The Economist explains
ELLIOT GILES, a previously unheralded British middle-distance runner, won the men’s 800-metres race at an event in Poland last month. He did so in style. His time—one minute, 43.63 seconds—was the second-fastest indoor 800 metres in history. He took more than a second off the British record, which had stood for almost 40 years. Mr Giles’s feat is the latest in a succession of impressive performances in track athletics. In February 2020 a Scottish 800-metre runner, Jemma Reekie, cropped four seconds off her personal best and ran the 11th-fastest indoor time ever. In October an Ethiopian, Letesenbet Gibey, took more than four seconds off the women’s world record in the 5,000 metres. An hour later a Ugandan, Joshua Cheptegei, reduced the men’s 10,000-metre record by six seconds. What do all of these athletes have in common? They were wearing next-generation running shoes.
Shoemakers, most notably Nike, but also Adidas, Asics and New Balance, have chased records for years. Nike designed an event in 2017 in which long-distance athletes attempted to run a marathon in under two hours using the company’s Vaporfly shoes. (None succeeded, although Eliud Kipchoge, the reigning Olympic champion, eventually did so at an unofficial event in 2019.) The Vaporflys have since been shown to improve runners’ efficiency by around 4%, which translates into a reduction in marathon times for elite male runners of around 90 seconds. These savings are generated through a soft and springy foam in the sole and a carbon-fibre plate, which can preserve runners’ energy and reduce the loads on their bodies (scientists are still unsure exactly how these elements combine, and shoemakers are cagey with the details.) With clear evidence that road athletes are running faster, manufacturers have now turned their attention to spikes for the track.
A big part of the appeal of athletics is the prospect of tumbling records. But until recently, the pace of record-breaking seemed to be slowing down. In the 1960s, seven men set new world records over 400 metres, reducing the time by almost 1.5 seconds over the decade. In the subsequent 50 years, the record has been broken only three times and by a cumulative 0.8 seconds. A similar stagnation is true in women’s events: the world records in the 100, 200, 400 and 800 metres have all stood since the 1980s. (At the time the sport was dogged by doping accusations; the record-holders have denied cheating.) Without big stars who can improve on their predecessors, such as Usain Bolt, athletics struggles to excite anyone except existing fans.
The recent spate of records may seem a good thing, but it raises awkward questions for World Athletics, the body that regulates elite running. Short of performance-enhancing drugs, technological progress has always been permitted in the sport, from replacing cinder tracks with synthetic rubber to using digital watches to record times precisely. Yet it will be keen to avoid the kind of farce seen in swimming in 2008-09, when more than 100 world records were set in 18 months after advanced polyurethane suits were permitted. Swimming’s governing body subsequently banned the suits, but many of the tainted records still stand.
The president of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe, whose British indoor record was broken by Mr Giles, has said the sport “should not be in the business of suffocating innovation”. Guidelines introduced last year permit almost all of the latest models of shoe to be used in major competitions. Mr Giles, for his part, calls any suggestion that his performance was down to fancy footwear an insult. Yet if one firm’s shoes emerge as noticeably faster than the rest, athletes sponsored by other manufacturers will be at a disadvantage. With an Olympic games planned this year, the clock is ticking.