If you were watching the skies over Eugene, Oregon, last weekend you saw a new star come swimming into ken. Gabby Thomas, a 24-year-old Harvard graduate studying for a masters in epidemiology, set three personal bests in three days in the women’s 200m: 21.98sec in the heats, 21.94 in the semi-finals, and 21.61 in the final of the US Olympic trials. That last time wasn’t just the fastest anyone has run the distance this year, it was the fastest anyone has run it in 33 years. The only woman who has ever been quicker was Florence Griffith Joyner, twice, at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, when she ran 21.56 in the semi-finals and her world record of 21.34 in the final.
Thomas was startled by her time, too. Asked afterwards if it was her perfect race, she laughed, screwed up her face and looked up above, like she might find a good answer pasted to the ceiling. “How do I tell you I don’t know?” she said. “I couldn’t feel my legs, I couldn’t think, I was blacking out, so I don’t know. Was it a perfect race? It had to be. I’m sure people are always capable of going faster, there are always things to fix, but it had to be. I’m going to watch the videos, I’m going to watch it over and over again to see what I did wrong, but right now it was certainly perfect.”
Amazing that Thomas needed to see a repeat to think of the one obvious improvement she could have made. She started celebrating five metres out from the line, and had both her arms in the air for her last five strides. Which means she can go quicker. Quick enough to catch Flo-Jo? Thomas paused and thought about it before answering. “I don’t know. I don’t want to put a limit on myself.”
She is not the only one facing that question. At the national stadium in Kingston last month, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce ran the 100m in 10.63sec which, again, was faster than anyone in history apart from Griffith Joyner in the summer of ’88 when she ran a 10.62sec, a 10.61sec, and her world record of 10.49. Fraser-Pryce is 34, and competed in her first senior championships in 2005. Like all female sprinters in these past three decades, she has spent her career chasing records that have, until now, always seemed out of reach, beyond possible: Flo-Jo’s marks in 100m and 200m from 1988, Marita Koch’s 47.60 in the 400m from 1985.
The men’s 100m record has been broken 12 times since 1988, the men’s 200m record has been broken four times, the men’s 400m record broken twice. Even Ben Jonson’s steroid-fuelled time of 9.79 from the final of the Seoul Olympics has been equalled or beaten by three people since. But in the same time, the women’s records have been set, fixed at the top of the lists that may as well have been carved in stone rather than printed on paper. Those times aren’t just unbeatable, they are unapproachable, even after 30 years of evolution, all those improvements in training techniques, advances in sport science and technology.
Women’s athletics has been trying to figure out a way around them for a decade now. Back in 2009 Fraser-Pryce’s old rival and teammate, Veronica Campbell-Brown, put it brilliantly at the world championships in Berlin. “I really believe men get more attention in this sport,” Campbell-Brown said, “because they are capable of breaking the record and people are excited to see them run because they know the possibility of breaking the record is close. I don’t have that luxury.”
Campbell-Brown said it was hard enough to even imagine breaking them, let alone actually go out and do it. You could hear a similar thought in the silence that preceded Thomas’s answer, too.
The sports scientist Ross Tucker has described these women’s records as “the fossilised remains of a different era of the sport”, back before the introduction of out-of-competition drug testing. Neither Griffith Joyner, nor Koch, nor Jarmila Kratochvilova (whose 800m record, set in 1983, has lasted longer than any of them) ever failed a drugs test. Koch and Kratochvilova both deny ever doping, although both represented countries that ran state-sponsored doping programmes. As for Flo-Jo, who died in 1998, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that she cheated. And whether she did or not, it is also widely accepted that her 100m record was wind-assisted but it wasn’t detected because the gauge was faulty.
So why are these times finally coming closer into reach? Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics, has pointed to the galvanising effect of the pandemic. “A lot of the very high-quality performances have in large part been inspired by athletes who were just so goddamn pleased to get back into competition,” he told Athletics Weekly, and it’s easy to imagine how the break might have benefited an older athlete such as Fraser-Pryce. (Others would point out, too, that another side-effect of the pandemic is that it has presented an opportunity for modern-day dopers, something Lord Coe has acknowledged: “Clearly, because of lockdown, curfews and international travel restrictions, testing has been more difficult.”)
And then there are the shoes which, as one prominent coach recently told the Guardian, are “worth at least a tenth of a second over 100m”. According to recent reports, Nike actually shelved its latest model because it was “worried” it would “obliterate” Usain Bolt’s records. And while the sport goes back and forth over the morality of what they call “technological doping”, no doubt it would be a sweet relief if Thomas, or Fraser-Pryce, or anyone else, can break one of those old records in Tokyo this summer, and at last everyone can move on from the 1980s.