Decoding the mystery of tumbling track records

12 records in athletics have fallen this year due to talent, shoes and… Covid-19. Karsten Warholm broke the 400m hurdles world record by clocking 46.70 seconds at the Bislett Games in front of his home crowd in Oslo on Thursday.
Norway's Karsten Warholm celebrates after breaking the world record during the 400m hurdles men final at the Diamond League track and field meeting in Oslo. (AFP) PREMIUM
Norway's Karsten Warholm celebrates after breaking the world record during the 400m hurdles men final at the Diamond League track and field meeting in Oslo. (AFP)
Updated on Jul 02, 2021 10:30 PM IST
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ByRudraneil Sengupta

New Delhi: “It’s older than me, actually,” Karsten Warholm told reporters with a wide grin, soon after breaking the 400m hurdles world record by clocking 46.7 seconds at the Bislett Games in front of his home crowd in Oslo on Thursday.

The previous record of 46.78 was set by American Kevin Young at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Warholm was born in 1996.

“It might take another world record to win the Olympics,” said Warholm.

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Don’t bet against that. Not only because Warholm’s closest rival, Rai Benjamin, crossed the line at 46.83 seconds at the US Olympic trials on July 27—the third best time ever—but because track and field records are falling at a frenetic pace ahead of the Tokyo Games. This year alone, 12 have been broken.

That would have been usual for swimming, not athletics. Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 100m and 200m records have stood since 1988.

Marita Koch’s 400m record was set in 1985. The women’s 800m record, was set in 1983 by Jarmila Kratochvilova. But many of these have repeatedly been questioned because they were set in an era before athletics had robust anti-doping measures.

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In 2017, European track and field officials even made radical suggestions like erasing all world records set before 2005, the year track and field’s world governing body started the practice of storing blood and urine samples for possible retesting.

There is now a possibility that developments in training, better technology, tracks, nutrition — all the things that lead to improved performances — are finally catching up to what may be records set with the help of illegal substances.

This year in Tokyo, only Usain Bolt’s outlandish 100m and 200m records from 2009 can be considered safe when it comes to running events in the Olympics.

Though 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton shattering Bolt’s U20 200m mark, set 17 years ago, at the US Olympic trials by clocking in at 19.84 seconds, is a glimpse of what the future may hold. At the same event, Sydney McLaughlin became the first woman to go under 52 seconds in 400m hurdles when she clocked 51.90 seconds to set a new world mark.

Four other athletes clocked the second-best timings in the history of their events at the trials.

What’s behind this cluster of eye-popping performances?

The first reason, unarguably, is that we have a new generation of track and field stars who are some of the best that the world has ever seen.

Warholm’s record did not come out of nowhere — the 2017 and 2019 world champion has been consistently smashing his way through meet, championship and continental records for some time now.

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McLaughlin has been second best and a hair’s breadth away from her great rival and compatriot Dalilah Muhammad for more than two years. When Muhammad set the then 400m hurdles world record at the 2019 World Athletics Championship, McLaughlin was right behind her.

The second is a usual suspect — the shoes. Since Nike’s breakthrough road racing shoes, the Vaporfly with its super-responsive foam and carbon plate insert in the sole, helped in shattering long-distance records, the same technology has made its way to track spikes.

In June, Ethiopian-born Dutch athlete Sifan Hassan broke the 10,000m world record. Two days later, Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey broke the record again. In October 2020, Gidey had set the new world mark for 5000m, an hour after Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei had brought down the men’s 10,000m mark by six seconds. Hassan, Gidey and Cheptegei all wore Nike’s “Dragonfly” spikes.

To be sure, next-generation spikes are not Nike’s forte alone — the “superfoam” and carbon plate combination are now a ubiquitous feature in spikes made by all major shoe makers.

Last year, World Athletics introduced new rules for track spikes, limiting the use of plates and restricting the sole to be no thicker 30mm. But that hasn’t stopped records from tumbling.

“Derek Clayton ran a world marathon record (2:09:36 in 1967) in shoes that you wouldn’t have gone for a stroll with in your local park,” said World Athletics chief Sebastian Coe to The Guardian, defending the next-generation shoes as a natural progression of manufacturers investing in research and development.

This is not too different from swimming, where records fell more than 130 times in 2008 and 2009 after Speedo introduced a revolutionary full-body suit that reduced drag.

Swimming’s world body banned the suit, but records continued to sink even after that. That is partly because the new material used for the full-body suits became the norm for swimming wear for all elite swimmers.

It is difficult to hold on to the idea of “unfair advantage” from technology if that technology is available to everyone.

The third reason for track and field records falling frequently in 2020 and 2021 may sound absurd—it’s the pandemic.

S Murali, the father and coach of India’s Tokyo-bound long jumper Murali Sreeshankar, said that the cancellation of the track and field season worldwide last year forced them to spend more time developing strength and technique in training and working on even the “smallest muscle.”

“Everybody has done good training across the world because one year’s rest gave them enough time to prepare well and improve their performance. Everyone must have worked on their weakest points as we did,” said Murali.

Sreeshankar rewrote the long jump national record in March.

Murali pointed out that in a typical season, an athlete would compete in over 20 meets, leaving them less time in training and more susceptible to injuries.

Kenyan marathoner Justin Lagat had predicted exactly this in March 2020 in an article on RunBlogRun.com, where he wrote “…there has never been a time when runners across the world have all gone on a break from competitive running at the same time….strong performances and perhaps world records should be expected after the COVID 19…”

Cheptegei told New York Times that when news of the Olympics being postponed broke last year, he consciously changed his goal from winning a gold medal at Tokyo to setting a world record in the 5000m.

Ryan Crouser, the 2016 Rio gold medal winning shot-putter, also told NYT that not having to compete last year increased his focus in training and gave his body much needed rest, after he recorded the fourth-best throw ever in July last year.

At the US trials last month, Crouser bettered that and broke a world record that has stood for 30 years with a 23.37m throw. The old record, set by American Randy Barnes in 1990, was under a doping cloud too— Barnes was banned for life in 1998 after repeatedly failing drug tests.

(With inputs from Avishek Roy).

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