“In a Way, the Horse Bolted the Stable Many, Many Years Ago”: Seb Coe Speaks to LetsRun.com About Shoes, World Records, & 2021 Diamond League Changes
By Jonathan Gault
December 10, 2020
Seb Coe is proud of how the sport of track & field has managed its most trying year. Seven months ago, with the Olympics postponed and the summer track and fall marathon seasons on life support, the World Athletics president wasn’t sure there was going to be anything to celebrate at the organization’s annual award ceremony.
That did not turn out to be an issue. There was not only a track season, but a terrific World Athletics Half Marathon Championships in Poland in October and a sprinkling of major road races this fall. That is an achievement to be lauded, with credit due to the athletes and organizers for making these events happen.
So while the World Athletics Awards, held virtually on Saturday, may have been a stripped-down version of the glitzy gala traditionally staged in Monaco, there were plenty of champagne-worthy performances in 2020: 14 world records (not counting Kibiwott Kandie‘s half marathon WR, which he broke in Valencia less than 24 hours later) and one of the deepest Male Athlete of the Year races ever between Mondo Duplantis, Joshua Cheptegei, Ryan Crouser, Karsten Warholm, and Johannes Vetter (pole vault star Duplantis prevailed, becoming, at 21, the youngest-ever winner).
“I think we weathered [the COVID-19 pandemic] better than any Olympic sport,” Coe says. “Probably I think only football (soccer) is up there with us in the way that we have kept our sport front and center.”
But the manner in which those record-breaking performances were achieved has become one of the most pressing issues in the sport. Advances in shoe technology — spearheaded by the superlight foam/carbon plate technology in Nike’s Vaporflys, now being mimicked by every major brand — have obliterated the world record books in road running over the last four years and are threatening to do the same on the track.
The effect of shoe technology on performances was just one of several topics on which Coe opined during a virtual press conference with a small group of reporters on Monday morning. The highlights from Coe’s chat below, as the sport looks set to turn the calendar to 2021…
Coe on shoe technology: “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.”
In some ways, you have to sympathize with Coe and World Athletics. When the Vaporflys hit the market in 2017 (after secretly being used in the 2016 Olympics), Nike claimed they offered a 4% improvement in running economy.
But don’t shoe companies often exaggerate their benefits? Yes, Nike released testing data to back their claim up, but we didn’t yet have the results from major road races. That data took a couple of years to accumulate, and by the time the shoes’ effectiveness (and the need for regulation) became obvious, World Athletics had a decision to make: ban the Vaporflys and their new technology entirely, as swimming did with Speedo’s LZR Racer suits in 2009, or enact regulations to limit further improvements.
WA opted for the latter, and has twice tweaked the new rules since they were introduced in January, most recently on Sunday, when it reversed a ban on racing in prototypes after pushback from shoe manufacturers.
“In a way the horse bolted the stable many, many years ago,” Coe says. “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…The challenge has always historically in our sport been the balance, the tradeoff between technical innovation and development and codifications…I think we’ve got that balance about right.”
The problem, as an increasing number of observers see it, is that while the playing field between shoe brands may be showing signs of leveling out (Kandie broke his half marathon WR in adidas shoes, after all), times and records are beginning to lose their meaning. This is a natural consequence of time — no one will admit Jesse Owens and Usain Bolt were on a level playing field — but the sport rarely has to confront a period in which technology improves so widely and so rapidly in an event. As recently as 2015, for the entire year, just two men broke 2:05 in the marathon and none broke 2:04 worldwide; in Valencia on Sunday, four men broke 2:04 in a single race.
Coe, who set 12 world records during his own career, knows the significance of the letters WR next to a performance.
“We’re not a sport where they get sort of thrown around like confetti,” Coe says. “It is important that when a world record gets broken, that it is broken as a result of outstanding jaw-dropping athletic talents. And I’m still of the belief that in large part that is why we’re seeing those records.”
That notion, however, is becoming increasingly untenable. Are recent record-breaking performances truly better than those of the past? As my boss Robert Johnson points out, Kandie went from 58:58 in “normal shoes” at RAK in February to 57:32 in super shoes 10 months later in Valencia. Did Kandie’s fitness improve by 86 seconds? Or did he simply run the same performance in better equipment?
Coe, it must be pointed out, was earning £100,000 a year as a Nike ambassador until he was forced to resign that role after a public uproar when he became the head of World Athletics in 2015. He isn’t totally naive to the impact of technology — “I think these world records are still in the nature of that evolutionary change, and some of it is technology” — but believes it is not the primary driver of the spree of world records in 2020. He points to the chance for athletes to rest and reset during COVID-imposed lockdown and attack competitions with renewed vigor.
“One of the issues this year that for me has been very clear — and I know this from my own experience as an athlete — is that a lot of the very high-quality performances that we were celebrating, particularly in the award show on Saturday night — had in large part been inspired by athletes who were just so goddamn pleased to get back into competition,” Coe says.
There is some logic to COVID fueling performances — with no championships to peak for, many top athletes have had to settle for chasing records — but it is becoming increasingly clear that the shoes are playing by far the biggest role.
Even with the shoe regulations in place, the top brands will continue to innovate and seek a performance edge. But for now, Coe seems to feel the playing field is leveling out. Three of the four winners in Valencia last weekend are sponsored by adidas, including Kandie, the newest world record holder. Sara Hall, second in London, is with Asics.
“Have we arrived finally at where we’re going to?” Coe says. “The answer to that has to be no because [of an] advance in technology, particularly in the investment that the shoe companies want to put in. But if you look across the last few events, we’ve had a pretty reasonable cross section of shoe brands with athletes on that podium.”
Coe on the “Final 3” DL field event format: “The biggest challenge is making sure that we haven’t got field events that are dying”
Shortly before we spoke to Coe, the Diamond League announced several key changes for its 2021 season, many of which reversed changes that were meant to take effect in 2020 but could not be fully implemented due to COVID-19. The broadcast window, which was to be shortened to 90 minutes at the request of broadcasters, was expanded back to two hours. The four events that were supposed to be cut from the DL program — the steeple, 200m, discus, and triple jump — were all reinstated. The 5,000 meters, which was to be replaced with the 3,000, was reinstated as well. In fact, the steeple and 5,000 will actually be contested more times in 2021 (six and seven times per gender, respectively) than they were in 2019.
Another key change: all throws and horizontal jumps will utilize the “Final 3” format trialed in the long jump during the 2020 season. It will work similarly to a prelim in a sprint event: the three athletes with the best marks in the qualifying round will advance to the final; the athlete with the best mark in the final (which in 2020 consisted of just one jump) is the winner. (Coe said the format will not be used in the Diamond League final or the Olympics/World Championships).
The Final 3 experiment was widely criticized by athletes in 2020. South Africa’s Ruswahl Samaai, who won the long jump in Stockholm even though Sweden’s Thobias Montler had the two longest jumps of the day, said his victory felt hollow. The Athletics Association, an athletes’ rights group, found that 87% of athletes it surveyed disliked the concept, including 2016 Olympic long jump champ Tianna Bartoletta.
Why, then, is the Diamond League moving forward with the change?
Coe, who also serves as chairman of the Diamond League board, says it is an attempt to save the field events — which he fears could crumble away without intervention. He knows not every athlete (or even most) may approve of the change, but says they are not the only ones who matter.
“I think the biggest challenge is making sure that we haven’t got field events that are dying,” Coe says. “I’ve sat down for too long with too many broadcasters and too many meeting directors that are just basically saying to me that this is moving in the wrong direction.”
That is a major issue; if broadcasters and meet directors aren’t interested in your event…well, you may not have an event very much longer, at least on the Diamond League circuit.
It doesn’t help, of course, that field event coverage can feel shoehorned into the traditional Diamond League broadcast. Coe’s hope is for that to change under the new format, and that by raising the stakes of the final round, the events will be more compelling when they are shown.
“I think this is worth trying,” Coe says. “And if at the end of the year, it’s clearly and palpably not something that we should be continuing with, we’ve lost nothing next year in doing that.”
The Athletics Assocation — whose president, Christian Taylor, is the two-time defending Olympic champion in the triple jump — still says it fundamentally disagrees with the format, but representatives from the group did meet with the Diamond League and World Athletics and accepted that the intent is to save the field events, not destroy them.
“We respect the intention of the Diamond League and World Athletics to showcase a format they believe is for the good of the horizontal jumps and throws,” the Athletics Association wrote in a statement on December 4.
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