The controversial Nike Vaporfly running shoe, worn by 31 of the last 36 podium finishers at the six major marathons in the world last year, has not been banned for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, according to an article inThe Guardian newspaper. But tighter rules are set to be put in place around shoes allowed in running. It might sound like a novel problem – magic shoes – but running is not the first sport to have this issue, and lessons can be learned from others that have battled with advancing technologies.
The Vaporfly contain a carbon plate that is supposed to make running more efficient. It theoretically acts as spring, propelling you in the right direction. Running fans have questioned its fairness. Running is a test of physical stamina, not a battle of who has the best shoes.
Or is this the inevitable march of technology, and if so, where do we draw the line? Clothing has got better at wicking sweat, and cools athletes faster than garments of yesteryear. Off the track, training techniques, coaches and the latest sport science are available to some and not others. Are these all unfair advantages?
Two precedents can be considered in this conversation.
In 2008, Speedo launched a swim suit called the LZR Racer. It covered the whole body, was tight to make swimmers streamlined and added buoyancy. As many as 74 world records were set in it in the first six months after its launch, and over 90 per cent of all golds won at the Beijing Olympics were won in the suit, according to a different Guardian article.
“It's part of the evolution of the sport,” Jason Rance, the person in charge of developing the suit for Speedo, said at the time. Others called it “technological doping”.
In 2009, Fédération Internationale de Natation (Fina), swimming’s governing body, firstly banned the suits coming over the shoulders or ankles, then just a couple of months later restricted them further so that the swimmers could only cover themselves from the waist to the knee, and the chest for women.
The other example comes in cycling. One of the most gruelling tests in cycling is the hour record. Cyclists see how far they can go in one hour, on a track from a standing start, alone. In the late 1990s, as the record began to come down, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) decided to split the categories.
So, for a time, there were separate marks for the hour record and best human effort.
The hour record was for cyclists taking on the challenge using a bike and equipment that was available before 1972. Eddy Merckx's 1972 record, set in Mexico City, retrospectively became the benchmark. It was broken three times until it was held by Ondřej Sosenka, set in 2005.
The best human effort category was for cyclists using all the modern equipment available. It was set nine times between 1984 and 1996, and belonged to Chris Boardman for almost two decades. In 2014, the UCI once again unified the records, allowing any bike that met UCI standards for endurance track events at that time, which meant Sosenka’s record stood as the benchmark. The record of 55.089kms now belongs to Victor Campenaerts, set in 2019.
So this leaves two options for running. Athletics could restrict the Vaporfly or any further shoe development, and let the records set in the last few years stand, like swimming. Or they could retrospectively reclassify records set in the shoe, and continue with two parallel running competitions, like the hour record and best human effort and fans can hope they do not reclassify them again in the future. The latter gets a bit confusing.
The first option seems the best one. It is not like some runners are competing on roller blades, yet. But before it gets out of hand, taking appropriate steps to keep the playing field level is smart. Although there is no ban for Vaporfly yet, there is a freeze on any more technology before the 2020 Olympics. World Athletics should inspect any incoming shoes before allowing them in competition. The body should examine how much advantage the Vaporfly actually give. Who knows? Their findings may change their decision later and they ban the shoe.
One might argue that contemporary runners might be competing on a level playing field, but that when it comes to historical performances, the playing field is uneven. However, when Fina imposed restrictions on the suits, records continued to be broken, in both short- and long-course records. Of the major 50-metre pool records, only one remains from the 2008-09 suit era in the women’s division, the rest having been set since, and in the men’s division half have been set since.
The sport of running is getting a handle on this with plenty of time to spare. Runners will get faster, and the fear of the Vaporfly will be a distant memory when the records set in them are smashed by the speedsters of tomorrow, whether they are in today’s shoes or not.