Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon

In his classic Nike ads from a generation ago, Spike Lee (as Mars Blackmon) asked Michael Jordan what made him the best basketball player in the universe. Was it the vicious dunks?  The long shorts? The short socks?  

“No Mars, “ replied MJ. 

“Money, it’s gotta be da shoes!”

I have never written a shoe review in my life, but how can shoes not be an issue in a sport where footwear is the only equipment used?  Like tires on a car, shoes are where rubber meets the road/track in foot racing.

If the kicks weren’t so important. why has every shoe company continued designing and experimenting for the last 50 years?  Obviously, marketing is one answer, but there is always more to learn, more performance to squeeze out. Not that a new pair of Air Jordans will make you approximate Mr. Jordan on the court, but in the realm of performance, the small difference is where the money gets divided. Which makes new strides in technology open to new rules in governing. Which, in turn, illustrates why a shoe company sponsorship of a governing organization eventually leads to conflicts of interest both unwanted and unneeded in a time when the integrity of the sport has been called into question over and over again.

So, say, someone goes out and breaks the women’s steeplechase world record by eight seconds, but does so like she were taking the pet terrier out for a walk in the park, and instead of unalloyed encomiums, inevitably some will say, “Whoa! That sure looked easy!”  That’s how you know a sport has a PR issue, when a great performance raises red flags rather than simply goosebumps, and the big, red carpet sports awards show (ESPYs) doesn’t even take note of two of the historic American marathon performances in 30+ years.  

Okay, back to the shoes.  Racing flats are significantly lighter than training flats.  Why, if not performance?  But is it the increased flexibility?  Better ground feel? One of the metrics of shoe-born accelerometers is ‘distill leg lift’, back kick for we non-scientists. 

How much weight is carried at the end of a lever – and how much energy is required to cycle that weight per stride – is an important consideration in shaving seconds off performance. Over the marathon distance, a difference of 5 ounces ( 11 oz. trainers vs. 6 oz. racers) given the 1000 strides per mile, equates to an extra 8125 total pounds carried. 

Now add an advantage of ground energy return, whether 4% or not as claimed by Nike’s Zoom Vapor Fly 4%, and we are beginning to understand how the savings in energy required to generate forward motion can become the most significant discriminator in race outcomes. 

Studies indicate a savings of 1-sec-per-mile for every ounce in reduced weight. That’s 5-sec-per-mile trainers versus racing flats over the marathon distance, or 02:11. At the world class level, two-minutes is the difference between cashing a check and going home with significantly less weight in your pocket. 

Of course, the trade-off in weight reduction comes in cushioning and injury prevention, which is why even runners born and reared without shoes will readily accept them once offered. 

Since shoe selection is a passive element within a full training regimen, it won’t carry nearly the same weight as one’s genes or actual training. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a potential difference maker.  Which is why Nike designers got so involved in the Breaking2 Project in 2017 looking to scrub as many seconds off the  clock as possible, given that the basic human capacity to utilize oxygen and move mass through the atmosphere remains relatively unchanged.  

And more power to them. It’s no different than auto and tire manufacturers develop racing teams to improve down-market consumer goods based on the information gleaned from their race cars. Which is where the governors of the sport get involved, as they should, to maintain a level playing field in terms of equal opportunity. 

Blade Runner in Beijing 2012

But cutting edge is a good place to see activity in any sport, because It speaks of a striving, robust enterprise.  The need for a level playing field, however, demands equal attention. It’s why the South African Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius never should have been allowed to run the 2012 Olympic 400 in Beijing. 

Carbon fiber limbs require less energy to cycle through a stride. Plus, there is no need to jack yourself into sprint form, either, as the prosthetic legs already have you dorsal flexed. Meaning, notwithstanding a fairly equal finish time, the race itself isn’t a fair contest for either party. Interesting perhaps, but not fairly weighted. Just like allowing higher testosterone-producing females to race against lesser testosterone-producing females fails the fairness test, without casting any aspersions upon any of the competitors. 

So while it might be instructive to see how one group does against the other, it isn’t fair to put them in a true head-to-head competition. 

Good governance is a matter of unemotional decision making that advantages no particular side, rather elevates the general welfare.  As such, just like the exploration to uncover a better competitive mousetrap never ends, so must the sport’s governors continue to maintain a competitive balance where the medal or prize money distinctions are to be found in the common human condition, not in the disparity of their equipment, or in any pharmacological advantages, be they natural or by choice. 


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