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FEATURE-Olympics-Athletics-Records set to tumble but how do we know what's great any more?

Wed 28th July, 2021 2:00am
By Mitch Phillips
    TOKYO, July 28 (Reuters) - A stack of Olympic and possibly
world records will be broken on the Tokyo track over the next
two weeks but, such has been the incredible impact of shoe
technology on performance lately, that nobody quite knows what
constitutes great any more.
    It used to be the case the world records on the road and
track were edged down by fractions of a second, often untouched
for years at a time, before the next generation shaved a couple
of hundredths and were rightly feted.
    However, since the arrival of thick-soled, carbon-plated
road shoes, and now their track spike equivalent, long-standing
records set by the sport's all-time greats are being
obliterated, and then obliterated again, to leave historical
comparisons difficult, if not impossible.
    Any lingering questions about how much difference Nike's
Alphafly shoes made disappeared in one weekend in October, 2019
when Eliud Kipchoge wore them to run the first, unofficial,
sub-two hour marathon and fellow Kenyan Brigid Kosgei lopped
four minutes off her personal best to break Paula Radcliffe’s
16-year-old women’s marathon record by over a minute.
    On the roads, 17 of the 20 fastest men's marathon times in
history have been set in the last five years and,
coincidentally, it is the same case for women over the distance.
    Nobody had gone under 58 minutes for the half marathon until
last December when four men did in the same race - with winner
Kibiwott Kandie clocking an amazing 57 minutes 32 seconds in his
Adidas Adios Pro carbon shoes.
    As that technology filtered into track spikes, Uganda's
Joshua Cheptegei destroyed the early 2000s world records of
all-time-great Kenenisa Bekele in the 5,000m and 10,000m.
    Last month Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan took a huge 10 seconds
off the 10,000m world record but even that giant leap lasted all
of two days as Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey beat it by another
five seconds.
     The effect is not being felt only over long distances,
either. Elliot Giles smashed Sebastian Coe's British indoor 800m
record this year as his 1:43.62 became the second-fastest of all
time. 
    Jamie Webb, who also bettered Coe's mark in normal spikes in
the same race, explained how he was "stunned" when he first
tried the new technology.
    "You feel a sense of propulsion when you run in them and
they allow you to run with more efficiency and stay on at the
end of a race," he told The Times.
    "I stopped using the shoes because they made it difficult to
measure myself against previous training sessions. But I will
use them in races as I will be putting myself at a disadvantage
if I don't."
    
    ELITE LEVEL
    The impact is not being seen only at elite level. In the six
years between 2013 and 2019 a total of five athletes went under
29 minutes in America's National Collegiate Championships 10,000
metres. In this year's race the first 10 were sub-29, all of
them inside the 42-year-old meeting record.
    American students Cooper Teare and Cole both ran 3.50 for
the mile in a February indoor race and found themselves
improbably catapulted into the top 10 of all time, slipping in
just ahead of Olympic champion Matt Centrowitz and former world
record holder Noureddine Morceli.
    World Athletics (WA), the sport's governing body, finally
got around to introducing limits to the thickness of foam and
number of plates allowed in road shoes and spikes at the end of
2020. Discussions with biomechanical experts and industry
representatives are continuing with a view to further
regulation.
    But with the shoe companies, particularly Nike, providing
the vast majority of the sport's funding and WA saying they are
seeking a compromise that "does not stifle innovation" the genie
is seemingly out of the bottle for good.
    "It concerns me greatly that the sport is going to lose
context with its all-time great performances, including the 800m
world record," said James Templeton, agent of Kenyan David
Rudisha, who set that mark in one of the great races of the 2012
Olympics.
    Some frustrated observers are demanding a "year zero"
approach, as was introduced when changes to the design of
javelins meant that records began anew with the refined
implement but for now, fans are going be left struggling to
comprehend what they are watching.
    "Forget what you think you know," said Geoff Burns, a
biomechanics expert at the University of Michigan. "We just have
to stop getting excited about fast times, because everything has
changed."
    
        

    

 (Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)
 ((mitch.phillips@thomsonreuters.com; 07990 568843;))
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