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World 5,000m champion Hellen Obiri calls Wavelight technology ‘same as doping’

The world and Olympic medallist says Wavelight technology makes the act of running world records too easy

Photo by: Maxine Gravina

Two-time world 5,000m champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya recently spoke out about Wavelight technology and its use in track races, voicing her displeasure with the electronic pacing system. In an interview with BBC Sport Africa, the Olympic silver medallist said Wavelight technology gives athletes an unfair advantage, and she likened using it to doping. “To me [Wavelight and doping] are the same,” she said. Obiri’s criticism of the innovative technology comes two months after Joshua Cheptegei and Letesenbet Gidey ran to 10,000m and 5,000m world records with the aid of the light pacing system on a track in Valencia. 

In the past, athletes running record attempts were paced by other runners for a portion of the race, and this is still a common practice. Cheptegei and Gidey used pacers as well, but when those runners stepped off the track, the pace lights were still there, representing the pace they had to match. This is one of the reasons Obiri doesn’t like the technology. 

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“You can just watch [and know], ‘I am inside the world record or outside [the] world record,'” Obiri told the BBC.  “But when you are running alone, you can’t know whether you are inside or outside [the] world record.” Obiri notes that pacers can only take a runner so far before they themselves need to drop out of a race, but Wavelight technology “can take you … up to the finish.” Obiri isn’t the first to criticize this technology, but she could be the most prominent athlete to speak out about it so far. 

Obiri after her 5,000m win at the 2017 world championships.

Obiri also takes issue with the lack of opportunities in Wavelight racing, adding that, if this technology is here to stay, it should at least be available to all athletes. “I think it can be fair if all athletes are there, not one or two,” she said. “More like 12 athletes where anybody can break the world record.” When Cheptegei and Gidey ran in Valencia, they were the only runners on the track working toward the world records. “For me, it is better [to include multiple athletes] than to put one athlete in a race. If it’s available, let it be available to all.”

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While she doesn’t agree with the use of Wavelight technology, Obiri said she understands that it is another part of development and innovation in track. “It is good to see the new things coming, but sometimes we need to work extra hard and not depend on other things. The way we used to do before.”