Sport Writer Oscar Frost questions whether the introduction of Wavelight technology in athletics undermines the integrity of the sport and its world records

Written by Oscar Frost
Hi! I'm Oscar, and I'm one of your deputy editors for the coming year. I was also a sports editor for two years, and a writer for a year before that.
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Images by Braden Collum

In 2004, Kenenisa Bekele smashed the 5,000 and 10,000-metre world records in just nine days. One year later, he improved on his 10,000-metre record at the 2005 World Championships. Beating his records seemed completely unassailable; that was until 2020 when Joshua Cheptegei broke both records in the space of two months.

Did the new technology give him enough of an advantage to invalidate the records?

Behind the glaring headlines of Cheptegei’s success, fans and experts alike are arguing whether his records are entirely legitimate. The debate centres around the introduction of the Wavelight pacing system, which essentially involves moving lights indicating where the world record pace is for that point in the race. This means that while Bekele was running against himself for the majority of the race, Cheptegei had a constant reminder of the pace he had to beat. The question is did the new technology give him enough of an advantage to invalidate the records?

A key issue highlighted in this debate is the regularity of their time splits. In Bekele’s 10,000-metre record, his time per kilometre varied by about eight seconds, slightly higher than Cheptegei’s five-second variation. At face value, this seems to be an insignificant difference. However, Cheptegei’s five-second variation was only due to his final kilometre as his splits varied by less than a second for his first nine kilometres.

Cheptegei’s 5,000-metre record tells a similar story, with his lap times varying by less than two seconds throughout the race. This seems to be the most significant evidence for the invalidation of the world record. Cheptegei was essentially able to run against Bekele as an average, not taking into account the natural variation in his speed. Having the competitive drive to stay with a constant pace is far easier than only being able to check the time at the end of each lap.

Cheptegei was way off the world record pace with his season’s best in 2019

Additionally, Cheptegei was way off the world record pace with his season’s best in 2019. His world record 10,000-metre run was 37 seconds faster than his best last season, further evidencing the disproportionate improvement of his performance due to the Wavelight technology. Having been the first proper race of the 2020 season, it would also not be surprising if Cheptegei improves on this time even more over the coming months.

However, the World Athletics – the sport’s governing body – ruling regarding technology changed in early 2020. Rule 144-6.4.8 now states that ‘electronic lights or similar appliances indicating progressive times during a race will be permitted in future competition,’ legitimising Cheptegei’s record in the eyes of World Athletics.

For Bekele’s record, the relevant rule stated that ‘assistance is not allowed, except for heart rate or speed rate or stride sensors or similar devices carried or worn personally by the athletes’. This may be equated to the technological advances in shoes, especially in relation to Nike’s ‘Breaking2’ project, but this is an unfair comparison. Bekele’s shoes were less technologically developed because of a lack of innovation in 2004, whereas the technology for Wavelight was not used because of limitations put in place by World Athletics.

[It is] hard to argue that Cheptegei is the superior athlete

Thus, it is hard to dispute that the new rules from World Athletics makes Joshua Cheptegei the official world record holder for the 5,000 and 10,000-metre races. However, the unparalleled regularity of Cheptegei’s splits, combined with his huge improvement from 2019, makes it hard to argue that Cheptegei is the superior athlete. Either way, there will be great anticipation to see if he can match that time in future races, especially when the Wavelight technology is not available.

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