Advancements in shoe technology have garnered headlines and stirred controversy recently for the way they boost performance. But three vaunted world records have fallen in recent weeks thanks in part to wavelight technology, a system of flashing lights that helps runners keep pace with record times.
There are no plans to use the lights at high-profile events such as the Olympics or world championships, where runners angle more for titles than for records. But the lights have been deployed in a handful of a single-day meets this year at which chasing world records was the primary target, generating buzz among fans, coaches and analysts.
Some appreciate the visual cues when watching on television or a computer. Others worry that the runners are benefiting from an artificial aid that wasn’t available to previous generations.
“If our activity is sport, our business is entertainment,” Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, the global governing body for track and field, and himself a four-time Olympic medalist, said in a telephone interview. “We want things that add to the entertainment value of our sport. Pacing lights adds to our understanding; it gives it a bit of excitement, a bit of jeopardy. That’s really what the sport needs.”
Developed three years ago by Dutch company SPORT Technology, the system was refined and promoted by Jos Hermens, a former distance runner and the chief executive of Global Sports Communication, which represents some of the world’s best runners, including Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele.
Long known as an innovator around the track, Hermens had been tinkering with the idea for years. He employed a similar system years earlier when he broke his own world record in the one-hour run in May 1976. To aid with his pacing, he set up police lights every 200 meters, synced and timed to flash with the world-record pace.
“I knew if I could see the light, I would be behind the schedule,” he said. “If I didn’t see it, I would be okay.”
The new system was designed as a visual guide for spectators and television viewers. But it’s also a valuable training aid and competition tool that helped Gidey and Cheptegei in their recent assaults on the record books. Cheptegei, 24, also broke the men’s 5,000-meter mark, which had stood for 16 years, in August (12:35.36) at a Diamond League event in Monaco that featured the wavelight technology.
The lights are positioned along the inside of the track and can be programmed for any pace. The system features different colors, which could be employed in a variety of ways during training. For the recent world record runs, the green lights indicated the world record pace. They trailed flashing blue bulbs, which illuminated the way for a human pacer.
For the first half of their record-breaking runs, Gidey and Cheptegei benefited from human pacemakers. Also referred to as rabbits, pacemakers are often used in world record attempts, running ahead to establish speed and block any wind. Gidey and Cheptegei ran the remainder