World Athletics president says recent records are not entirely down to carbon fibre-plated shoes and that technological advancements are nothing new
Seb Coe says advantages given by modern-day racing shoes is an “age-old challenge” and the World Athletics president believes recent world records are as much to do with athletes being refreshed and raring to go after lockdown than the footwear.
“The challenge has always historically in our sport been the balance or trade-off between technical innovation and development and codification,” he says. “And I think we’ve got that balance about right.”
Coe was speaking the day after the global governing body for the sport amended its rules to allow shoe prototypes to be used in all races apart from the Olympics and World Athletics series events. However, these shoes must still abide by current rules relating to stack height and the number of carbon fibre plates.
“Shoe technology is with us and it always will be,” says Coe. “We have to maintain rules and codifications. And these issues have been there for a long time.
“In a way the horse bolted the stable many, many years ago. What we’ve managed to do this year, if anything, is sort of still chase it around the paddock, but we have at least been able to put a structure around this that has allowed us to start a process and start checking, for instance, some of the shoes that are out there. We’ve never been in a position to do that. We’d never checked the spec on a prototype, but now we do. So I think there is more system in there.”
Coe argues that technological advancements have always happened and that shoes in the 1960s, for example, were better than those in the 1940s and 1950s. Shoes in the 1990s and turn of the millennium were better than those in the 1970s and 1980s and so on.
“If we’re going to go back into the history of world records, we are looking at world records and permanently changing circumstances. I still marvel at somebody like Rudolf Harbig back in 1936, 1937 running 1:46 and bits on a cinder track. I still marvel at the fact that Peter Snell ran around 1:44 and bits in Wanganui on a grass track.
“I still marvel at the fact that we had people like Ron Hill running significantly under 2:10 (in the marathon) in shoes that had little more than cardboard support in them. So everywhere you look records have developed and they’ve often developed alongside technological change.”
Indeed, Hill often used to race barefoot. He even won the Inter-Counties cross-country title in 1968 without shoes (see right, No.181, with Mike Tagg).
Coe also feels the startling performances in distance running this year such as the track world records from Joshua Cheptegei and Letesenbet Gidey in Valencia in October wearing Nike Dragonfly spikes and then the jaw-dropping half-marathon and marathon times in the same city last weekend, led by adidas-sponsored Kibiwott Kandie’s 13.1-mile record, are not entirely down to the shoes.
“A lot of the very high-quality performances have in large part been inspired by athletes who were just so goddamn pleased to get back into competition,” Coe says.
Drawing on the experience of his own career, he adds: “I lost over a year in the lead-up to the ’84 Games. I know what I felt like when I got back on to the track at the beginning of ’84. Yeah, undercooked and without enough petrol. I was just so pleased.”
Coe continues: “My instinct is in large part what has happened is the athletes have had a year after they’ve actually had their bodies screaming at them mentally and physically for the last four or five years where they’ve actually come off that rollercoaster, they have mastered lockdown and this really difficult period wonderfully well and they have come back and just been so excited about being back into combat.”
Coe continues: “I do think this year has been a very different type of year. Athletes have managed to just get a little bit more fuel in their minds and in their bodies, again, some really good respite and the ability to sort of regroup.
“So I’m not sitting here thinking that this is a really dangerous period. I think these world records are still in the nature of that evolutionary change. And some of it is technology, yes. But some of it is just because the athletes have had some rest and are training really well again.”