Dominic Massimino / Sports Business Journal

WaveLight’s Technology Keeps Setting a New Pace in Track & Field

Ugandan distance-running phenom Joshua Cheptegei made history last October when he smashed the 10,000-meter world record in Valencia, Spain, finishing in 26:11.00 and beating the old record by more than six seconds. He split each kilometer almost metronomically, clocking seven of the 10 kilometers in exactly 2:37, with the other three splits timed at 2:39 (as he settled in behind his pacers, called rabbits), a stray 2:38 in the middle and a 2:34 burst to close out the race. 

As much as it was celebrated, the accomplishment also raised questions about technology’s role in the sport and the extent it gave him an unfair advantage over runners of yesteryear. That innovation is WaveLight, the bright green and blue LED lights that ringed the inside of the track and seemed to lead Cheptegei and his rabbits around the track, lap after blistering lap, giving them real-time feedback on Cheptegei’s position in relation to the world record he ended up breaking.

Pacesetters are nothing new in the ranks of professional racing, especially at events where organizers want to highlight fast results. Meet directors employ rabbits to run a portion of the race out in front at a predetermined pace, helping top runners maintain a consistent speed and shielding them from air resistance. According to New Zealand’s Nick Willis, the 1,500-meter bronze medalist at the 2016 Rio Games, a competent rabbit is “crucial” to achieving a fast time. 

Some view WaveLight as the inevitable extension of rabbits—the same way robot umpires are thought to be a natural next step in both baseball and tennis—and all the better for removing human error. WaveLight’s developers point to even more upside, branding the technology as the perfect accoutrement for fan engagement. Really, is there a better way to inject drama than to make each event a visual race against the record books? 

“Normally, the VIPs, they love to have white wine and some food but they’re not really understanding track and field,” says WaveLight’s director of operations, Bram Som. But with WaveLight setting the pace? “They were constantly attracted to the competition—we always keep in mind that it has to be clear and easy for spectators.”

* * * * *

Headquartered in Nijmegen, Netherlands, WaveLight was founded in 2017 after a local track club in Zeewolde—a small town about a 45-minute drive east of Amsterdam—started making plans for a new track facility and wanted to boost fan engagement. 

“They invited a local engineering team that was doing LED systems for venues to have a brainstorm session about what they could add to the track to get more people attracted to track & field,” says Som, who set the Dutch 800-meter national record in 2006 and was one of track and field’s most prolific rabbits during his running career.

That sport lighting company, SPORT Technology, developed the first version of WaveLight and later partnered with the Dutch athletics management company, Global Sports Communications, and its founder, former one-hour world-record holder Jos Hermens, to enhance the system. (Global Sports Communications manages elite distance runners such as Eliud Kipchoge and Cheptegei.)

The end result: 400 LED lights are installed a meter apart along the inside rail of a standard 400-meter track, only a few inches above the track surface. The lights can be programmed to move around the track at any pace, down to the millisecond. Since making its debut in 2018 at the FBK Games in the Dutch city of Hengelo, WaveLight will have been used at eight events across five different countries by the end of this week; it has helped set seven world records, three European records, one African record and one Norweigian national record. At the same 2020 event in Spain where Cheptegei set the 10,000-meter record, Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey set the women’s world record in the 5,000 meters using WaveLight.

After WaveLight’s coming-out party last summer at races across Europe, Som says fans will continue to see the technology pop up on the international Diamond League circuit. Just this week: Sifan Hassan, the Ethiopian-born Dutch middle- and long-distance runner, set the world record (29:06:82) using WaveLight in the 10,000-meters on June 6 at the FBK games in the Netherlands. WaveLight will be used again today at the Ethiopian Trials and on Saturday in Nice, France. (Update: On June 8, Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey broke Sifan Hassan's two-day-old world record with 29:01.03 in the 10,000-meters.)

Before any of that was able to happen, WaveLight had to lobby World Athletics president Sebastian Coe—a four-time Olympic medalist himself in the 800- and 1500-meters—because the rules didn’t explicitly allow for electronic lights to be used for pacing. In initially allowing it, Coe wrote in an open letter: “The world of athletics needs change. We need daring organisers, who are not afraid to try out new ways, new innovations.” His blessing was eventually codified in World Athletics’ rule book in 2020, giving explicit permission for lighting technology such as WaveLight to be used at any competition governed by World Athletics. But Som says the technology will mostly be used for record attempts, rather than championship races like the Olympic Games.

“Olympics and World [Championships] are not our focus,” Som said. “We focus more on the one-day meets where athletes are challenging records and standards.”

In the beginning, WaveLight faced a slew of—ahem, hurdles—in terms of functionality and durability. At first, Som says, the lights were positioned on top of the rail system, which “you couldn’t see” unless you had a drone’s point of view; this also left them exposed to damage. In the early going, Som says, “there was a school that was having a class in the [Dutch] stadium and they thought it would be fun to kick out all the lights, so they ruined our system.” In later designs, the lights sat underneath a lid, which protected the LEDs from damage and projected the light out and to the sides of the lid, where spectators and athletes could both see them.  

WaveLight now offers three systems, each geared toward a different type of track, which Som says he believes can serve, “95% of tracks.”  Two of the systems are fixed to the rail system, which lines a track, while the third is modular and can be removed at any time and in any section. The modular system is exciting, Som says, because meet organizers can use it for a day of competition and then pack it up until it is needed again. 

The three systems aren’t functionally different, according to Som, but they are built differently to adapt to the various shapes and sizes of track, as well as different stadium’s demands. “Every track is different. Every track has a different drainage system or a different curb, or no curb. This is the challenging thing,” Som says.

An online software program connects to the lights and allows them to be controlled by phone or computer. There are four different colors of light, which can be programmed to run simultaneously: red, green, blue and white. While Cheptegei’s record race used green lights to display the world-record pace, with blue lights 10 meters ahead for the pacers to follow, organizers may choose to use the lights in any way they wish. Having four color options allows organizers to set multiple paces—the rabbits, the world record, the national record and the meet record, for example—or to guide multiple training groups in practice.

Beyond competitions, Som says, WaveLight gives coaches a unique tool for instructing larger groups of runners. “The big advantage as a coach is you really can shift from having a stopwatch and seeing if the athletes are doing the right times and yelling ‘faster’ or ‘slower,’ to focusing more on technique because you can see how the athletes relate to certain times.

“Every light is programmed differently, so basically you can have a progression every meter. I can program one meter at 0.5 seconds, one meter at 0.4 seconds. If you want to do a progressive race, if you want to do repetitions of 800m, and every 200m is a little bit faster, you can pre-program this. Everything is possible in this system.”

Even world records, speaking of which . . .

* * * * *

WaveLight hasn’t been the sole target of criticism in track and field circles. Technology has led to human performance gains across the sport, with Nike’s VaporFly shoes igniting most of the heated debate. Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge wore VaporFlys in October 2019 as he broke the 2-hour barrier. Advanced track spikes are also increasingly being worn by many Nike-sponsored athletes as they set personal bests, forcing other brands to play catch-up. 

With WaveLight entering the mix, Som says, Nike representatives have told him they’re glad to no longer be the sole focus of track purists’ ire: “They contacted us and told us, ‘We’re really happy WaveLight is there because now the focus is not only on the VaporFlys.”

It’s a knot that may be impossible to untangle given all of the advancements in track technology, but it’s a question that will keep being asked: Is WaveLight giving modern runners an unfair advantage over athletes of the past, or is this just the natural progression of a sport moving on from the old technology when historic greats like Steve Prefontaine and Jim Ryun ran on cinder tracks and clunky spikes? 

For Willis, the New Zealander who won the 1,500-meter bronze in 2016, WaveLight at least gives modern athletes a level playing field amongst each other. “I'm not bothered by it because it’s there for everybody,” he says. “All of the athletes get to benefit from it. My biggest issue with the shoe technologies that came out was that there was a definite advantage to certain athletes who are, based on the sponsorship deals, able to access that technology while others weren’t.”

Som says WaveLight wants to expand into new markets, including the U.S., where private ownership of stadiums and facilities is the norm—a rarity in Europe. 

“A club can be really enthusiastic about the system, but they still have to convince the local government,” Som says. “The biggest difference with universities and colleges is that the university owns the venues. I like to talk with the deciders, not with a club that is enthusiastic about the system, but then I have to shift to some bureaucratic government party.”

It may sound like a bit of a paradoxical twist, but success for WaveLight can be measured, in part, by the frequency that track purists question its place in the sport—a sign that the company is growing and that people still care about the sport, which goes back to the purpose of the technology.

“You always have people who have problems with innovation, and that’s really normal, that’s OK,” Som says. “But the main thing, the most important thing for us, is to keep the sport alive. We give fans something extra to go to a venue and to see competition in real life because you understand it.

“If we don’t have spectators, if we don’t have viewers, our sport will go down. We will kill our sport. I always say, ‘Do you want to go back to barefoot running?’ Every time period has its new technology.”