Heat, track or super crampons: what causes fast times at the Olympics? | Tokyo Olympics 2020

An the US Olympic Trials in June, Sydney McLaughlin became the first woman in 400m hurdles history to set a time of less than 52 seconds. Her mark of 51.90 was a world record and she came to Tokyo favorite to win gold.

On Wednesday she did – and the 21-year-old broke her own world record in the process. McLaughlin finished in 51.46 seconds, a noticeable improvement over his time five weeks ago.

She was also not the only person to break this short-lived record. Dalilah Muhammad finished in 51.58 seconds, becoming the second woman to set a time under 52 seconds, winning silver. “Iron sharpener,” McLaughlin told reporters after the run of his rivalry with Muhammad. “Every time we get on the track it’s always something fast.”

But in Tokyo, it seems almost every time no one set foot on the track, the results were quick, the jumps far. Faster and further, certainly, than almost anything these athletes have done before. In Thursday’s events, three world records had already fallen at the Olympic Stadium – the women’s 400m hurdles, the women’s triple jump and the men’s 400m hurdles – and Canadian Damian Warner had set a world record in the 100m portion of the decathlon.

And that was with 12 finals in the running and jumping events remaining.

No Olympic Games since 1988 have seen more than three world records fall in such events, and these Games have featured a crop of athletic legends: Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith Joyner. Tokyo has a chance to match that number or even surpass it – so what gives? Is this another generation of athletics legends? Or are other factors at play?

Track

It is the theory that receives the most attention. The Olympic Stadium track opened in 2019 and has been used sparingly ever since due to pandemic restrictions. Its designer, Andrea Vallauri, spoke to the Guardian at the Games, where he believes the new surface made a much bigger difference to the results than anyone thought. “Whenever there is an Olympics, we try to improve the formulation of the material, and Tokyo was no exception,” he said.

But how much has this material been improved?

It’s impossible to say, and Vallauri said he and his company, Mondo, have focused on designing a track that will protect athletes from injury. He points out that the new technology used in the design of the track is “very much in accordance with the rules”, but acknowledged that the surface would give a “push” to the competitors. He continued, “In lab tests, we can see improvement. It’s hard to say exactly, but maybe a 1-2% advantage.

According to Vallauri, the track is only 14mm thick; for those unfamiliar with track design, it’s very slim. Mondo site boasts that its track is made of two layers of “continuous, seamless material”: a vulcanized rubber top and a bottom layer with air-filled cavities that help absorb shock. There are also rubber granules built into the top layer of the track to improve elasticity – or, in simple terms, to make the track more elastic.

Mondo is no stranger to the design of Olympic tracks; he has designed a track for every Summer Games since 1976, each time with the aim of creating a surface that will reduce times and ensure the safety of the athletes. There was a debate in Tokyo on the latter goal; several athletes claimed that the extra bounce off the track punished in a way that a harder, slower surface wouldn’t, leaving their bodies sore after races. Others believe the trail made old injuries worse.

But for now, at the finish line, there is little debate: this super advanced surface gives a boost to many athletes.

Heptathlon gold medalist Nafissatou Thiam cools off with an ice pack during sweltering heat in Tokyo. Photography: Matthias Schräder / AP

Temperature

It may be counterintuitive for anyone who has done a 10k in the middle of summer, but elite sprinters and middle distance runners have always performed better in the heat. The majority of the best times tend to occur during the summer months, from the 1,500m sprints to the show jumping events. Think about it: when it’s cold outside, it’s easier to feel stiff and squeaky, and Olympians need their muscles to be flexible and pull in a way the average human can’t imagine.

That’s the biology of it all. Here’s the weather: the hot, humid air isn’t as dense – the heat increases, after all – and presents less resistance as competitors take to the track. And it’s not like sprinters have to worry about exposure; they can rest in the shade and hydrate like crazy before their runs, which last a few seconds, minutes at most. There is a caveat about this though: the heat will almost certainly not help marathon runners, who run on Saturdays (women) and Sundays (men).

“Ninety-nine percent of sprinters like [the heat], especially Americans ”, former American sprinter Carl Lewis told the New York Times in July. Lewis has nine Olympic golds so we’ll take his word for it.

Gradual evolution of times

It’s no secret that athletes are getting faster with each passing generation, in large part thanks to improvements in training. World records are therefore made to be broken. Take the men’s 400m event, in which Wayde van Niekirk of South Africa set the permanent world record in 2016 with a time of 43.03 seconds. Until 1960, no man had run the race in less than 45 seconds, and it took until 1968 for someone to run a 400 in less than 44 seconds. Since then, 19 men have done so, and the precedent dictates that soon the record will cross another. threshold; whoever breaks van Niekirk’s record will almost certainly finish in under 43 seconds.

Crowds

One theory – the least scientific – about the assault on world records in Tokyo is that the lack of crowds has reduced the pressure on the athletes. The 68,000 seats in the Olympic stadium are empty, without the cheers and mockery that could have overwhelmed the environment if Covid-19 had not totally changed the face of these Games. Could it reduce the stress of all of this? Certainly. But at the pool last week, swimmers blamed the lack of crowds for the whole Slow down times. Take it for what it’s worth.

Shoes

After winning gold in the men’s 400m hurdles on Monday, Norway’s Karsten Warholm was not happy with everything. He had just broken his own world record, as had silver medalist Rai Benjamin, an American. (Alison dos Santos of Brazil, who won bronze, also passed three-tenths of a second.) Even in the win, Warholm had choice words over his runner-up. “He had these things in his shoes,” Warholm said, “which I hate.”

Those obnoxious things Warholm refers to are the foam and carbon fiber plates inside of Nike’s new running shoes, dubbed “super cleats”. The Norwegian hurdler and others believe they are giving some sprinters an unfair advantage. Usain Bolt is one of the skeptics. He called the super spikes “bizarre and unfair” and told The Guardian he thought he could have run the 100m in under 9.5 seconds wearing them.

Nike’s line actually made its Rio de Janeiro Marathon debut with relatively little publicity or fanfare. Now, however, the line has expanded to spikes for sprinters and middle distance runners, offering a model that complies with World Athletics’ mandate that spikes in races of 800m or less do not exceed 25mm d. ‘thickness.

In 2017, the journal Sports Medicine studied the Vaporfly road running shoes – the ones used for the marathon, not on the Tokyo track. He found that they gave runners a 4% efficiency gain; no boost has yet been found in the tips. That said, the analysis found that the toes are super elastic, releasing more energy than traditional shoes.

“I don’t see why you should put anything under a sprint shoe,” Warholm told reporters in Tokyo. “If you want padding, you can put a mattress in it. But if you put on a trampoline, I think that’s bullshit, and I think it takes credibility away from our sport.

So, do the shoes help runners who use them? Almost certainly. But it is more difficult to say if they are unfair or if it is simply an innovation. Warholm, after all, is working with Puma on his own shoe.


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