First, it was the new, high-stack, carbon-plated shoes that had everyone losing their shit, now it’s the Wavelight pacing technology people are beginning to question. Fine, the shoes I understood, at least at the beginning when only one company had the advantage and they got so far out in front of the governing body, that by the time the decision was taken on what to do, too many records had been set and there was no way to call it back. So they reverse-engineered a decision that comported with the latest technology, but put a halt to any further stacking or springiness.

By now, just about everyone has the new high-stack, carbon-plate technology, and it’s more of an even landing field. Except in the record books where, like the steroid era in baseball, a bright line now exists between what was and what is. 

But the Wavelight pace technology? You know, those blinking lights along the rail of a track that show pace? Doesn’t that help everyone equally? I don’t understand the controversy. 

Wavelight Technology

Is it the purity?  People have recalled how the old pro track league, the ITA, once used pacing lights in the Seventies. Pacing lights are not a new idea. 

Is it the desire to keep the sport locked in amber like it’s still 1932 and sprinters ought to be digging holes in the dirt tracks as ersatz starting blocks?

Why were so many records set at the Mexico City Games in 1968? Besides the altitude, it’s because it was the first time the Olympic races were conducted on a synthetic track. New era. 

Every other sport adapts because evolution suggests staying healthy requires adaptation. 

Old-time tennis players used to swing wooden rackets and golfers used to thwack the dimpled orb with wooden-headed clubs joined by steel shafts. Watch any old film of tennis and golf and you can see the athletes weren’t going after the ball with nearly as much aggression as today’s athletes are. Is it because they were intrinsically lesser athletes? Perhaps. But a lot of it had to do with the technology they were swinging, too.

Vintage Jack Kramer racked by Wilson

Classic 1950s Persimmon woods

Who of a certain vintage doesn’t remember having a wooden Jack Kramer tennis racket that you had to keep locked in a frame when you weren’t using it or the wood would warp? Well, those things had a sweet spot the size of your little pinky toenail, so you couldn’t swing like a drunken sailor as they do today with composite rackets that have a sweet spot the size of Trump’s head and, in a similar vein, are just as lightweight. The sport, like many, has completely changed. It used to be much more of a nuanced game. Today, it’s all power. Golf, too. 270-280 yards used to be a big drive. Now Bryson DeChambeau is driving par 4s like its pitch-and-putt.

In football, technology has brought us the yellow line superimposed on the gridiron to show everyone where the first-down marker is. It’s not meant for the players, it’s done to enhance the television enjoyment of the audience because television is where all the money comes from, not from the people sitting in the stands or paying to park their cars or buying hot dogs and beer.

First-down indicator

In baseball, every umpire makes up his own strike zone. There’s no such thing as a high strike anymore, and God knows what outside means until you turn around and bat left-handed and what used to be an outside corner strike to a right-handed batter now is an inside ball to a lefty. So the networks superimpose a box which shows where the strike zone really should be so we at home have a better understanding of how much of an idiot the umpire really is and how much smarter we all are at home.

Also in tennis, they’ve got the Hawk-Eye technology that shows us, to the millimeter, where the ball lands, whether in or out. Every tournament uses it except the French Open because that’s played on clay and clay can sometimes cover part of the line, so they don’t think the Hawk-Eye would be as accurate. But the players are up in arms because the lines-people miss calls all the time because the players hit the ball over 130 miles an hour and even 12-year-olds with perfect vision couldn’t tell where the ball hit first. In golf, we have advanced technology that traces the entire flight of the ball with a visual line to better illustrate the game for the TV audience. 

Hawk-eye Technology

Athletics is an old sport, too, filled with die-hard fans who want things to stay the way they’ve always been because that’s how people grew up with the sport. But to the average sports fan, it just looks like people running around. There’s been nothing to unlock what the differences are among athletes, or in comparing today’s race with yesteryear’s. That’s why you hear regular folks say, “they’re just running”. 

That is where something like the Wavelight technology comes into play.  The lights show A) the mark they’re going after, B) the old record pace and, C) where they are now, green light, yellow light, whatever light.

That is where instruments to measure stride mechanics and physical exertion would come into play to be able to show the people watching what’s going on more intricately one athlete vis-à-vis the next, so they have some understanding of why this guy is better than that guy in this particular race. 

Wavelight in Valencia, Spain record attempts

Wavelight technology is meant mostly for the fans. But if you don’t have it, or don’t introduce other enhancements for the viewing audience, guess what, eventually you don’t have any fans. 

For as long as any of us has been around, and long before, coaches and managers have yelled out splits every lap on the track, while pace clocks have adorned every lead vehicle on the roads. Runners have always known exactly what pace they’re on. That doesn’t mean they can run it. We have to find new ways, like Wavelight,  to go inside the game to bring it into clearer focus for new fans. Adapt or die. Isn’t past time that we finally saw the light of that new day?


7 thoughts on “OLD WAYS OR NEW DAYS?

  1. Toni.
    I would add the pole vault to the list of T and F events that have technically advanced. I can remember watching the vault in the early 60s when non-fiberglass poles were used. Who can not enjoy watching the vault now? A thrilling event to see!

  2. Right on Toni! The pace lights aren’t new and don’t give any competitor an advantage. I was lapped 2x by both Doug Brown of Tennessee and the pace lights in a 6 mile on the track in Knoxville in April, 1974. Pace lights allow everyone to see what is going on continuously vis a vis a certain pace. Use them!

  3. My memory might be fuzzy, but I seem to recall that when we used to do workouts with the GBTC on Harvard’s slick new banked indoor track back in the mid-1980s, it as the first track I’d ever seen with pacing lights . Not that they ever turned the lights on for our use, but it does seem the technology was already available those many years ago.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your point on the appeal of Wavelight for our fans, and the analogy to the superimposed TV lines for first-down and current field position in US football broadcasts is an apt one.

    1. Brendan,

      I don’t remember any lights at Harvard, but could have been in oxygen debt while running around that facility. Do recall how sound rebounded off those concrete walls and windows on the backstretch, though.


  4. Toni: I have less problem with the pacer lights than I do with these wackadoodle new racing shoes with “stacked plate technology” that look “butt ugly” but gave athletes from one particular shoe company contract a distinct advantage to either win or set records. Not sure why World Athletics could not have done a better ruling on them. Could it have been the one particular company that had deveIoped the shoe technology that also has more athletes, and coaches, and national federations under contract than any other!?! To include the current President of World Athletics!?! Or was it just a “coincidence?”

    I do agree that the lights are not much different than when (back in the “old school days”) that I sometimes had one person on the backstretch yelling splits for me and another on the homestretch…..that way I never went more than 200 meters without knowing whether I was on pace or falling off pace.

    1. Yes, the lights are mostly for the audience. I have always thought the sport has been focused too much on the athletes (Except for paying them) and not enough on the fans. But that is a very particular outcome of a sport that is run by a national governing body. The emphasis is on the thing itself, not the audience toward which it is presented. A professionally run sport would flip those priorities. Athletics will never reach beyond itself until it organizes its competitions toward a fan-friendly mind-set. Stay well.


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