Ian O’Riordan: Eyebrows raised as world records tumble in quick succession
Impossible not to consider super spikes and new wavelength pace-setting technology
Letesenbet Gidey: the Ethiopian broke the women’s 10,000-metre world record, just two days after Sifan Hassan broke it at the same track in Hengelo in the Netherlands. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for IAAF
Once upon a time in the summer of 1985 we believed the fastest track in the world started and finished directly across from our house, running from the top of Weston Park and through the lane and back up the other side, when no matter which way the wind was blowing it was always at our backs and where most evenings we smashed world records with incredible ease, often twice in quick succession.
Impossible barriers were broken between neighbours and friends and other unbelievable marks left behind, those perfect straights and sweeping bends easily passing for Oslo’s Bislett Stadium, or else Zurich or Brussels or Berlin, and when the clock stopped and was checked again we headed in with the warm sweat still on our faces knowing some of those times might never be bettered. Or would they?
This, after all, was the summer Steve Cram just beat Said Aouita in Nice, breaking 3:30 for 1,500 metres for the first time in distance running history, his 3:29.67 less than a torso ahead of Aouita’s 3:29.91.
Both athletes had been stretched to their absolute limit, seemingly nothing more to give, until a month later Aouita came out in Berlin and ran 3:29.46. Turns out that record stood for seven years.
Maybe Aouita had his limits though: that same summer the Moroccan tried to break the 13-minute barrier for 5,000m, stopping the clock in Oslo in 13:00.40. Impossible was everything. Two summers later, in Rome, he ran 12:58.39, and turns out that record stood for seven years too. Impossible was nothing.
Some of us were old enough to remember those summers before when the mile and 1,500m records were falling like confetti, namely between Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, Coe finishing the 1981 season with five world records in six months, winning all 22 of his races on the track, two world mile records among them.
Just when it seemed Ovett had put that record out of reach that summer, running 3:48.40 in Koblenz, Coe came out two days later and ran 3:47.33 in Brussels. That record stood for four years, only three other men breaking the mile world record since.
Arguably better still was Coe’s summer of 1979 when, lean as a spider, he smashed three world records in 41 days – the 800m, 1,500m and the mile – because no athlete has improved on those 41 distance running days or nights. Not over those three distances anyway. Maybe then these records were more believable simply because there was no great reason to doubt them.
“I didn’t want to just nibble at world records,” Coe told the Guardian last week, “I wanted to take chunks out of them.”
Over the years since plenty of other middle and long distance records have come and gone again (we’ll save the sprints and jumps and throws for another day), and others have stood firm, doubtful or otherwise.
One summer evening in 1996, sitting in front of the portable TV in the kitchen, we watched Daniel Komen run 7:20.67 for 3,000m, in Rieti. Tim Hutchings was just starting out as a EuroSport commentator, and actually laughed out loud when the pacemaker took Komen through the first 800m in 1:57.0.
“Absolutely suicidal,” said Hutchings, or words to that effect.
Only instead of dying, Komen – aged only 20 – kept going, knocking an incredible five second chunk off the world record. No athlete has come within a lick of Komen’s time in the 25 years since.
Then, the following summer, we watched Komen run 7:58.61 for two miles, in Hectel, another record that still stands. And, as if to prove it was no fluke, Komen put another two sub-four minute miles back-to-back, just seven months later, running 7:58.91, in Sydney.
Komen made numerous other world record attempts in that two-year period, and if he didn’t break them, came damn close. In 1997, he knocked two seconds off the 5,000m world record held then by Haile Gebrselassie, running 12:39.74, in Brussels – the first ever sub 12:40.
Some people point the finger at those times, suspect Komen was doping, and there’s no doubt EPO was rife during that era; others, who trained or raced against him, say no way, that Komen was clean, just one of those rare freaks of nature who occasionally come along to rewrite the record books. Because that’s what all records are there for, aren’t they?
Which, neatly or otherwise, brings me to those records falling like confetti again on tracks around the world over the last seven days. Beginning last Sunday in Hengelo, the Dutch city well used to earth-shattering marks: for Sifan Hassan, running on her adopted home track, knocking more than 10 seconds off the women’s 10,000m world record of 29:17.45, set by Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana at the Rio Olympics five years ago now. It obviously wasn’t impossible as she did exactly that, running 29:06.82.
Only two days later, running at the Ethiopian trials back on the same track, Letesenbet Gidey improved that mark again by five seconds with her 29:01.03 – the 23 year-old coming unbelievably close to breaking the 29-minute barrier.
Gidey, remember, broke the 5,000m world record last summer, the first woman to hold both records since Ingrid Kristiansen, back in 1986.
Then on Thursday night, on the same Florence track where exactly 40 years previously Coe ran his 1:41.73 800m world record, which stood for 16 years, Hassan came out again and ran a world-leading 1,500m of 3:53.63, Faith Kipyegon setting a Kenyan record of 3:53.91 in second, still not enough for the win.
There were no world records, only Jakob Ingebrigtsen running 12:48.45 for 5,000m felt like one, the 20-year-old from Norway smashing the 13-minute barrier for the first time, beating world record holder Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda amongst many others, becoming the first man to hold European records over 1,500m (3:28.68) and 5,000m since France’s Michel Jazy of France in the summer of 1966.
Truth is no one doubted Ingebrigtsen would one day break 13 minutes, just perhaps not so soon or so fast.
Still it’s impossible not to look at these times and consider the so-called super spikes and new wavelength pace-setting technology, which advantage or not certainly beats keeping an eye on the stopwatch.
Every world or continental record that is broken is by definition nothing more than an advance on anything previously achieved, and whether or not they are any more or less believable than what’s been witnessed in the past usually comes down to two things: who exactly are these athletes breaking them, sometimes with incredible ease, and how you think their times will be looked back on in years to come.
Especially if they come twice in quick succession.