Rattled by one of the most controversial and furthest reaching issues to have rocked the sport in recent years, global athletics officials have been widely criticised for their approach to the recent road running shoe debate, and while they have tightened their regulations, the problem seems to be far from resolved. With shoe manufacturer Nike leading the charge by capitalising on poor regulations, innovations in recent years have resulted in widespread improvements in performance. The Vaporfly, with its distinctly thick sole, first made heads turn at the 2016 Rio Olympics where the shoe was worn by the top three finishers...
Rattled by one of the most controversial and furthest reaching issues to have rocked the sport in recent years, global athletics officials have been widely criticised for their approach to the recent road running shoe debate, and while they have tightened their regulations, the problem seems to be far from resolved.

With shoe manufacturer Nike leading the charge by capitalising on poor regulations, innovations in recent years have resulted in widespread improvements in performance.

The Vaporfly, with its distinctly thick sole, first made heads turn at the 2016 Rio Olympics where the shoe was worn by the top three finishers in the men’s marathon.

Since then, athletes wearing various versions of the shoe have broken world records in the men’s and women’s marathon, as well as the men’s 10km event.

Nike’s super shoes: Making or breaking a sport?_1

The Full-length Carbon Fiber Plate in the Nike Vaporfly provides stability and a smooth transition; increases stiffness in the forefoot to provide a sensation of propulsion. – Picture: Nike.com

Last year, Kenyan star Eliud Kipchoge made history by becoming the first athlete to run under two hours over the marathon (42.2km) distance, and though his performance was produced in controlled conditions and was not considered for official record purposes, Kipchoge was wearing a protoype Nike AlphaFly shoe. Another great advert for the brand.

Statistics have also suggested the masses are following suit, with Nike boasting record sales last year as amateur runners snap up their latest footwear in an effort to break their own personal bests.
Subsequently, other brands have produced similar shoes in an effort to compete in the market, and the likes of Adidas, Asics and Saucony have reportedly developed thick-soled prototypes of their own.

So, if all runners can improve their performances by using technological advances, what’s the problem?

According to renowned sports scientist Ross Tucker, the situation isn’t as fair as it may seem. “It will continue to change the relationship between input and output, separate the sport into haves and have nots, and ultimately force it to be recalibrated and understood in a very different way from what it is now,” Tucker wrote on his website.

Late last month, global governing body World Athletics amended its regulations, approving recommendations made by an internal panel which included “technical, scientific and legal experts” as well as athlete representatives.

Under the new rules, manufacturers will need to make their shoes available for purchase on the open market for four months before sponsored athletes can use them in competition.

In addition, the soles of shoes can be no thicker than 40mm, and they can contain only one “rigid embedded plate”, preventing manufacturers from “stacking” plates.

“I believe these new rules strike the right balance by offering certainty to athletes and manufacturers as they prepare for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, while addressing the concerns that have been raised about shoe technology,” said World Athletics president Sebastian Coe.

The international body said it would establish an expert working group to guide future research into shoe technology and to assess new shoes which emerged on the market.

“If further evidence becomes available that indicates we need to tighten up these rules, we reserve the right to do that to protect our sport,” Coe said.

According to Tucker, however, it’s probably too little too late, and he feels the 40mm limit should have been set at 20mm.

“The failure to regulate ‘super shoes’ hurts running,” he says.

“It undermines one of the sport’s most valuable qualities, namely that the outcome, the title, the victory, goes to the athlete whose physiology is optimised through training and genetics, then enabled by tactics, to cross the finish line first.”

Lab test results suggest the Vaporfly shoe offers a performance advantage of between 2% and 6% for marathon runners, largely due to less oxygen consumption.

Tucker believes this is too much of an advantage.

He compares the potential barrier created between those who have access to beneficial technology, and those who do not, to other divisions which exist in competitive sport, including age, gender and weight classes.

“When the difference made by technology is larger than the normal difference between athletes, then the integrity of the result is changed,” he says.

“If that tech is unevenly distributed, with differences in access to it, then it becomes unfair.”

While many have argued that innovation to equipment has always played an important role in sport, Tucker believes the latest developments have been too rapid and poor regulation has changed the face of road running, as champions and records could now be celebrated as technological breakthroughs rather than victories of human performance and effort.

“Running was a sport where a limit was set at physiology, not revolutionary equipment. Incremental gains in performance happened thanks to equipment, certainly, but it was spread equally and small enough that it was not decisive.

“It’s different now, and the distortion of ‘input v output’, the resultant loss of integrity and the necessary recalibration hurts the sport massively.”

Other banned sports gear:

With World Athletics placing restrictions on road running shoes, here is some other

sports equipment which has been regulated or banned due to an apparent unfair advantage.

Golf balls:

Strategically placing its ‘Ultimate Straight’ ball’s 386 dimples at various depths, manufacturer Polara was able to reduce the spin on it, improving the accuracy of shots by up to 75%.
The ball, however, has been banned by the US Golf Association.

Aluminium bat:

During the Ashes series against England in 1979, Australian cricketer Dennis Lillee used an aluminium bat.
The umpires instructed Lillee to ditch it as it was damaging the ball, and the sport’s governing body subsequently introduced a rule which required players to use wooden bats.

Full body swimsuits:

With manufacturers using polyurethane and neoprene to give full body swimsuits more buoyancy and less drag, nearly 200 world records were broken between 2008 and 2010.
While global body Fina later banned the suits, the controversial records were kept in the books.

Prosthetic legs:

While chasing the qualifying time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, controversial sprinter Oscar Pistorius was sidelined from able-bodied competition, with international officials claiming the double amputee held an unfair advantage.
Pistorius took the matter to court, however, and was later cleared to compete, setting a precedent for athletes with carbon fibre blades who aimed to participate in able-bodied athletics.

Basketball Shoes:

Nike’s super shoes: Making or breaking a sport?_2

APL took the banning of their shoes in stride, and turned it into a marketing opportunity. – Picture: APL

In 2009, the Boston Celtics submitted shoes from Athletic Propulsion Labs (APL) to the NBA for approval to wear during the league’s playoffs. The shoes contain a special box in the front foot, which allowed claimed gains in vertical jump heights of as much as 9 cm, leading to an immediate ban by the NBA. The company promptly used the fact that their “Load ‘N Launch®” technology is so good it prompted a ban as part of their marketing pitch, leading to the shoes gaining cult status and selling for as much as $2000 a pair on the second hand market.

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