1981 – Alberto Salazar

Source: Jenny Bahn via Facebook

25-Oct-1981 – New York City Marathon – 2:08:13 – Nike Skylon Racer
Date of birth: 7-Aug-1958
Nationality: American

The athlete:                
Alberto Salazar was the defending champion coming into the 1981 New York City Marathon, having spectacularly won on his marathon debut after promising to do so before the race. Salazar believed that when he crossed the line to win the 1981 event that he had done so in world record time. Organisers however made adjustments to the course for 1982, adding 99 metres in length. This was due to the nature of the course through Central Park, where the roads were quite twisty.

The effect of this is significant, as consider how you would run through an S-shaped curve. Instead of following the road down the middle, you would likely go from the nearest point to the next. This inside point is the apex of the turn, and over the marathon distance it could result in significant shortcuts.

Organisers insisted however that Salazar’s benchmark was not in question, and noted that video of the 1981 event showed that Salazar had run the full marathon. In late 1984, the National Running Data Center (NRDC) formally remeasured the course, as part of an overall push by authorities to properly certify courses where American records had been set. The NRDC had set tolerances as part of its program, to acknowledge the improvements in measurement standards over the years.

The two men who assessed the New York City Marathon course were David Katz and Tom Knight. Both had impressive credentials and were involved in the meticulous planning around the marathon course used at the 1984 Olympics. They took measurements from one curb to the next to take the shortest possible route. They measured at 0.3 and one metre from the curb.

Salazar claims that due to the way he ran, at points avoiding spectators, that he ran the full marathon distance that day. According to Katz and Knight however, the course was as much as 152.4 metres short. The world record of Salazar, and Allison Roe from the same year, were accordingly invalidated. The tapes of the event were also scrutinised, and it was found that the path Salazar took was also found short by around 50 yards or 45.72 metres.

Although World Athletics still recognises the world records set by Grete Waitz in 1978, 1979, and 1980, the Association of Road Racing Statisticians (ARRS) does not as she ran on the same course used in 1981. The ARRS was formed by many of the same people involved in the NRDC, and has arguably become the authority on such matters with researchers across the world. You can read more about the issues with the New York City Marathon course at that time in my article here.

As for Salazar, he would go on to win both the New York City Marathon and Boston Marathon in 1982. In the latter, Salazar won in a sprint finish before collapsing due to dehydration having not drunk any water during his run. The damage suffered by Salazar through that race, as well as his increased training which at points exceeded 200 miles each week, is claimed by some go have contributed to his competitive decline. Salazar would not win another major marathon after 1982.

As you may have read, Alberto Salazar was banned for four years by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in 2019, and the Oregon Project which he ran for Nike was shut down later that year. I will make no further comment on these matters, there are articles listed below that give further information. It should be noted that this ban does not relate to his performance at the 1981 New York City Marathon.

The shoes:                   

Nike appeared to leave no such mystery around the shoes worn by Salazar that day, publishing ads extolling the virtues of their sleek American Eagle running shoe. They dubbed it The Shoe That Ate New York. There was no specific major innovation with the American Eagle. It used EVA foam and the latest development of the waffle outsole that Nike had introduced years earlier to great effect. It had various measures to improve stability while still maintaining the low weight of 167 grams.

Except for one somewhat major problem. Salazar did not wear the American Eagle at the 1981 New York City Marathon. Pictures from the event show the shoes he wore had different overlays, particularly around the toebox. The upper is more reminiscent of other racing shoes Nike made at the time including the Zoom D and Waffle Racer. It also appears to have been used in the prototype shoes Joan Benoit wore at the 1984 Olympics, erroneously referred to as the Daybreak by Nike in recent advertising, more on that here.

The midsole and outsole unit however still appear to be the same as the American Eagle. This marks the light blue racing flats as the extremely rare Skylon Racer. This model was never made available to the public, instead being provided to the top athletes of the Nike fold, including Salazar and middle-distance running legend Mary Decker. Little information is available about the Skylon Racer, other than its shared credentials with other Nike racing shoes of the era. It seems strangely appropriate that the world record that wasn’t was set in shoes different to those claimed. Neither the Skylon Racer nor the American Eagle have ever been rereleased.