Mike Rowbottom

World record performances on the track, in my experience, have involved jubilant figures crossing a line, frozen digital figures on the infield clock and a swift confluence of those bearing flowers, cameras and microphones.

The recent Wanda Diamond League meeting in Brussels – which took place in a King Baudouin Stadium with no more than a smattering of lucky – or influential – spectators – offered a novel variation on this theme.

(I knew what to expect. But it was very weird to witness racing taking place in a stadium that was, give or take, as empty as it had been the previous day when press conferences had been scheduled.)

In breaking the respective world records for the men's and women's one-hour events, Sir Mo Farah and Sifan Hassan both went above and beyond their requirements in terms of distance run, clearly uncertain about whether the task had been completed.

Hassan's final, wild, arm-pumping sprint clear of the woman with whom she had conducted the business end of the race, Kenya's world marathon record holder Brigid Kosgei, saw her gradually becoming static halfway up the back straight.

Coincidentally, in the last event of the evening, Sir Mo finished up in roughly the same place, slowing to a halt when the stadium announcer intoned: "The record is yours, Mo!"

There were very few spectators at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Brussels, but plenty of lights, noise and action ©ITG
There were very few spectators at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Brussels, but plenty of lights, noise and action ©ITG

How happily Smurfs – Belgium's homegrown comic creations – cavorted for the cameras, their big blue faces sensibly masked.

But this time there were no young helpers rushing forward with bunches of flowers and drinks. Athletes in the sprint events returned to their blocks to retrieve their own gear before trooping off. Before the women's 100 metres hurdles race, each row of the barriers was sprayed with, presumably, a bacteriologically inimical substance.

What was interesting was to see at first-hand how the Wavelight technology that has become a feature of meetings this season, involving a system of LEDs fitted to the inside rail of the track, looked in real life.

The answer was impressive, but also rather daunting.

The system can be adjusted to any required pace. In the men's one-hour race, for instance, one group of blue lights pulsed round the rim of the track as a marker for the proposed pace while, a little further back, another group of green lights snaked around the circuit marking the pace run by Haile Gebrselassie in setting the world record in 2007.

Gebrselassie, indeed, was with us in more than spirit on the night. From time to time   the screens showed a virtual representation of him as he had appeared on that world record-breaking occasion in Ostrava, running his own spectral race alongside, and now a fair way behind, the Briton and his Belgian training partner Bashir Abdi.

For those further back in the race, however, the blinking LEDs that swept past them were a repetitive and remorseless reminder of the gap between themselves and the event's leading lights.

In between the women's and men's one-hour races, Kenya's Rio 2016 1500 metres champion Faith Kipyegon, who had missed the world 1000m world record by 17 hundredths of a second the month before, made a bold but ultimately fruitless second attempt, slipping over the final 50m from the blinking bliss of the new world record lights to the moderated disappointment of being halfway back down the current world record snake…

Small sections of the King Baudouin Stadium offered socially-distanced seating for the lucky few ©ITG
Small sections of the King Baudouin Stadium offered socially-distanced seating for the lucky few ©ITG

"It's absolutely no disappointment that I miss the world record," Kipyegon said gallantly in the aftermath. "I tried my best and was on world record pace until the very last moment. The lights helped me a lot to keep the pace up, but it was just a bit too fast for me."

Without doubt the system is of assistance to spectators as well as runners, although there is an ineradicable sense that the spectacle, informative and precise as it may be, reduces the competitors to human greyhounds chasing a technological hare.

(At this point any younger readers may add comments such as: "You sad old dinosaur" or, well, other stuff along those lines…)

Sir Mo also spoke affirmatively of the paced lighting system. "It helped us a lot," he said. 

"Sometimes you get pacemakers who go off too fast. So this system puts them in the right place. And I think that, going forward, it's great that athletes and spectators have this new option."

He added: "When I passed the finishing line for the last time I saw I had 24 seconds left, but then I couldn't see another clock, so I just kept on running to be sure I had done it. I just kept going!"

What might have added to his momentary confusion was the tumult of noise filling the all-but-empty stadium thanks to another technological innovation prompted by the largely spectator-free sporting spectacles being put together in defiance of the coronavirus pandemic.

The use of pre-recorded crowd noise, to varying degrees of ingenuity, has become a recent feature of TV transmissions in a wide range of sports including American football, baseball, football and athletics.

The National Football League (NFL), for example, has chosen to pipe in crowd effects to the stadium, and also to offer different crowd sound to TV viewers.

Crowd recordings are also being made available to Major League Baseball (MLB) teams.

In Britain, Premier League matches are taking place in relative silence, but TV viewers have the option to press a button to choose whether to add artificial clamour.

Athletics has gone down the NFL and MLB route in filling the actual stadiums involved with carefully modulated crowd noise, which, judging by Brussels, is sensitive to many of the natural highs and lows of a top-level meeting.

The process, however, was not without elements of ludicrousness.

When competitors were announced there was some disjunction, as far as they were concerned, with the experience of looking around them at vast tracts of untenanted seating. Some – young Mondo Duplantis included – made ironic play of this circumstance.

Another anomaly. As competitors lined up in their blocks the stadium announcer called for "silence for our athletes". On every occasion, the request was complied with obediently.

Asked to comment back in July on the prospect of recorded sound in his upcoming MLB matches for Pittsburgh Pirates, pitcher Derek Holland told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "I'm sorry, you can pump in as much noise as you want, but it's not going to be the same."

He wasn't wrong.

Before his one-hour race, where he himself beat Gebrselassie's 20,000 metres world record before being overtaken by his training partner in the final stages, Abdi had commented: "Nothing can replace the spectators at the Van Damme but I think it is great to have a couple of things to make the stadium more alive."

Asked afterwards by a Belgian reporter whether there might have been a different winner if he could have been supported by a stadium full of actual home fans, Abdi smiled briefly before offering a succinct answer. "No."

Some things don't change in our new sporting normal...