goes silently down.

Suppose next that an athlete achieves a world record in a bona fide competition, but unkind or plain hostile authorities refuse to publish the record-breaking result. Is the athlete still a world record holder? Beats me.

More pointedly, should a Russian pole vaulter’s season’s best result, achieved in a perfectly legitimate competition, be recognized as the 2022 outdoor season’s world leader? Over my dead body, argues the ‘furious’ Finnish Athletics Federation president.

‘Is it morally acceptable that results of Russian athletes are listed’ by World Athletics, Sami Itani recently fulminated. ‘It is a moral contradiction, a matter of principle and apparently a matter of credibility, too.’

Never mind that Itani’s outburst can at least partly be explained by the fact that a Finnish pole vaulter with her season’s best is in the second position just behind the Russian athlete. What I find truly intriguing here is the philosophical aspect of sports record. What it ultimately takes for a record to be recognized as the record? Is it enough to break the previous record, does an authority need to include it in a record list, can the same authority cancel records by refusing to publish them?

Luckily, the furious Finn is a certified intellectual whose English-language doctoral dissertation qualified for an academic publisher’s Series on Critical Management. His favorite author-philosophers are Nietzsche, Sartre, Dostoevsky and Wittgenstein, among other heavyweights. This is Dr Itani reflecting on his not-so-distant student years:

‘I have to admit that when first entering the university, my way of perceiving the world was rather black and white. I thought: “X is right, true and good, whereas Y is wrong, false and bad…” because I wasn’t able to understand the culturally bound and socially constructed nature of “truths”.’

The global community of sports scholars would surely benefit from Dr Itani’s detailed discussion of records and world-leading results. Could it be that sports records too are socially constructed concepts rather than hard facts? If so, Russian athletes can hardly be the only ones whose records masquerading as facts can be contested at any time.

Let the vigorous or, indeed, furious debate begin!

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