Mechanical Doping: the controversy surrounding the shoe that broke running

Emily Oakshott shares her thoughts on elite running's mechanical doping debate

Emily Oakshott
4th November 2020
In order for a sport to be successful, its results have to have meaning; participants and spectators have to understand what the sport aims to achieve and what elements of the sport are important.

Every sport decides what this meaning is.

In F1 racing, spectators and participants acknowledge and celebrate the synergy between car innovation and athletic ability.

In cycling, everyone recognizes the importance of the equipment, as well as the cyclist’s physiology.

In running, it is expected that the winner will be the athlete who has trained the hardest, who ran the best race, and who has the optimum tactics and psychology.

But what happens when the meaning of a sport is threatened by the advancement of technology?

In 2019, 86% of runners achieving podium positions in the world’s 6 largest marathons were wearing Nike Vaporfly shoes.

Composed of a curved carbon plate and springy Pebax foam, the Nike Vaporfly technology is said to improve elite athlete’s race performances by approximately 4%.

For context, a 4% increase in running efficiency across the marathon distance equates to the improvement of an elite athlete’s marathon time of up to two minutes.

Two minutes may sound like a negligible difference. Yet in the 2020 London marathon, just two minutes separated race winner Shura Kitata and 8th place.

To put it simply, with a pair of Nike Vaporfly running shoes, you can beat an athlete who is physiologically superior to you.

Many people argue that innovation is inevitable and essential to the advancement of running - it is unrealistic to expect elite athletes to compete in outdated technology. However, others contest that innovation is developing too quickly and unfairly.

Celebrated sports scientist Professor Ross Tucker put it this way: “we accept that over time there is a creep of innovation and technology and knowledge that makes us better. But, when the technology is introduced suddenly, and it causes a step change, a large step change in performance... that, for me, distorts the race results”.

Professor Tucker asserts that Nike’s Vaporfly shoes are simply too advanced, in comparison to other shoes on the market. Therefore, athletes with sponsorship from other brands, as well as athletes who respond poorly to Nike technology, suffer a significant disadvantage.

Responding to the outcry surrounding controversial success of athletes racing in Nike’s Vaporfly shoes, World Athletics introduced a new regulation in early 2020 designed to regulate the influence of technology on race results.

The regulation states that the stack height of road racing shoes must be a maximum of 40mm. In addition, approved shoes must be available for purchase or distribution to “any uncontracted elite athlete via an athletic shoe availability scheme”.

This regulation did seem to be a step in the right direction from World Athletics.

However, with the release of the new regulation-compliant Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next% racing shoes only 4 days after the announcement, critics argue that the regulation favors Nike and their athletes.

“What a coincidence an objective panel with no outside influence landed the ruling at 40mm. Groundhog Day.”

– World 10,000m silver medalist Kara Goucher.

Other critics, including American scientist Geoffrey Burns, also suggest that World Athletics could have done more to ensure that certain athletes don’t have an unfair advantage.

Burns suggests that the ruling to allow the continuance of Nike domination in distance events will not only affect elite athletes, but also runners at school and university level: “Think of high school and college levels… the tip of the iceberg is the elite scene”.

Nine months on from the release of the new World Athletics regulation, the topic of running shoe technology is still sparking controversy.

Source: Wall Street Journal

This month, Sara Hall (runner up of the 2020 London marathon) has been under scrutiny as she was found to be competing in a “development shoe”. While Hall’s agent asserts that the shoes were legal, the fact that this debate is still prevalent outlines the danger that innovation poses to the sport.

It would be unfair not to acknowledge and celebrate Nike’s incredible technology; to produce a shoe that can have such a significant impact on running efficiency and race results really is an astounding feat of engineering.

However, as running is a sport that relies heavily on being able to accurately compare athletes, we must ask ourselves: does Nike Vaporfly technology really have a place in the running events that we know and love?

Featured Image: Twitter @snkr_twitr
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