An athlete wearing Nike’s Vaporfly shoes. (REUTERS)
An athlete wearing Nike’s Vaporfly shoes. (REUTERS)

The Sporting Life | Technology setting pace, but is there unfair edge?

New technology that helps break old records is the norm in sports. In running itself, when cinder block tracks were replaced with new a synthetic material back in the 1960s, records toppled. The examples are countless
By Rudraneil Sengupta
PUBLISHED ON JUN 09, 2021 07:34 PM IST

In the past year, as the world grappled with the coronavirus disease pandemic, distance running was quietly taking some long strides forward. Since June 2020, the men’s and women’s world records in both 5000m and 10,000m have all fallen. The last to fall was on June 6, when Sifan Hassan, a runner from Netherlands, shaved nearly 10 seconds off the previous 10,000m record to post a blistering time of 29.06.82.

Two things connect the records: all four runners wore Nike’s Vaporfly shoes and the races featured pace setting lights. Both developments have led to plenty of controversy in the sporting world.

(There is another connection between the record setters, but more about that later).

First, the lights. Developed by a Dutch company, a series of lights line a track and flash ahead or behind a passing runner to indicate the runner’s pace difference with a set time. In the case of the 5000m and 10,000m records, the lights were set to the world record times.

Also Read | Women faster than men in races longer than 195 miles: Study

Pacing is of critical importance for endurance events, especially for those ahead of the pack. Instead of relying on their internal rhythm, Ethiopia’s 22-year-old Letesenbet Gidey (5000m women’s WR) and Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei (10,000m men’s WR) could chase the flashing lights and eventually overtake them to set their records.

Cheptegei underplayed the role the light played in the run.

“I was not after the light,” he told Letsrun.com in August. “It was Cheptegei and the world record.”

Clearly, the lights, which will not be in use at the Tokyo Olympics, do not offer an unfair advantage—they are there for all runners to see—it is up to the runner whether he or she has the ability to outpace it.

The shoe debate, though, has refused to die down. It began as a whisper in 2016, when, at the 2016 Olympic marathon, all three medallists in the men’s race climbed the podium in identical shoes—a Nike prototype soon to be released as the Vaporfly. It exploded as Nike and the world’s finest marathoner, Eliud Kipchoge, pulled off the arguably the greatest publicity act in the history of the sport by running a marathon in under two hours on a misty morning in Vienna in October 2019. Kipchoge wore yet another prototype version of the Vaporfly, with its distinct bulbous shape and neon colour. The next day, Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei set the world record for the women’s marathon in Chicago wearing the same shoes.

Why are these shoes controversial? Critics point to two things. One is that the proprietary technology violates a World Athletics (WA, the governing body for track) rule that says any equipment used should be reasonably accessible for most athletes. The second is that the technology is so advanced that it tampers with the integrity of the sport itself. The outrage peaked into a call for banning these shoes from official events—in August 2020, WA was forced to rule on the issue. Instead of banning the shoes, they introduced a cap on heel thickness on the soles of running shoes.

WA was right not to ban the shoes. Here’s why. First, what exactly is this new technology that’s so pathbreaking? The Nike shoes feature two unique design elements—one is a thin carbon plate inserted into the midsole, the other is a kind of foam used in aerospace tech that’s lighter and springier than anything else being used in shoes right now. Though the exact reason why these shoes work so well is yet to be understood (Nike says that it has to do with transfer of energy from the runner’s strides, enhancing running economy), a paper published this year in the journal Frontiers of Sports and Active Living found that they do indeed contribute significant decreases in race timings.

But does the new technology confer an unfair advantage? Not really. The technology is not even new. In 2007, when Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie set the then marathon world record of 2:04:26, he wore something called the Adidas ProPlate, a shoe that featured a carbon fibre plate in the midsole. After Nike introduced the Vaporfly, every shoe manufacturer launched a long-distance running pair with carbon plates. As for the foam, lighter and springier foams are the cornerstone of advancements in shoe technology, freely available for all manufacturers to tap into.

New technology that helps break old records is the norm in sports. In running itself, when cinder block tracks were replaced with new a synthetic material back in the 1960s, records toppled. The examples are countless—there’s hardly anything in common between a racing bike that will be used at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and the ones that were used in 1964, except the basic framework. Astro turfs changed hockey forever. Or, imagine Roger Federer playing with a wooden racket.

Perhaps the most relevant example comes from swimming. In 2008 and 2009, swimming world records were broken more than 130 times by athletes wearing a revolutionary new full-body suit developed by Speedo that reduced drag. Swimming’s world body had no choice but to intervene and ban the suit in 2010. It would be reasonable to expect then, that those records are still standing. No. Of the 40 major swimming records across men and women, only 12 remain from that “supersuit” period.

Which brings us to the runners themselves, and the third thing that connects the four new world records—in fact, it connects every single runner’s name mentioned so far in this piece. They all come from East Africa; in fact, they come from a small gene pool that belongs to an area called the Great Rift Valley (Hassan is a from Ethiopia and was taken in as a 15-year-old refugee by the Netherlands). Scores of studies have shown that the people of the Great Rift Valley have certain innate characteristics that make them superb endurance runners. That’s nature. The next step is a culture of running and a high-quality training atmosphere—that’s nurture.

Technology still can’t transcend a combination of the two.

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