Hurdles world records are getting smashed in Tokyo, but not because of the track or the spikes

TOKYO — After nearly every race here, a member of the European press has asked top medal candidates or medalists a variation on same question: They're saying this is such a fast track — is it like running on air?

"Well I've never run on air before," Norwegian long hurdler Karsten Warholm quipped.

The surface at Tokyo Olympic Stadium was manufactured and installed by Italian company Mondo, which has the contract to create Olympic tracks. It spent three years developing the track for Tokyo, trying different types of rubber, asking runners to test the multiple versions it came up with. The end result was a surface that returns energy to athletes and has some shock absorption to it.

But is the surface, as is seemingly being intimated, the reason some athletes are running so fast?

So far, two world records have been set on the track, but both were by the same people who already had the record in their event. On Tuesday, Warholm shattered the 400-meter hurdles record he'd claimed on July 1, and on Wednesday Sydney McLaughlin laid waste to the 400 hurdles record she'd first broken in June.

Warholm ran largely by himself in that prior race, winning by seven-tenths of a second, and it was his first hurdles race of 2021. It only stands to reason that facing his biggest challenger, American Rai Benjamin, the second-fastest man ever in the event, Warholm would run faster because he was being pushed by his closest contemporary.

McLaughlin and her fellow American, Dalilah Muhammad, had set and re-set the world record the previous three times they faced off, and knowing the other was working for her own edge made both women better.

"It's really iron sharpening iron," McLaughlin said. "You need somebody who's going to push you to be your best and I think that's what we do so well."

Gold medalist Sydney McLaughlin (right) and silver medalist Dalilah Muhammad didn't shatter the world record in the 400 hurdles thanks solely to the track or their spikes. (REUTERS/Hannah Mckay)
Gold medalist Sydney McLaughlin (right) and silver medalist Dalilah Muhammad didn't shatter the world record in the 400 hurdles thanks solely to the track or their spikes. (REUTERS/Hannah Mckay)

There have been Olympic records set by Elaine Thompson-Herah in the women's 100 and Jasmine Camacho-Quinn in the 100 hurdles, to go along with numerous area records, national records and lifetime bests.

Multiple things beyond the track itself have contributed to it ... first and foremost that this is the Olympics. Much like professional athletes in other sports, elite track and field athletes have access to teams of people — coaches, trainers, sports physiologists, nutritionists, sports psychologists — all of whom carefully construct plans and schedules aimed at making sure runners are in peak physical condition for this meet and will be able to run their best at it.

If, as Mondo's Andrea Vallauri says, the track surface is giving back 2 percent to runners, why were the times for the men's 10,000 meters, the longest race of the meet, not faster? Winner Selemon Barega of Ethiopia ran almost 90 seconds, or over 3 seconds per lap over the 25-lap race, slower than the current world record. And the man that holds that record, Uganda's Joshua Cheptegei, was in the race and finished second.

The surface certainly didn't do anything to help American Trayvon Bromell. Bromell came to Tokyo as the gold medal favorite in the 100, having run the two fastest times in the year (9.77 and 9.80 seconds) and didn't even make the final, running 10.05 seconds in his first-round heat and 10 flat in his semifinal.

The hot temperatures in Tokyo, which can be a plus for sprinters but also a drain for long-distance runners, could be playing a factor — though again, it's unclear how much.

There's also been talk of the new state-of-the-art Nike racing spikes worn by some runners, which feature a carbon-fiber plate but also thin air channels or responsive foam. Benjamin wore the spikes with air channels, and without mentioning his rival by name, Warholm called them into question.

"I don’t see why you should put anything beneath a sprinting shoe," he said. "In the middle distance, I can understand it because of the cushioning. If you want cushioning, you can put a mattress there. But if you put a trampoline I think it’s bulls—t, and I think it takes credibility away from our sport."

Warholm's spikes, the creation of which he and his coach oversaw, are a partnership between Puma and Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 team. He had no issue with his own shoes.

Benjamin wanted the athletes to get the credit for their performances.

"[The track] does have a lot of give, don’t get me wrong, it’s a phenomenal track. People say it’s the track, it’s shoes. I’ll wear different shoes and still run fast," he said. "It doesn’t really matter, in all honesty. There’s some efficiency in the shoe, don’t get me wrong, and it’s nice to have a good track, but no one in history is going to go out there and do what we just did just now, ever."

Another question worth considering: Even if the track is contributing in some way to faster times, does it matter? Technology and improvements are made all the time. Were track and field athletes supposed to run on cinders and jump into sawdust forever?

It feels like an attempt to discredit what these athletes have done and are doing. Outside of men's 100 winner Lamont Marcell Jacobs, there haven't been any out-of-nowhere winners to this point; almost all of the athletes who came into Tokyo considered to be the best in their events have shown why that was the case.

The best thing about track and field is that athletes at any level can see their improvement in black and white. Their times get faster, their throws farther, their jumps higher or farther. Everyone here is running on the same track, using the same runways, and if there is an advantage to be had from the surface, they each have it.

Let's just appreciate the greatness.

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