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An Olympic Track Built for Speed Is Already Producing Records

An Olympic Track Built for Speed Is Already Producing Records
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An Olympic Track Built for Speed Is Already Producing Records

An Olympic Track Built for Speed Is Already Producing Records

TOKYO – The clock stationed just past the finish line flashed 10.60 seconds and the letters “NEW OR”, meaning “new Olympic record”, when Elaine Thompson-Herah of Jamaica won the women’s 100 meters on Saturday night .

Thompson-Herah not only retained the Olympic 100-meter title she won in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, but she did so by shattering Florence Griffith Joyner’s 1988 record. (Thompson’s official time- Herah in the record book is 10.61.)

A day later, Italy’s Lamont Marcell Jacobs clocked an even more impressive time – 9.80 seconds – to win the men’s 100m, becoming the surprise winner of the race to supplant Usain Bolt as the fastest man. of the world. Jacobs was little known before setting off to the fastest time in an Olympic final by a man not named Bolt.

Both runners beamed after their races. But it was also the case of an anonymous character dressed in a shirt and pants in a seat overlooking the track: Andrea Vallauri, international director of Mondo, the supplier of the Olympic track.

It is responsible for providing the world’s fastest racers with the world’s fastest track. And its surface already has threatened world records.

Since Friday – the first day of the track and field competition – records and personal bests have plummeted. Round after round, the scoreboard flashed notations indicating that personal bests or national records had been eclipsed.

Six women ran under 11 seconds in the women’s 100m final, including Shericka Jackson, whose 10.76 was the third-fastest at the Olympics. On Sunday, Jacobs, an unknown sprinter who specialized in the long jump until 2018, set a European record in the men’s 100 final.

“It’s new for Tokyo,” Vallauri said of the track’s super-fast surface. “We had a particular ambition to offer something different. “

While the Olympic Stadium, designed by Kengo Kuma, received praise for how the giant bowl intertwined with wooden eaves allowed it to blend in with its surroundings, none of it really matters. importance for the athletes who perform there. What is much more important for many of them is the surface on which they have to sprint, jump, jump and jump.

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For Vallauri, the first signs of track competition were an Olympic triumph of a different kind. Mondo, who has now designed 12 Olympic tracks, took nearly three years to design the surface used in Tokyo: testing different versions on the road, researching materials, experimenting with different types of rubber. Along the way, Mondo asked the athletes their preference, the equivalent of a taste test of a new recipe for a familiar soft drink.

The responses the company received, Vallauri said, were unanimous. “The comments from the athletes were the same,” he said. “This one.”

Drawing on this feedback, the designers at the Mondo d’Alba plant in Italy, near Turin, experimented with different types of rubber before incorporating three-dimensional granules in their final design. The resulting surface, according to Vallauri, allows shock absorption and energy return “like a trampoline”.

Those who ran over it said the same.

“You can feel the rebound,” said Sydney McLaughlin, a favorite in the women’s 400-meter hurdles. “Some tracks just absorb your bounce and movement; this regenerates it and gives it back to you.

Thompson-Herah suggested that if she hadn’t started her celebration a few yards before the finish line, she could have threatened Griffith Joyner’s world record of 10.49. “I could have gone faster if I hadn’t pointed the finger and celebrated sooner,” she said.

His performance mirrored others in the first two days of competition: times exceeded expectations.

In a sport where doping problems are recurrent, exceptional performance can be suspect. But Vallauri and the athletes say the “bouncy” track, as many have described it, plays a big role (along with the high performance shoes and even the hot summer air).

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Vallauri said he expected the $ 1.5 million track to provide competitors with up to a 2% advantage. When records are broken by the hundredth of a second, it could make all the difference.

Marie-Josée Ta Lou of Côte d’Ivoire was in a state of disbelief after learning how fast she had run in the first heat of the 100 meters on Friday. “I really didn’t expect to run as fast as I just did,” she said. She then finished fourth in the final.

After calming its heat on Saturday, McLaughlin, 21, suggested the Tokyo track was a threat to the history books.

“A world record is possible,” she said of the hurdles. “It’s a really good group of girls so I wouldn’t let anyone go out and do it.”

Although the name Mondo is probably not familiar to most sports fans, it is immediately recognized by athletes. More than half of the world records set in the past 20 years have been set on tracks designed by the Italian company, the company said.

“We were looking at the girls yesterday and we were like ‘OK this track is fast’,” said South African sprinter Gift Leotlela after sealing his qualifying spot for the 100-meter semi-finals.

The track offered assistance not only to those who want to run fast, but also to those who propel themselves through the air. After competing in the long jump qualifying, Samory Fraga of Brazil said the surface was good enough to threaten records.

In the triple jump on Sunday, Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas climbed to 15.67 meters, or nearly 51 feet 5 inches, to break a world record that had remained in place since 1995 and a 2008 Olympic record. was not alone in it. incredulity; her rivals also watched, wide-eyed, as the stadium’s video screen confirmed her winning mark.

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For some athletes, a track like the one they encounter in Tokyo has some drawbacks – it pushes their body in a way slower surfaces usually don’t.

French sprinter Jimmy Vicaut, who ran the best of the season to advance to the 100 semi-finals, said training on such a surface would be “too dangerous” as he could easily risk muscle injuries. Canada’s Gavin Smellie said the track was so unforgiving it changed the way he usually prepares for a race.

“It makes your body sore, especially the next day,” he said. To accommodate this, Smellie said, he shifted his training schedule 24 hours earlier to give himself more time to recover.

The pursuit of fast times pushed some athletes too far. After setting a personal best to reach the men’s 100m final, Enoch Adegoke of Nigeria failed to complete the race, hitting his hamstrings after around 20m. Other runners, including Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith, said they worsened the injuries.

Yet for the most part, these concerns have faded into the pursuit of records and praise for the surface on which they would be pursued.

Developments in track technology, like advancements in shoe design, have raised questions about how much assistance athletes should be allowed and whether it is right that records set under different conditions are now threatened. .

To mitigate some of these benefits, athletics governing body World Athletics has stipulated limits for tracks similar to those in place for shoes, including limits on the shock absorption range, the return energy and thickness.

For Vallauri, however, the mission is simple: to provide a surface on which Olympic athletes can thrive, whatever their discipline, whatever their status. He compared the track to tires from the elite Formula 1 racing series.

“If the tire is the same for all cars, then it’s fair,” he said.

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