After winning his second round heat in a blazing 9.96 seconds, eventual 100-meter champion Justin Gatlin gave the glory to the track. "It feels like running on air out there," he said. When he crushed the 200-meter world record in the Atlanta Olympics, Michael Johnson described the track surface as a "magic carpet." It's not air, and it's not magic carpet. It's Mondo.
Maybe because it's the best, or maybe because the name just makes it sound really fast, Mondo has a virtual monopoly in the high-end track surfacing business. The manufacturing powerhouse, a privately owned Italian company that also makes luxury yachts, has an exclusive contract with the track world championships and the Olympics, where the company's Sportflex Super X Competition track has been the official surface since the 1972 Games. Mondo claims it's the only company that uses natural rubber rather than the petroleum-based synthetics in other rubberized tracks. Those rubber trees aren't cheap, though—the AP reported last year that the Mondo surfaces in Athens cost $2.44 million. (If you want to try setting some world records in your backyard, a Mondo sales rep quoted me a price of $65 per square yard.)
So, how do you make a world-class track? Rather than pour it on-site like most manufacturers, Mondo prefabricates the surface, then ships the finished product for installation. In the factory, raw rubber and a few additives—pigments (red for the Athens track), densing agents (add more to get a harder, faster track), and a UV protector—are tossed into a large vat that churns everything up like a sausage grinder. The top and bottom layers are made separately, then laid on top of each other and vulcanized until they stick together, creating a surface that's 14 mm thick.
At this point, when the material is still hot and soft, the surface's texture gets imprinted by running the rubber through a device that works like a penny-flattening machine. When that's done, the rubber is shoved into an oven for further cooking, then trimmed to the track's designated lane width. Each strip is then cut, fed onto a spool, wrapped in plastic, and marked with a label like "Lane 1, Roll 1." Putting the track together is as easy as assembling some Ikea furniture. Just lay each piece down on a concrete foundation, stick it together with adhesive, and you've got a track that'll last about 15 years.
Rubberized tracks have been around since the early 1960s when they debuted in England—the place with the perfect combination of bad weather and an affinity for running. Prior to the introduction of synthetics, runners competed on grass, dirt, or cinder, a grey-black amalgam of rock, carbon, and ash. For wizened track stars, cinder is the equivalent of the snow your parents had to slog through to get to school every day. Weather conditions would change the consistency and traction of the surface, forcing athletes to pack different pairs of spikes depending on the temperature and humidity.
Mostly because of the cost, synthetics took a while to catch on, but the dirt-tracked 1964 Tokyo Games were the last pre-rubber Olympics. While there's still plenty of dirt around, including many tracks in California, today's top runners usually insist on rubber. A rubber track can be made out of anything from recycled tires to premium-grade rubber trees. But no matter the manufacturer, sprinters pray for a rock-hard surface, while distance runners, some of whom still train on grass, like something nice and soft to prevent wear and tear on the body.
Some long-distance types complain that Mondo has failed the Goldilocks test—the tracks are way too hard. Ethiopian distance legend Haile Gebrselassie, for one, has complained that the hard surface leaves his feet cracked and bleeding. Mondo tests each strip of track with a device called a durometer to make sure it doesn't exceed International Association of Athletic Federations standards for firmness. Once the track is laid, the IAAF itself uses an "artificial athlete" armed with sensors that calculate the force imparted on an athlete's feet. Sprinters like Justin Gatlin and Michael Johnson certainly don't mind testing out the company's tracks. For them, it wouldn't be an Olympic final without Mondo.