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Olympic Runners Are Fast. On Tokyo's Fast Track, They're Shattering World Records

Sydney McLaughlin of the United States competes in the women's 400-meter hurdles final during the Olympic Games on Aug. 4 in Tokyo.
Sydney McLaughlin of the United States competes in the women's 400-meter hurdles final during the Olympic Games on Aug. 4 in Tokyo.

TOKYO — Sprinters, hurdlers and other runners at the Tokyo Olympics have been crushing their previous times and in many cases setting new records for their events.

Records, as they say, are made to be broken. But are these athletes getting a boost from the track itself?

"I would say it's a pretty fast track," said American hurdler Sydney McLaughlin, minutes after she smashed her world record.

"Of all the tracks that I've run on, that track feels amazing," said Kyron McMaster of the British Virgin Islands, who placed fourth in the men's 400-meter hurdles. "I felt like my legs were just turning over. It felt like no surface was there."

That the Tokyo track feels "fast" is no accident.

The Italian company that created it, Mondo, has been working to improve running surfaces since it built its first Olympic track for the Montreal Games in 1976.

The red and black track that Mondo constructed for the Tokyo Games is "the most technologically advanced athletic track in the world," with the goal of "taking human speeds to levels never reached before," the company said.

The evolution of the running track

Olympians might feel a bit of pep in their step when they run on the track — and not just because they're elite athletes.

Modern tracks are designed to absorb the force of a runner's step and then return some of that energy when they lift their foot for the next stride, giving them an almost imperceptible bounce.

"It's not like walking on hard concrete," John Eric Goff, a professor of physics at the University of Lynchburg, said. "You do feel a very slight but noticeable sponginess."

Decades ago, athletes ran on dirt tracks. But, Goff said, overuse by runners and harsh weather damaged the tracks, making them impractical.

Modern running tracks have since become highly engineered surfaces, often made of bouncy materials such as rubber. "You're trying to create a surface that's going to allow for a little bit of grip, going to allow for an efficient return of energy and allow for the athlete's shoe to come off [the surface] and not be stuck too long," Goff said.

Enter the Mondotrack WS, the official track of the Tokyo Games.

It is an updated version of the track that Mondo manufactured for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The top of the track consists of semi-vulcanized rubber granules that create a solid layer to help runners grip the surface. Below that is a honeycomb backing that consists of hexagonal air chambers that can compress in all directions and bounce back with a runner's forward motion.

The track also features what the company calls "Non-Directional Tessellation" — a patterned texture that reduces the need for runners to wear spikes and that also helps improve drainage.

"It's a pretty remarkable combination of physics and chemistry and computer technology," Goff said. "It's quite a remarkable track."

What the athletes are saying

To gauge just how fast this track is, we talked to athletes who raced in the quickest races ever for their events — the men's and women's 400-meter hurdles. World records were smashed in both contests. Even the silver medalists ran times faster than the previous world marks.

"It was a fast track. I think that's just really what it boils down to. It truly felt fast," U.S. silver medalist Dalilah Muhammad said.

It's easy for a hurdler to tell how fast a track is, Muhammad said, based on how easily the athlete hits the number of steps they plan to take between the hurdles. "And it was spot on, every single hurdle. So I'm like, well, this is a fast track."

McLaughlin, the U.S. gold medalist, said she noticed a contrast between Tokyo's track and the track used for the U.S. Olympic trials. "You can feel a little bit of difference. This is my first time, I believe, on Mondo this year. So I definitely felt a difference compared to Eugene, [Ore.]," she said.

But not every athlete chalked up the record-setting races to the running surface alone.

"The track ... it's crazy. It's a great track," said Karsten Warholm of Norway, who demolished his own world record by about three-quarters of a second. "But I think it's not just the track. I think it was the guys as well today, you know."

Rai Benjamin, the U.S. hurdler who won silver behind Warholm, shares that perspective. It may be a great track, he suggested, but there was something else special happening too.

"It is really soft. It does have a lot of give. Don't get me wrong — it's a phenomenal track," Benjamin said. "It's nice to have a good track, but no one in history is going to go out there, do what we just did just now, ever. I don't care who you are."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.