Opinion 8th April 2021

Beth Potter’s 5k: Skill, shoes, or substances?

Beth Potter’s time at the Podium 5k…

On 3 April 2021 at the Podium 5k at Barrowford, Lancashire, Beth Potter ran a 5k in a time of 14 minutes 41 seconds, which is inside the world record. However, it appears unlikely that Potter will be crowned as the new World or even the British record holder. British Athletics has confirmed that it is unable to ratify the time.

Rather than being celebrated, Potter’s performance has been met with scepticism. The Twitter trolls have been out in force.

How could a triathlete run so fast? Impossible without new shoe technology! Potter is doping! All presumption, with zero evidence.

Potter is an experienced runner

First of all, it is not strictly accurate to label Potter as a ‘triathlete’. She has been an elite runner from 2008, and competed in the 10,000m final at the Rio 2016 Olympics (34th) and the London 2017 Worlds (21st). 

The times and opponents involved say a lot about Potter’s progression as an athlete. In Rio, she finished almost four minutes behind Ethiopian Almaz Ayana, who set a new World Record of 29:17.45. At London 2017, Ayana ran a slower time of 30:16.32, but Potter finished under two minutes behind her. She knocked just under a full minute off her Rio time, despite injury. 

In January 2017, Potter had quit her job as a Physics teacher to concentrate on triathlon. As pointed out by Triathlete.com, there isn’t a lot of money in track running unless you are at the very top of the elite. At the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, Potter finished second from last in the 10,000m final with a time of 33:26.78.

Yet she won Gold at the Weert 2019 European Triathlon Championships. It appears that triathlon offered more opportunity for her to reach the top, and perhaps more of an opportunity to earn a living from sport.

Potter’s ‘record’ 5k time of 14:41 is 35 seconds behind the 14:06 World Record in the 5,000m (track). By way of comparison, there is only a 16 second gap between the 12:35 World Record in the Men’s 5,000m (track) and the 12:51 World Record in the Men’s 5k. This led Triathlete.com to describe the women’s 5k as a ‘soft’ World Record.

In short, slicing 43 seconds off your 5k personal best is an impressive performance by anybody’s standards. Potter wanted to be pushed, so she asked the Podium 5k organisers to move her from the sub-16 minute group to the sub-15:30 group the night before the race.

Shoe technology

Asics Metaspeed Sky shoes were launched on 30 March and were couriered out to Potter for the race. They do have carbon plates, but Potter told Athletics Weekly that she completed her 10k personal best in a pair of Nike Streak, which don’t have carbon plates.

Journalists have speculated that her performance was because of the shoes. “They don’t know anything about my training and they are people who are just speculating”, Potter told Athletics Weekly. “I train really hard and I have a great group of people around me in Leeds who help me and who believe in me.

“These people are picking on my Power of 10 which is from four years ago and taking data which is out of context. So, yes, I do find it a bit insulting. They don’t see what I do day in, day out.”

Perhaps the new shoes helped. But Potter can’t be blamed for taking advantage of new, permitted technology. 

In 2010, the international swimming federation (FINA) banned all new generation non-permeable buoyant bodysuits after a number of World Records were broken. This included 23 World Records which fell at the Beijing 2008 Olympics alone.

FINA’s rules don’t completely outlaw buoyant fabrics, just as World Athletics’ rules don’t completely outlaw carbon plates in shoes. Perhaps keeping sponsorship in mind, sport is willing to permit a certain amount of technical innovation.

In the 1960s when spongy, synthetic compounds replaced cinder tracks, endurance records fell in athletics. People didn’t call for the new tracks to be banned, nor did they blame the athletes.

Finding ways to make athletes faster is in the interest of manufacturers. Setting a new World Record is perhaps the best marketing any manufacturer could hope for. Everybody has now heard of Asics Metaspeed Sky, just as Eliud Kipchoge’s sub two hour marathon catapulted the Nike Vaporfly into the public consciousness (despite the shoe he actually used being banned). 

Sport cannot hold back the tide of technological innovation. Do we really want a return to the ancient Olympics, where athletes compete naked (don’t answer that…)?

Doping

There is no evidence that Potter has doped. There will always be people who will look at a time with a suspicious eye and scream DOPING! This is perhaps a quirk of modern sport and is not a bad thing, except for the athlete involved. Of course, doping is a possibility and a certain amount of scepticism is healthy, especially when an athlete shows a remarkable improvement in form. 

It is understood that as well as being no British Athletics Level 4 timekeepers on site. This is understood to be why British Athletics cannot verify Potter’s time as an official World Record. There was also no doping control. 

World Athletics sent the race organiser a number of questions. A December 2020 amendment to Rule 31.3.5 of World Athletics’ Competition Rules (click here to download) specifies that athletes must submit to doping control immediately after the end of an event in order to ratify a World Record (see right).

It could be argued that the lack of official timekeepers would make the Podium 5k a strange event at which to dope, given that any achievements would receive no official recognition and would only serve to draw attention to the athlete. On the other hand, critics could argue that this offers perfect conditions in which to dope in preparation for major events.

I had planned to contact Potter to get her viewpoint for this article. Unfortunately, that became difficult as she has closed all her social media accounts to direct messaging, perhaps due to the attention her feat has attracted. She did, however, get in touch after this article was originally published to confirm that she contacted UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) on her way home, and was tested within 24 hours of racing.

Paradise lost

The speculation that surrounds Potter’s achievement perhaps illustrates the cynicism that surrounds modern sport. Athletes recording an amazing time now have to content with allegations that they were pharmacologically or technologically assisted – that their achievements are not their own. In addition, some successful female athletes that don’t confirm to male stereotypes have to contend with speculation that they are ‘biologically male’, to borrow terminology used by World Athletics.

A shoe featuring a carbon plate, a sub-7kg carbon aero bike or even erythropoietin (EPO) won’t make you a winner on its own (once again, there is no evidence that Potter has doped). A huge amount of work is needed in order to succeed at elite sport before such things make a difference.

Describing Potter’s time as an ‘achievement’ was not an accident. There is no evidence that she has done anything other than play by the rules to record an amazing time. And for that, she should be congratulated.

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