The highlight of the World Track and Field Championships, which concluded in Eugene, Oregon, on Sunday was undoubtedly Sydney McLaughlin breaking her own world record, and the rest of the field, in the 400-meter hurdles. It was a record set in a dominant fashion, the kind of performance that sports fans watch but rarely get to see.
World-class racers compete on two different planes simultaneously. They’re trying to outrun each other, but they’re also chasing ghosts and trying to run faster than anyone else before.
We’re in what some have referred to as the golden age of people running fast, with records broken across the spectrum, and more people – from elite professionals right through to high school students – running times unheard of.
One small example: At the Tokyo Olympics last summer, American Ray Benjamin ran the 400 hurdles in 46.17 seconds, which was faster than any man who ran before. Unfortunately for Benjamin, Carsten Warholm of Norway, in the lane next to him, finished 0.23 of a second faster, setting a world record that still stands.
Records are falling largely from a combination of better training and technique, and perhaps most importantly, accelerated use of high-performance athletic shoes across disciplines.
Data from World Athletics, the athletics and field governing body, shows that more world records were set last year than any year since 2008. (It should be noted that very few formal encounters have been held in 2020.) If there is another world record set in 2022, which is the largest number of world records in a non-Olympic year since 2003.
However, there are still interesting differences, especially at the top of the sport, where records fall faster.
For the set of individual running events held during this year’s World Championships, totaling 22 races, the number of records was lower than in some years in the 1980s and 1990s.
As in 2021, the rises in new world records often coincide with the Olympics. It’s the hottest event on the running calendar, its races feature the fastest stadiums in the world, and the best athletes are in the best shape of their lives.
But a deeper look at the data shows that the simple bottom line that everyone gets up to speed is patchy, and masks wide differences between different types of running.
All the world records set since the pandemic began have occurred in a small group of races that include hurdles and long-distance events. Meanwhile, in other events, no world records have fallen in decades. This is most evident in flat sprints (without hurdles) for 400m and shorter.
In 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 races, while Marietta Koch set the world record for the 400 meters while competing for East Germany.
It is worth noting that the suspicions of doping have lags behind Griffith Joyner since she made her records, although she has never been accused of doping. However, it seems clear that Koch and several other East German athletes were involved in a state-sponsored doping scheme. Mandatory out-of-competition drug testing was first introduced in 1989, and waves of athletes—particularly runners—have been detected taking abuse ever since. It is very difficult to say for sure which records are not distorted.
In the men’s 100, 200 and 400 sprints, runners set new records throughout the 1990s and 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.
However, focusing only on world records to understand if people are getting faster, risks losing the forest for the trees. In some races, he climbs steadily to the top of the field, posing new threats to records held by long-retired competitors.
For example, after undergoing a lull in the 1990s and 2000s, the women’s 200 contestants are faster than they ever were. The calm may be due to the introduction of out-of-competition doping tests, or perhaps because the Jamaican women’s sprint program did not develop into dominance until the last 15 years or so.
Griffith Joyner’s world record in the 200 meters was not broken, but last year two athletes – Jamaican Sherica Jackson and Elaine Thompson-Hera – got closer than anyone else. Given the strength of the field, it seems appropriate to say that Joyner’s record has not been broken “yet”.
There are a lot of reasons why athletes speed up. Strategies and techniques are always evolving, as is the understanding of sports science and nutrition.
However, most interpretations refer to shoes. In 2017, Nike released the Zoom Vaporfly 4%, a road running shoe with a carbon fiber plate in the midsole that acts as a catapult, returning energy more efficiently to the wearer. An analysis by the New York Times found that runners who wear these and similar shoes run 4 to 5 percent faster than runners who wear regular shoes.
Soon after exclusivity, all the competing brands came out with their own version of the shoes with carbon fiber panels in a springy midsole, and now the track pins include versions of this technology as well. Perhaps not coincidentally, there have been new world records in men’s and women’s marathons since these shoes were introduced, and many of the fastest times ever have been set in the past few years.
There are many other explanations and techniques that have been put forward as reasons for the modern fast times. Modern tracks are made of better materials that help in speed. The pulsating surface at the Tokyo Olympics has been compared to a trampoline. WaveLight technology – a system of lights that flash around the track at a specific pace – helped speed record attempts better. Fewer antiviral tests have also been conducted during the pandemic.
By definition, world records are anomalies. Attributing them to a single cause, like superhero shoes, is a foolish task. After his world record performance in Tokyo, Puma-sponsored Warholm criticized the spikes Nike shoes his rival, Benjamin, was wearing during the race. “Those things were in his shoes, and I hate them,” Warholm said.
The women’s 10,000m world record was broken twice in a few days last year, first by Dutchman Sivan Hassan and then by Letsenbet Gedi of Ethiopia. They both ran it on the same fast track in Holland equipped with the WaveLight system which is not used in most major competitions. Both races are set up somewhat for world record attempts, using track techniques and defibrillators, the runners leading the attempt for as long as possible before withdrawing.
Jedi 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 accomplishments, she only managed a bronze medal in the 10,000 at the Olympics. It’s an undoubtedly huge feat, but it also shows the difference between tailor-made world record attempts and championship races, where competition, strategy and games – and therefore slow times – are paramount.
Jedi finally got her gold medal at the world championships last week. Her time was more than a minute slower than her world record.
World records are often the result of performers or generations. Jedi holds three of them. Warholm lowered the men’s 400 hurdles world record twice in 2021. United States Sidney McLaughlin lowered the women’s 400 hurdles world record four times in just over a year. In contrast, the quality of the men’s 800 competition has barely improved since the 1990s, and the competition has not seen an outstanding performance since David Rudisha of Kenya in the early 2010s.
Maybe it’s, in a way, a bit of a relief. In a sport defined through shoes, through technology, through the specter of doping — real or imagined — the main ingredient in unfathomable performances is the same as ever: an unfathomably good athlete.