The highlight of the world track and field championships, which ended in Eugene, Ore., on Sunday, was undoubtedly Sydney McLaughlin’s world record breaking of her own and the rest of the field in the 400-meter hurdles. It was a record set in dominant fashion, the type of spectacle that sports fans watch but rarely see in real life.
World-class runners compete against each other on two different planes at the same time. They try to beat each other, but they also chase ghosts and try to run faster than anyone ever has.
We’re in what some refer to as the golden age of fast runners, with records being broken across the spectrum and more people than ever before—from elite professionals to high schoolers—running times that would have been unheard of before.
One small example: At the Tokyo Olympics last summer, American Ray Benjamin ran the 400 hurdles in 46.17 seconds, faster than any man had ever run. Unfortunately for Benjamin, Norway’s Carsten Warholm, in the lane next to him, finished 0.23 seconds faster, setting a world record that still stands.
Entries are falling mainly due to a combination of better training and technique, as well as, perhaps most importantly, the accelerated use of high-quality sneakers in the disciplines.
Figures from World Athletics, the athletics’ governing body, show that more world records were set last year than since 2008. Set in 2022, it would be the most world records in a non-Olympic year since 2003.
Even so, there are still interesting variations, especially at the top of the sport, where records fall the 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.
As in 2021, new world record peaks often coincide with the Olympics. It is the most important event in the running calendar and its races feature the fastest fields in the world, the best athletes in the best shape of their lives.
But a deeper look at the data shows that the simple shorthand conclusion that everyone gets faster is incomplete and masks wide differences between different types of running.
All world records set since the start of the pandemic have been set in a small group of races that include steeplechase and distance events. In other events, not a single world record has fallen in decades. This is most evident in the flat (no obstacles) 400m and shorter sprints.
The women’s sprint world record hasn’t been set since the 1980s. Florence Griffith Joyner, who died in 1998, still holds the records in the 100 and 200, and Marita Koch set the world record in the 400 meters while competing for East Germany.
It is worth noting that Griffith Joyner was suspected of doping after setting records, although he was never accused of doping. However, it is 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 – particularly sprinters – have been doped. It is very difficult to say with certainty which records are vulnerable.
In the men’s sprints, the 100, 200 and 400, runners set new records in the 1990s and 2000s, but only one since 2009. why Jamaican Usain Bolt, perhaps the greatest sprinter. His world records still stand today, despite his retirement in 2017.
Focusing only on world records to understand whether people are in a hurry, however, risks missing the forest for the trees. In some races, the top of the field has steadily climbed, posing new threats to the records of long-retired competitors.
For example, after going through a lull in the 1990s and 2000s, women’s 200 competitors are faster than they’ve ever been. The lull may be due to the introduction of out-of-competition doping tests, or perhaps because Jamaica’s women’s sprint program did not become dominant until the last 15 years.
Griffith Joyner’s world record in the 200 hasn’t been broken, but over the past year, two athletes — Jamaica’s Sherika Jackson and Elaine Thompson-Hera — have gotten closer than most. Given the strength of the field, it’s fair to say Joyner’s record hasn’t been broken “yet.”
There are many reasons why athletes rush. Strategies and techniques are always included, as is an understanding of sports science and nutrition.
However, most explanations point 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 and returns energy to the wearer more efficiently. A New York Times analysis found that runners who wore these and similar shoes ran 4-5 percent faster than the average shoe.
After a brief period of exclusivity, competing brands have all released their own version of the shoe with carbon fiber plates on top of a springy midsole, and now track tops incorporate versions of this technology as well. Perhaps not coincidentally, since the introduction of these shoes, new world records have been set in men’s and women’s marathons, and the fastest times have been recorded in the last few years.
There are many other explanations and technologies that have been suggested as the reason for the recent fast times. Modern tracks are made of better materials that help speed. At the Tokyo Olympics, the spring surface was compared to a trampoline. WaveLight technology – a lighting system that flashes across the track at a set pace – has helped speed world record attempts. And fewer anti-doping tests were conducted during the pandemic.
According to their own definition, world records are more outstanding events. Attributing them to one cause, like Super Shoes, is a fool’s errand. After his world-record performance in Tokyo, Warholm, who is sponsored by Puma, criticized the Nike spikes that his rival, Benjamin, was wearing during the race. “He had things in his shoes that I hate,” Warholm said.
The women’s 10,000m world record was broken twice in a matter of days last year, first by Holland’s Sifan Hassan and then by Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidei. The two ran it on the same fast track in the Netherlands, which was equipped with a WaveLight system not used in major competitions. Both races are more or less set up for world record attempts, using track technology and pacemakers, with runners leading the attempt for as long as possible before dropping out.
Gidey also set the world record in the 5000 at the end of 2020 and added the half marathon world record at the end of 2021. Despite these achievements, however, he only won a bronze medal in the 10,000 at the Olympics. A huge achievement to be sure, but also one that shows the difference between custom world record attempts and championship races, where running, strategy and gamesmanship – and therefore slow times – are paramount.
Gidey finally won his gold medal in the 10,000 at the world championships last week. His time was over a minute slower than his world record.
World records are often just the result of a generational performer, or performers. Guide holds three of them. Warholm has twice held the men’s 400 hurdles world record in 2021. Sydney McLaughlin has broken the US women’s 400 hurdles world record four times in just one year. The quality of the men’s 800 competition, by contrast, has barely improved since the 1990s and the event has not had a standout performance since Kenya’s David Rudisha in the early 2010s.
That, in a way, may be a bit of comfort. In a sport defined by shoes, technology, the specter of doping – real or imagined – the key ingredient to unrecognizable performances is the same as it always has been: an incredibly good athlete.