The highlight of the world championships in athletics, which concluded in Eugene, Oregon, on Sunday, was undoubtedly Sydney McLaughlin, who broke his own world record and the rest of the field in the 400m hurdles. It was a dominantly established record, the kind of performance sports fans watch but rarely get to see.
World class racers compete on two different planes simultaneously. They try to beat each other, but they also chase ghosts and try to run faster than anyone else.
We are in what some have called a golden age of fast runners, with records being broken across the spectrum and more people than ever before, from elite professionals to high school students, running times that were previously unheard of.
One small example: At the Tokyo Olympics last summer, Rai Benjamin of the United States ran the 400 hurdles in 46.17 seconds, which was faster than any man who had ever run before. Unfortunately for Benjamin, Norway’s Karsten Warholm, in the lane next to him, had finished 0.23 seconds faster, setting a world record that still stands.
Records are falling largely due to a combination of better training and technique, as well as, perhaps most importantly, the accelerated use of high-performance sneakers across all disciplines.
Data from World Athletics, the governing body for athletics, on official meets shows that more world records were set last year than in any year since 2008. (It should be noted that very few official meets were held in 2020.) is set in 2022, it would mark the most world records in a non-Olympic year since 2003.
However, there are still interesting variations, especially at the top of the sport, where records fall faster.
However, for the set of individual race events held during this year’s world championships, a total of 22 races, the number of records set was still lower than in some years in the 1980s and 1990s.
As in 2021, the peaks in new world records often coincide with the Olympics. It is the biggest event on the racing calendar, and its races feature the fastest entrants in the world, top athletes in the best shape of their lives.
But a deeper look at the data shows that the simple shorthand conclusion that everyone is getting faster is incomplete and obscures the big differences between different types of running.
All of the world records set since the pandemic began have come in a small group of races that includes hurdles and long-distance events. In other events, meanwhile, world records haven’t been dropped in decades. This is most evident in flat (no obstacles) sprints of 400 meters and shorter.
In women’s sprinting, no world records have been set since the 1980s. Florence Griffith Joyner, who died in 1998, still holds the records in the 100m and 200m, while Marita Koch set the 400m world record. while competing for East Germany.
It is worth noting that doping suspicions have followed Griffith Joyner since she set her records, although she has never been credibly accused of doping. However, it seems clear that Koch and many other East German athletes participated in a state-sponsored doping scheme. Mandatory out-of-competition drug testing was first introduced in 1989, and since then waves of athletes, especially sprinters, have been found to be doping. It is extremely difficult to say with certainty which records are not contaminated.
In the men’s sprints, the 100, 200 and 400, runners set new records throughout the 1990s and 2000s, but only one since 2009. Why? Usain Bolt from Jamaica, perhaps the greatest sprinter of all time. His world records still stand today, despite his retirement in 2017.
Focusing only on world records to understand if people are getting faster, however, risks losing the forest for the trees. In some races, the top of the field is steadily rising, posing new threats to records held by long-retired competitors.
For example, after going through a hiatus in the 1990s and 2000s, women’s 200m competitors are faster than ever. The pause could be due to the introduction of out-of-competition doping tests, or perhaps because Jamaica’s women’s sprinting program did not become mainstream until the last 15 years or so.
Griffith Joyner’s world record in the 200 meters has not been broken, but in the past year, two athletes, Shericka Jackson and Elaine Thompson-Herah of Jamaica, have come closer than anyone else. Given the strength of the field, it seems appropriate to say that Joyner’s record hasn’t been broken “yet.”
There are many reasons why athletes might be faster. Strategies and techniques are always evolving, as is understanding of sports science and nutrition.
Most explanations, however, point to the shoes. In 2017, Nike released its Zoom Vaporfly 4%, a road running shoe with a carbon fiber midsole plate that acts like a catapult, returning energy more efficiently to the wearer. A New York Times analysis found that runners wearing these and similar shoes run 4 to 5 percent faster than runners wearing an average shoe.
After a brief period of exclusivity, all competing brands have come up with their own version of a shoe with carbon fiber plates set in the middle of a springy midsole, and now spikes also feature versions of this technology. It is perhaps no coincidence that new world records have been set in men’s and women’s marathons since the introduction of these shoes, with many of the fastest times set in recent years.
There are many other explanations and technologies that have been posited as reasons for the recent fast times. Modern tracks are made of better materials that help with speed. The elastic surface of the Tokyo Olympics was compared to a trampoline. WaveLight technology – a system of lights that flash around the track at a specific rate – has helped improve the pace of world record attempts. And fewer drug tests were conducted during the pandemic.
By their very definition, world records are outlier events. Attributing them to a single cause, like super shoes, is nonsense. After his world-record performance in Tokyo, the Puma-sponsored Warholm criticized the Nike cleats his competitor Benjamin wore during the race. “He had these things in his shoes, which I hate,” Warholm said.
The women’s 10,000m world record was broken twice in a few days last year, first by Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands and then by Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia. Both raced on the same fast track in the Netherlands equipped with the WaveLight system that is not used in most major competitions. Both races were more or less set up for world record attempts, using track and pacer technologies, runners leading the attempt for as long as possible before giving up.
Gidey also set the world record in the 5,000 at the end of 2020 and added the half marathon world record at the end of 2021. In the midst of those feats, however, he only managed a bronze medal in the 10,000 at the Olympics. Certainly a great achievement, but also one that demonstrates the difference between bespoke world record attempts and championship racing, where jostling, strategy and play – and consequently slower times – are paramount. .
Gidey finally got his gold medal in the 10,000 meters at the world championships last week. His time was more than a minute slower than his world record.
World records are often simply the result of a generational artist or artists. Gidey has three of them. Warholm lowered the men’s 400 hurdles world record twice in 2021. Sydney McLaughlin of the United States has lowered the women’s 400 hurdles world record four times in just over a year. The quality of the men’s 800m meet, by contrast, has hardly improved since the 1990s, and the meet has not had an outstanding performance since Kenya’s David Rudisha in the early 2010s.
It is, in a way, perhaps a little consolation. In a sport defined by shoes, by technology, by the real or imagined specter of doping, the key ingredient in unfathomable performances is the same as always: an unfathomably good athlete.