Nothing about this year's Olympics has been normal — from the COVID-19 pandemic to roaming black bears to the "plague of 31,000 oysters" that threatened a major venue. But even amid obstacles ranging from disastrous to debilitating, Olympians are still breaking decades-long records at this year's games. Just look at Jamaican sprinter Elaine Thompson-Herah, who won gold at the women's 100-meter final with a time of 10.61 — and made history as the first athlete to break Florence Griffith Joyner's 33-year Olympic record of 10.62.
At the very end of her sprint, Thompson-Herah started pointing at the clock, excited about her win. "I think I could have gone faster if I wasn't pointing and celebrating, really," said Thompson-Herah, according to AP News. "But to show you that there's more in store. Hopefully, one day I can unleash that time." The only record left to break (aside from her own) is Griffith-Joyner's world record of 10.49. In addition to this milestone, Thompson-Herah also became the first woman to win a "double double" in track and field. (In other words, she won the same two gold medals at consecutive Olympics.)
But Thompson isn't the only runner making history in Tokyo. Dutch athlete Sifan Hassan, who became the first woman to win 1,500- and 10,000-meter world titles in 2019, could now be on track to beat her own achievement by winning 1,500, 10,000, and 5,000-meter titles. And, at her first-ever Olympic Games, U.S.A. runner Athing Mu became the first American to win the women's 800-meter final since 1968. With a time of 1 minute and 55.21 seconds, she bested the national record. German runner Jarmila Kratochvílová still holds the world Olympic record, but Mu could be on track to beat her time of 1 minute and 53.28 seconds: After all, she isn't new to making history. As a first-year university student, Mu broke collegiate 400- and 800-meter records.
"I'm also gonna break the 800 world record, eventually," Mu said. "Not even eventually. We're gonna break it at some... we're gonna break it."
Swimmers have also been topping records: South African athlete Tatjana Schoenmaker clocked in at 2 minutes and 18.95 seconds in the women's 200 breaststroke, beating the previous record by 0.16 seconds. And the record for the fastest 100-meter breaststroke was broken not once but three times on July 25.
So, what's in the (metaphorical) water this year? There are several reasons for all the broken records. This year's running track, designed by track supplier Mondo, is reportedly built to be the "fastest track ever"; athletes told The New York Times that the rubber doesn't absorb their motion but "regenerates" it. Designers have also been able to create higher-tech shoes, which can give athletes an edge over runners of the past. Some might argue that this is unfair, but Mondo manager Andrea Vallauri believes these developments only help athletes perform at their best — and they're all on (literally) an even playing field, anyway. "If the tire is the same for all the cars, then it's fair," Vallauri told The New York Times.
Plus, according to data compiled by The Economist, some sports have records that are easier to beat. Olympic records for swimming and cycling are often subject to change, whereas records for "field" events haven't budged as often. Technology definitely plays a role, but so does talent. Thompson-Herah, as one example, made history all while recovering from an Achilles tendon injury.
"I knew I had it in me, but obviously, I've had my ups and downs with injuries," she said, according to NPR. "I've been keeping faith all this time. It is amazing."