Though only used for four years in competition, the Nike Vaporfly family of shoes is already firmly rooted in distance running history. Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei are primarily responsible from their barrier-breaking performances while wearing versions of the new Nike models. Perhaps it is that already well-established depth of performance that led World Athletics to rule in favor of not banning the Nike Vaporfly or Next% shoes, even as they placed an “indefinite moratorium” on further technological advancements like midsole stack heights over 40mm and any more than one embedded plate. The ruling concludes that “there is sufficient evidence to raise concerns that the integrity of the sport might be threatened by recent developments”.

Vaporfly AlphaFly

Only the AlphaFly model that Kipchoge wore for his INEOS 1:59 Challenge in Vienna last October fell in the ruling.

But a middling decision like this – VaporFly and Next % stay, AlphaFly goes – happens when technology gets out in front of governing, which it always does. In that sense, governing, like ethics, is almost always in a reactive position. If WA had ruled against the entire VF family, what with all the records that have already been produced?  No, it was already too late to forget 2:01:39 and 2:14:04, and all the other records now standing atop that midsole foam. 

The new rules halt the use of prototype shoes like the AlphaFly with its higher midsole stack and multiple carbon plates. Also, any new models being developed would have to have been on the market for at least four months before being allowed in competition. That puts an April 30th deadline on any new shoe hoping to be cleared for takeoff at the Tokyo Olympic Marathons, scheduled for August 2nd (women) and 9th (men).

Irrespective of the WA ruling, appropriate salutes must go to the VF designers as the shoes do represent ground-breaking technology. But the question lingering even after the WA ruling is whether there is still an unfair advantage in wearing those particular shoes in competition over other shoe brand models?

In a sense, though, this running shoe controversy is somewhat similar to the Trump impeachment trial controversy that seems to be ending in the Senate today with a mostly party-line vote not to hear from further witnesses.

With Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) confirming that she will vote NOT to hear from former National Security Advisor John Bolton or any other witnesses, therein joining fellow Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who made the same decision yesterday, the president’s acquittal is all but certain.

Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander

Alexander’s rationale was that while the House Managers had proven their case that President Trump did, in fact, strong-arm Ukraine President Zelensky for political dirt on his opponent Joe Biden by withholding congressionally approved military aid, that strong-arming, though “inappropriate “, didn’t rise to a removal from office level offense, especially in an election year.  Instead, the Senator would have the American people, themselves, decide the issue in the upcoming November election – notwithstanding that the president was attempting to corrupt that election by his “inappropriate” actions.

In the Vaporfly situation, the argument was whether the midsole-stacked foam and carbon plate technology that constitutes the Vaporfly advances were inappropriately giving an advantage to its wearers over their competitors.  Evidently, World Athletics determined that the original two models did not, or had already been too widely in use to ban ex-post facto, even as they raised concerns about the integrity of the sport being in question.

Arguments in favor of not banning the VaporFly and Next% technology came down to the fact that they didn’t actually add energy to a runner’s stride per se, in other words, they don’t literally act like a spring.  Instead, they simply lessen the dampening effect of energy loss produced by each footstrike. Kind of an ‘I say potato, you say potahto’ distinction.

But with the increased size in the mid-sole stack and the number of carbon plates inserted, at what point would WA determine that runners aren’t landing on the ground anymore as such, but instead are landing on an intermediary device which then interacts with the ground in a substantially different manner than their competitors?

As a practical matter, the end result is that athletes wearing Nike technology seem to retain a marginal advantage over their competitors who are not wearing them, even though a version of the same technology is being introduced by other shoe brands post haste.  And as we know, at the elite level, winning resides in the margins. So was Nike in the position of being sanctioned for what is essentially an excellent new design, or was World Athletics simply trying, as best they could, to maintain a level playing field until the competition catches up?

Where the two controversial issues diverge is, unlike with our political conundrum where there is an election coming up in a few months time where the people will have their say, in the sport, there are only an Olympic Marathon Trials coming up in the U.S. in a few weeks time in Atlanta, and then an Olympic Games coming up in (mostly) Tokyo in a few months.

And so it goes.  



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