The synthetic flooring revolution in athletics: The experience of Pedro Pablo Fernández Ruiz

Article written by Pedro Pablo Fernández Ruiz, Spanish decathlon champion (1972), 12-time international champion and bronze medalist at the 1971 Mediterranean Games, as well as an international and Olympic athletics coach for the sprinters who currently compete in the 400 meters for the Real Federación Española de Atletismo and founding member of the Scorpio 71 club.

The historic event that has had the greatest impact on the development of the disciplines known collectively as athletics is, without a doubt, the arrival of synthetic flooring for racing, jumping and throwing (javelin) events.

The great leap from volcanic ash (or simple packed earth) to synthetic flooring, with the subsequent evolution of shoes, soles, cleats, etc., led to the improvement of athletes’ results and improved safety, and prompted the search for, and development of, new racing styles and techniques all over the world.

Personally, as a decathlete and trainer during the “transition years,” I can testify to the significant improvement brought about by synthetic flooring. After synthetic flooring was adopted at the stadium of Vallehermoso in Madrid (1969) and at the Pedralbes University Residence in Barcelona, my results increased significantly (7.007 in the decathlon; 7.46 meters in the long jump; 10.8 seconds in the 100 meters; 1.90 meters in the high jump and 15.16 meters in the triple jump), and the same was true for the other athletes in my training group.

The synthetic tartan was phenomenal for its neuromuscular qualities, although it did come with some disadvantages: After the pouring of what I believe was hot polyurethane, some grains of the same material (the topping) would spread out and cling to the surface before becoming detached and piling up wherever the wind blew them, which had a negative impact on the sturdiness of the surface, especially for jumping.

I first noticed the improved surfaces on the tracks in Manresa, in 1985, during the Spain Youth U18 Championship, in which I participated along with some other athletes from my group.

The athletics track there, unlike poured-in-place synthetic flooring, was composed of prefabricated lanes, with a surface designed to help give the athletes traction   even if they weren’t wearing cleats. (The track didn’t have those famous free grains.) Two of my athletes were outstanding, improving their results. One, Jesús Catón, won the gold in the high jump (2.08 meters) and came in fourth in the 110-meter hurdles (15.22 seconds). The other was my son, Pedro Fernández Trasobares, who won the gold in the 110-meter hurdles (14.85 seconds) and in the 300-meter hurdles (38.23 seconds).

The distance between packed ash and the modern synthetic surfaces (with intermediate steps including rubcor, bitumvelox and others) used for the latest Olympic Games and world championships is no small gap. It is the outcome of a lengthy journey of testing and research designed to naturally bring out the best in athletes and in their performances.

The information and the data in this article were provided by the author, Pedro Pablo Fernández.