The highlight of the track and field world championships, which wrapped up in Eugene, Ore., on Sunday, was undoubtedly Sydney McLaughlin’s shattering of her own world record, and the rest of the field, in the 400-meter hurdles. It was a record set in dominant fashion, the type of performance fans watch sports for but rarely actually get to see.
World-class runners compete on two different planes simultaneously. They are trying to beat one another, but they are also chasing ghosts and trying to run faster than anyone ever has before.
We are in what some have referred to as a golden age of people running fast, with records across the spectrum being broken, and more people than ever — from elite professionals down to high schoolers — running times that would have previously been unheard of.
One small example: At last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, Rai Benjamin of the United States ran the 400 hurdles in 46.17 seconds, which was faster than any man had run before. Unfortunately for Benjamin, Karsten Warholm of Norway, in the lane next to him, had finished 0.23 of a second faster, setting a world record that still stands.
The records are falling largely from a combination of better training and technique as well as, perhaps most importantly, the accelerating use of high-performance sneakers across disciplines.
Data from World Athletics, track and field’s governing body, on official meets show 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.) If one more world record is set in 2022, it would mark the most world records in a non-Olympic year since 2003.
Yet there are still interesting variations, especially at the top of the sport, where records are falling fastest.
For the set of individual running 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, however.
As in 2021, the spikes in new world records often coincide with the Olympics. It is the most important event on the running calendar, and its races feature the fastest fields in the world, the top athletes in the best shape of their lives.
But a deeper look at the data shows that the simple shorthand conclusion that everybody is getting faster is incomplete, and obscures wide differences between different types of running.
All the world records set since the pandemic began took place in a small group of races that includes hurdles and long-distance events. In other events, meanwhile, no world records have fallen in decades. This is most apparent in the flat (no hurdles) sprints of 400 meters and shorter.
In the women’s sprints, no world records have been set since the 1980s. Florence Griffith Joyner, who died in 1998, still holds the records in the 100 and 200, while Marita Koch set the 400-meter world record while competing for East Germany.
It is worth noting that suspicions of doping have followed Griffith Joyner since she set her records, although she has never been credibly accused of doping. It seems clear, however, 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 waves of athletes — especially sprinters — have been found to have doped since. It is extremely difficult to say with certainty which records are untainted.
In the men’s sprints, the 100, 200 and 400, runners set new records throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, but only one since 2009. Why? Usain Bolt of Jamaica, perhaps the greatest sprinter ever. His world records still stand today, despite his retirement in 2017.
Focusing only on world records for an understanding of whether people are getting faster, however, risks missing the forest for the trees. In some races, the top of the field is steadily climbing, posing new threats to records held by long-retired competitors.
For example, after going through a lull in the 1990s and the 2000s, women’s 200 competitors are faster than they have ever been. The lull could be because of the introduction of out-of-competition doping tests, or perhaps because Jamaica’s women’s sprinting program did not grow into dominance until the last 15 years or so.
Griffith Joyner’s world record in the 200 has not been broken, but in the last year, two athletes — Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson and Elaine Thompson-Herah — have come closer than anyone else. Given the strength of the field, it seems appropriate to say Joyner’s record has not been broken, “yet.”
There are plenty of reasons why athletes could be getting faster. Strategies and techniques are always involved, as is the 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 plate in the midsole that acts as a catapult, more efficiently returning energy to its wearer. A New York Times analysis found that runners wearing these and similar shoes ran 4 to 5 percent faster than runners wearing an average shoe.
After a brief period of exclusivity, competing brands have all come out with their own version of a shoe with carbon-fiber plates amid a springy midsole, and now track spikes incorporate versions of this technology, too. Perhaps not coincidentally, there have been new world records in the men’s and women’s marathons since the introduction of these shoes, and many of the fastest times ever were set in the last few years.
There are many other explanations, and technologies, that have been posited as reasons for recent fast times. Modern tracks are made of better materials that help with speed. The springy surface at the Tokyo Olympics was compared to a trampoline. WaveLight technology — a system of lights that blink around the track at a specified pace — has helped better pace world-record attempts. And fewer antidoping tests were conducted during the pandemic.
By their very definition, world records are outlier events. Attributing them to one cause, like the super shoes, is a fool’s errand. After his world-record performance in Tokyo, Warholm, who is sponsored by Puma, criticized the Nike spikes his competitor, Benjamin, was wearing during the race. “He had those things in his shoes, which I hate,” Warholm said.
The women’s 10,000-meter world record was broken twice within a few days last year, first by Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands and then Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia. They both ran it 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 technologies and pacemakers, runners who lead the attempt for as long as possible before dropping out.
Gidey also set the world record in the 5,000 in late 2020, and added the half-marathon world record in late 2021. In the midst of those feats, however, she managed only a bronze medal in the 10,000 at the Olympics. A huge achievement undoubtedly, but also one that demonstrates the difference between tailor-made world-record attempts and championship races, where jostling, strategy and gamesmanship — and consequently, slower times — are paramount.
Gidey finally got her gold medal in the 10,000 at the world championships last week. Her time was more than a minute slower than her world-record run.
World records are often simply the result of a generational performer, or performers. Gidey holds 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 men’s 800 competition, in contrast, has barely improved since the 1990s, and the competition has not seen a standout performance since David Rudisha of Kenya in the early 2010s.
It is, in a way, perhaps a bit of comfort. In a sport defined by shoes, by technology, by the specter — real or imagined — of doping, the key ingredient in unfathomable performances is the same as it has always been: An unfathomably good athlete.