Earlier this week, the European Athletics Association passed a resolution for a wholesale reassessment of world records, just days before we are due to get a staged manipulation of a potential sub-two hour marathon. The implication of the former move, welcomed by IAAF President Seb Coe, is that too many of the current world marks were drugs-aided. Yet the marathon ‘exhibition’ as Lord Seb terms it, mounted by Nike on the motoring circuit at Monza, Italy affords an opportunity to look back at the chequered history of training/competition aids, which do not, for once concentrate on drugs.
In the century and a half of organised track and field athletics better tracks, lighter, tougher shoes, harder training and more sophisticated implements and techniques have all conspired to improve performances to a level that would have once seemed impossible.
Spiked shoes, like studded football boots were already in vogue in the mid-19th century, and an early pioneer of improvement was the British cobbler JW Foster whose range of shoes from the late 1800s onwards culminated in the then sophisticated ‘spike’ in which Harold ‘Chariots of Fire’ Abrahams won the Olympic 100 metres title in Paris 1924. The ensuing publicity ensured lots of shoe sales for Mr Foster. Sound familiar?
The spike of course was developed for the loose cinder tracks which prevailed for a century until the introduction of rubberised surfaces in the late 1960s. Although immediately prior to that, in between his Olympic 800 metres gold in Rome 1960 and his 800/1500m Olympic double in Tokyo 1964, Peter Snell set 880y/800m/Mile world records on grass at home in New Zealand.
A half dozen years later, there were still only a few dozen rubberised tracks, one of which was specially laid (to simulate the surface and altitude of Mexico City) at Echo Summit, California, venue for the US Olympic Trials 1968. What was also new at Echo Summit was the brush spike. Created by Puma, the shoes had 68 tiny spikes in rows of between six and ten. Adidas had a similar shoe. One reason floated for the hasty ban on the ‘brush’ was the potentially deleterious effect on the new track surfaces.
But since the maximum number of spikes permitted at the time was six (now eight), they were banned anyway, but not before several ‘world records’ had been set prior to and at those Olympic Trials, viz, John Carlos at 200m (19.7sec), Vince Mathews (44.4sec) then Lee Evans (44.0sec) in the 400m. But Larry James’ 44.1sec was awarded a world record plaque, for second place behind Evans at the Trials, because James used traditional spikes. For the record, such incongruities were nothing new; Bob Tisdall of Ireland won the 1928 Olympic 400mH title in 51.7sec; but second placer Glenn Hardin of the US was given the WR of 52.0sec, because Tisdall had knocked down the last hurdle (against the rules for WRs at the time).
A decade or more before Echo Summit, the fifties seems to have been a fertile era for experimentation. I did suggest that this piece wasn’t going to be about drugs, but the 1950s was when that form of performance enhancing began. Anabolic steroids had been synthesised pre-World War II, and were later used to restore wasted bone and muscle of concentration camp victims. But it wasn’t long before the gym and muscle beach dudes twigged its alternative possibilities. For example, 1956 Olympic hammer champion, Hal Connolly of the USA testified before a US Senate committee in 1973 that he had first used steroids in the mid-1950s. The rest is history…
Concurrent with Connolly’s Olympic title was one of the most intriguing (and dangerous) developments in what became known as the ‘Spanish Style’ of throwing the javelin. While Egil Danielsen of Norway won the Olympic title in Melbourne 1956 with a world record of 85.71m, a veteran Basque thrower named Felix Erausquin was throwing similar distances with a spin style that he had based upon a local parallel event in which he was also a champion – Barra Vasca, literally Basque (iron) Bar.
Multiple Spanish champion in the shot, discus and javelin from the 1930s to the early 1940s, Erausquin was 48 when he came up with this initiative. One of his younger acolytes Miguel de la Quadra Salcedo reached an incredible distance of 112 metres with the estilo erausquin before it was banned by the IAAF for being too dangerous. This video suggests that the IAAF was probably right in this case.
Thirty years after Erausquin, the IAAF had to lurch into action over the javelin again. Moves were already afoot to change the javelin spec, since flat landings (not making a mark) bedevilled the event. Things were accelerated following East German Uwe Hohn’s massive world record of 104.80m. Since this threatened the well-being of crowds at the far end of the stadium, the centre of gravity on the spear was moved forward, such that the javelin would dip earlier, thus restricting the distance. The peerless Czech, Jan Železný (three Olympic golds, one silver) responded by throwing 98.48m a decade later; but this has not been remotely threatened since then.
In 1957, the appropriately named (from an Anglo point of view) Yuri Stepanov gate-crashed close to a half-century of US high jump domination when he broke the world record with 2.16 metres in one of those dual city meets – in this case Leningrad-Helsinki – which were popular in the 1950s. A photo of his feat revealed that he was wearing a platform shoe which, while not banned, was much criticised and, as a consequence, the IAAF restricted such ‘pillows’ to 12mms.
One of the most sensational developmental improvements in track and field athletics also came in the high jump – the Fosbury ‘flop’; largely since it seemed counter-intuitive. I mean to say, jumping backwards over the bar? You what? Appropriately, its creator Dick Fosbury won the Olympic title in Mexico 1968; and apart from the occasional recalcitrant decathlete, and as a relaxed way of warming up with the straddle, the flop is now universal.
In contrast to the bush spike and Spanish/Basque javelin style, fibreglass vaulting poles were accepted almost immediately; and transformed the event as much as aluminium had done when it replaced bamboo during WWII. Such was the rapidity of improvement that 1960 Olympic champion, Don Bragg, the last of the aluminium/steel pole vaulters complained that where once he was world record holder, shortly after fibreglass was introduced, he wasn’t even the highest vaulter in his home town of Penns Grove, NJ (pop around 5000).
By a similar token, the introduction of the ‘glide’, followed by the spin-turn by Parry O’Brien in the shot, eventually leading to the increasing numbers of turns in the hammer made eminent sense, since the increased torque was always going to increase distances. On the training front, Emil Zàtopek’s* scarcely credible weekly mileage in the late 1940s and early 1950s laid the template for generations of distance runners to bring the 10,000 metres down from pre-Zata levels of 30mins+ to the mid-26mins nowadays; and the marathon from around 2hr 20mins to sub-2.03.
All of which leads us to this week’s ‘developments’. Both Nike and Adidas have sub-two projects, but Nike has stolen a march with their assault this Saturday – May 6 being the anniversary of the most celebrated broken barrier, the first sub-four Mile, in 1954. Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, multiple half-marathon and world cross champ, Zersenay Tadesse of Eritrea, and leading young Ethiopian marathoner Lelisa Desisa will be paced around the smooth, sheltered F1 circuit at Monza by at least a half dozen groups of pacemakers, including veteran Kenyan born America, Bernard Lagat. Shod in Nike’s newest, and possibly unacceptable (under IAAF rules) spring-heeled shoe, fed with special drinks, and with pacemakers dropping in and out where required, the objective is to get Kipchoge, the likeliest of the trio to survive, as close to two hours as possible.
I dare say that those of you who have read my perorations against pace-making in the past – principally with respect to the first sub-four – will be heartily bored with them by now. So suffice to say, I am no fan. However, for the record, see this.
Further, I attracted much criticism for my view, expressed in the wake of the hurricane aided 2.03.02 by Geoffrey Mutai in Boston 2011, when I suggested that the term ‘marathon’ should be dropped from the title of that particular event, since the downhill course does not qualify for record purposes. However, all of that notwithstanding, smarter people than me, viz Ross Tucker at the Science of Sport has opined, based on voluminous information that the best Kipchoge can do is 2hr 2mins, which is pretty much the time that I would estimate, based on little more than half a century of almost daily running myself, and watching elite athletics either in stadia around the world or on television.
Interviewed recently by my colleague Franco Fava for Corriere della Sera, IAAF President Seb Coe welcomed the Monza event as an ‘exhibition,’ saying that the IAAF was not against it, while emphasising that it would not be considered for record purposes. ‘We analysed the features of Nike Breaking2 attempt,’ said Coe, ‘and concluded that, since not all Competition Rules will be respected, any world record achieved in it can’t be ratified’.
In a different register, the world record ‘modification’ proposed by the EAA on Monday is likely to have much greater resonance. A set of conditions is to be applied which requires any athlete setting a record since 2005 and in the future to be or have been subject to regular dope tests for a period previous, and for the samples to be available for re-testing for ten years after.
The proposal has already been roundly criticized in the UK by current and former world record holders, Paula Radcliffe, Jonathan Edwards and Steve Cram (whose marks would be expunged) from the perspective that it implies that they were cheating when they set their world records.
Most of this acrimony might have been avoided, had the IAAF accepted a recommendation from its own media committee (of which I was once a dissenting member), led by Gianni Merlo, back at the turn of the century, to make 2000 the year zero, ie start all world records again. New century, new beginning! Unfortunately the IAAF was mired in a system or substance from which it is still trying to extricate itself.
Watch this space!
* Read about Zàtopek’s extraordinary life and career in my book QUICKSILVER, The Mercurial Emil Zàtopek – http://www.globerunner.org/books/