Last week at the Paris Diamond League, we witnessed one of the most extraordinary single-day spectacles in the history of the sport. Over the course of two hours, two world records and a world best were shattered; the races were nothing short of spectacular, particularly when Faith Kipyegon skilfully closed the gap on the Wavelight during the final two laps, leaving Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey in the dust and achieving the seemingly impossible: a new women’s 5,000m world record.
The question of whether Wavelights are beneficial for the sport remains subjective, with opinions among track fans varying. On one hand, they enhance the performance and make races more engaging for spectators at the track or watching from home. On the other hand, they provide a precise pacing strategy for elite athletes, potentially facilitating faster times and diminishing the traditional element of intense competition.
What is Wavelight technology?
Wavelight technology, named for the Mexican Wave, was introduced by World Athletics in 2019. It serves as a tool for athletes and spectators, offering assistance with pacing and providing a visual representation of the race’s progression. A wave of lights appears along the inside edge of the track, moving at the desired pace for the race. Typically used in distance events like the 800m, 1,500m, or 5,000m, these lights are programmed to signify specific benchmarks, such as world championship standards, meeting records or world record times.
People are drawn to track and field events to witness athletes breaking records, and Wavelight can serve as a valuable tool for athletes to gauge their paces and attempt to break records. A notable example: at the Paris Diamond League on June 9, where Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway and Lamecha Girma of Ethiopia ran ahead of the lights to set new records in their respective races. In Girma’s case, the lights pushed and challenged him throughout the 3,000m steeplechase, with Girma narrowly staying ahead in the final 100m to break the previous world record by one second.
Girma’s reliance on the lights became evident as his pace dropped off after 1,000m, and he had to dig deep to maintain the pace set by the flashing lights. Without them, it is unlikely he would have achieved the record.
Track and field has faced challenges since the departure of Usain Bolt in 2017, with the sport seeking its next superstar. The success of major events like the World Championships and the Olympic Games significantly increases the sport’s popularity. World Athletics recognizes the importance of world or national records in the Diamond League circuit, which contribute to increased viewership. The implementation of Wavelight technology allows athletes to run faster and challenge these record times, catering to the audience’s desire for exciting and fast-paced performances.
While not every race will produce record-breaking times, Wavelight enhances the potential for thrilling performances that captivate viewers and generate greater interest in the sport.
When Ingebrigtsen shattered Daniel Komen’s two-mile record, which had stood for 26 years, my immediate thought was how fast Komen could have run with today’s technology. Komen had pacers guide him through the first 2,000m before running the final kilometer alone against the clock. Similarly, Ingebrigtsen had pacers until around the 2,000m mark, but they gradually dropped off, leaving him with a lead of 10-15 meters over the lights.
Depending on the race style or purpose, I believe Wavelight can have a positive impact on the sport. But they also detract from what track and field is fundamentally about—the world’s best athletes competing against one another. Watching a Diamond League event where one athlete outpaces the rest of the field by 15 to 20 seconds in the 3,000m steeplechase does not benefit the sport. While celebrating superstars is important, track and field legends like Komen, Kenenisa Bekele, Genzebe Dibaba and David Rudisha never had events specifically set up for them to chase world records. They achieved their records in the heat of competition, racing against other competitors. This is where I believe Wavelight technology crosses a line.
A compelling comparison was published in Track & Field News in 2020, analyzing the current and former 10,000m world records—Joshua Cheptegei’s record with pace lights versus Bekele’s record without them. The analysis revealed that Cheptegei maintained much more even splits than Bekele, with a variance of less than a second (0.8s) between his kilometers from him, which is truly remarkable. In contrast, Bekele’s variance was five times greater, with a difference of nearly five seconds between his fastest and slowest kilometers of him.
I am not suggesting that Wavelights are ruining the sport of track and field, but I believe their use should be limited to specific situations, such as aiming for world standards or being present only during the final lap or two of distances ranging from 1,500m to 10,000m. By implementing such limits, World Athletics can strike a balance between using technology for pacing assistance and preserving the essence of competitive racing.