Jakob Ingebrigtsen was poised to be Pac-Man when he stepped onto the course in early June.
Like a video game character swallowing dots in a maze, Norwegian middle-distance runner Ingebrigtsen was focused on keeping up with the bright green flash that made its way along the inside of the track. . A flash called Wavelight was flying at exactly the same pace as his two-mile best. (This distance is not an official World Athletics distance and is therefore not eligible for world records.)
So when he left the flashing lights behind and ran straight down the platform, the stadium crowd knew they were witnessing the world’s best performance of the tournament. Ingebrigtsen finished in 7:54.10, beating his previous best time by more than four seconds.
Incredibly, this was one of three records set on that balmy summer night at the Diamond League competition in Paris. Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon set the 5,000m world record just one week after setting the 1,500m world record, while Ethiopia’s Ramecha Girma broke the world record in the 3,000m steeplechase. All three performances were done in collaboration with Wavelights.
Pacemakers, runners tasked with setting a constant tempo in the early stages of a race, are nothing new. Two pacemakers helped Roger Bannister in 1954 when he became the first runner to break the 4-minute mile. Few world records have been set for medium and long distances without the aid of rabbits known as pacemakers. Wavelight’s co-creator and operating director, Bram Som, has had a successful career as a professional runner and a successful pacer himself.
But while the human pacemaker drops out at the agreed point of the race, the green flash doesn’t tire. Along the inner rail of a standard running track, his 400 LED lights, spaced one meter apart, escort runners to the finish line. Stay in front of them and the runner will have won the time the lights were programmed.
too easy? Perhaps for some.
Like Supershoes, which combine carbon fiber plates and midsole foam, and bouncy tracks that transfer more energy from the ground, flashing lights have an element of controversy.
Som remembers the initial outpouring of frustration after the device helped athletes set world records in the women’s 5,000m and men’s 10,000m at the same event in 2020. legal. It’s technical doping. We don’t want that,” he recalled. “It was a breakthrough moment for us.”
At one point, Nike representatives told Som that they were relieved that Wavelight was causing anxiety among traditionalists in the sport because it diverted some of the heat that shoe technology draws. rice field.
“Sport always evolves,” Som said. “I used to start running barefoot, then shoes came, then spikes, now carbon plates. will be different.”
But pacing was not the original goal of Wavelight technology. It was originally conceived as an interesting training aid to attract more people to athletics.
Its origins date back to 2017, when a sports club in Zeewolde, Netherlands, instructed a lighting company to come up with a speed concept using light. Som and Jos Hermens, Som’s manager throughout his trucking career, quickly stepped in and helped transform the rudimentary product into the current Wavelight system.
This wasn’t the first time such an idea was used. The short-lived International Association of Athletics Federations used a few pacing his lights in the 1973 Games. Apart from that, when Helmens broke his one-hour world record in 1976, his two light bulbs placed at either end of the track also helped.
Somu, who coaches 3,000-meter steeplechase world record holder Beatrice Chepkoech of Kenya, insists Wavelight is still a great training tool, but has won the hearts and minds of World Athletics president Sebastian Coe. was the entertainment factor.
“The athletics world needs change,” said Coe, whose rules have been amended to allow its use in competition. Its use has become so common that it will be used in his 11 of his 14 Diamond League tournaments this year.
“I think it’s good that young people watching TV at home get a good sense of how fast athletes are running,” Koh said this year. “Thanks to Wavelight technology, it’s possible. So for me, it’s about a higher level of understanding.
“Athletes use pacemakers to break world records on a daily basis.
Still, Koh said the technology is unlikely to be introduced to the Olympics or world championships anytime soon. In pure racing, there is a tendency to beat typical target times in a day’s competition.
The contradiction of Som’s role in founding Wavelight is that, at least on the surface, the technology seems to threaten the existence of his previous work.
After qualifying for the 2000 and 2004 Olympics thanks to running, Som switched to life as a pacemaker in 2012 after an injury prevented her from qualifying for the London Olympics.
By the following year, he had established a reputation as one of the world’s best rabbits and was respected worldwide for his metronome ability to run at the required pace. He was in demand at most major competitions, with entry fees of $2,000 to $3,000 for each competition. In his seven years that followed, he spent as a pacemaker making more money than nearly any time during his playing career.
“You get a fixed price when you’re pacing, but you also get bonuses if someone breaks a record,” he said. “I got more attention as a pacemaker than as an athlete.”
But if Wavelight is so beneficial as a pacing tool, does that mean the sport no longer needs the rabbit expertise that Som has become famous for?
“Of course it makes things a little easier,” he said. “But on the other hand, the pacemaker has to react to what’s going on behind him, so he can’t run ignoring the lights. He’s there for the runners. The lights are programmed before the race. But what happens on the track can be different.”
Som experienced a nostalgic moment this month as he watched Ingebrigssen, Kipyegon and Dilma work their magic inside a stadium in Paris. The satisfaction that once came from winning races and setting record pace now comes from having the technology he helped develop contribute to the history of the sport.
“The atmosphere in the stadium when a player passed the wavelight or when the wavelight overtook the player was great,” he said. “It was like nothing I had ever seen before.”