Heat, the track or super spikes: what is causing fast times at the Olympics?

World records have tumbled at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo. Are athletes simply getting better or are other factors at play?

At the US Olympic trials in June, Sydney McLaughlin became the first woman in the history of the 400m hurdles to post a time under 52 seconds. Her mark of 51.90 was a world record, and she arrived in Tokyo a 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 notable improvement upon her time from five weeks ago.

She also wasn’t the only person to break that short-lived record. Dalilah Muhammad finished in 51.58 seconds, becoming the second woman to post a sub-52 second time, taking silver. “Iron sharpening iron,” McLaughlin told reporters after the race of her rivalry with Muhammad. “Every time we step on the track, it’s always something fast.”

But in Tokyo, it’s seemed that every time almost anyone has stepped on the track, the results have been fast, the jumps far. Faster and farther, certainly, than almost anything these athletes have done previously. Through Thursday’s events, three world records had already fallen at Olympic Stadium – the women’s 400m hurdles, the women’s triple jump and the men’s 400m hurdles – and Canada’s Damian Warner had posted a world best in the 100m portion of the decathlon.

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

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

The track

This is the theory that is getting the most attention. The track at Olympic Stadium opened in 2019 and has been sparingly used since due to pandemic restrictions. Its designer, Andrea Vallauri, spoke to the Guardian at the Games, where he believes the new surface has made a far greater difference to results than anyone realized. “Every time there is an Olympic Games, we try to improve the formulation of the material, and Tokyo has been no different,” he said.

But just how much improvement has this material wrought?

That’s impossible to say, and Vallauri said he and his company, Mondo, focused on designing a track that would protect athletes from injury. He points out that the new technology used in the track’s design is “completely within the rules,” but acknowledged the surface would give competitors a “push.” He continued: “In lab testing we can see the improvement. It is difficult to say exactly, but maybe a 1-2% advantage.”

According to Vallauri, the track is only 14mm thick; for those not versed in track design, that’s very thin. Mondo’s website boasts that its track is made of two layers of “continuous, seamless material”: a vulcanized rubber top and a lower layer with air-filled cavities that help with shock absorption. There are also rubber granules embedded in the top layer of the track to improve elasticity – or, in layman’s terms, to make the track springier.

Mondo is no stranger to designing Olympic tracks; it has engineered a track for each summer Games since 1976, each time aiming to create a surface that will lower times and keep athletes safe. There has been some debate in Tokyo about the latter objective; several athletes have claimed the additional bounce of the track is punishing in ways a harder, slower surface would not be, leaving their bodies sore in the aftermath of races. Others believe the track aggravated old injuries.

But in the moment, at the finish line, there’s little debate: this super-advanced surface is giving many athletes a push.

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


This may be counterintuitive to anyone who has ever slogged through a 10k in the middle of summer, but elite sprinters and middle distance runners have historically performed better in the heat. The majority of top times tend to come in the summer months, in everything from sprints to the 1500m to jumping events. Think about it: when it’s cold outside, it’s easier to feel stiff and creaky, and Olympians need their muscles limber and firing in ways the average human can’t fathom.

That’s the biology of it all. Here’s the meteorology: hot, humid air isn’t as dense – heat rises, after all – and presents less resistance as competitors bolt down the track. And it’s not as if sprinters need to worry about exposure; they can rest in the shade and hydrate like crazy before their races, which last a matter of seconds, minutes at most. There’s one caveat to this, though: The heat almost certainly won’t help the marathoners, who race on Saturday (women) and Sunday (men).

“Ninety-nine percent of sprinters love [the heat], especially Americans,” former US 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 get faster with every passing generation, thanks in large part to improvements in training. World records, then, are made to be broken. Consider the men’s 400m event, in which Wayde van Niekirk of South Africa set the standing 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 sub-44 second 400. Since then, 19 men have done so, and precedent dictates that soon the record will cross another threshold; whoever tops van Niekirk’s record will almost certainly finish in less than 43 seconds.


One theory – the least scientific – about Tokyo’s onslaught of world records is that the lack of a crowd has reduced pressure on athletes. The 68,000 seats at Olympic Stadium are empty, without the cheers and jeers that might’ve supercharged the environment if Covid-19 hadn’t totally changed the face of these Games. Could that reduce the stress of it all? Certainly. But at the pool last week, swimmers blamed the lack of crowds for overall slower times. Take that for what it’s worth.


After he won gold in the men’s 400m hurdles Monday, Norway’s Karsten Warholm wasn’t happy about everything. He had just broken his own world record – but so had silver medalist Rai Benjamin, an American. (Alison dos Santos of Brazil, who took bronze, came within three-tenths of a second of topping the mark, too.) Even in victory, Warholm had choice words about his runner-up. “He had those things in his shoes,” Warholm said, “which I hate.”

Those hateful things Warholm refers to are the foam and carbon fiber plates inside Nike’s new racing shoes, nicknamed “super spikes.” The Norwegian hurdler and others believe they’re giving certain sprinters an unfair advantage. Usain Bolt is among the doubters. He has called super spikes “weird and unfair” and told the Guardian he believes he could have run the 100m in under 9.5sec wearing them.

Nike’s line actually debuted at the marathon in Rio de Janeiro to relatively little publicity or fanfare. Now, though, the line has expanded to spikes for sprinters and middle distance runners, offering a model compliant with the World Athletics mandate that spikes in races 800m or shorter be no thicker than 25mm.

In 2017, the journal Sports Medicine studied the Vaporfly road-racing shoes – the ones used in the marathon, not on the track in Tokyo. It found they gave runners a 4% efficiency boost; no such boost has yet been found in the spikes. That said, analysis has found that the spikes are super springy, returning more energy than traditional shoes.

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

So are the shoes helping runners who use them? Almost certainly. But it’s harder to say if they’re unfair or just an innovation. Warholm, after all, is working with Puma on his own shoe.


Joan Niesen

The GuardianTramp

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