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Fionnuala McCormack.
Fionnuala McCormack.
Image: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

'World Athletics have let us down. I feel they were weak, and it makes me sad'

Irish Olympian Fionnuala McCormack vents her frustration as the governing body allow Nike’s controversial Vaporflys to be used in Tokyo.
Feb 4th 2020, 7:38 PM 23,953 11

TODAY IN ATYPICAL press conference settings: the imposing Georgian stone of Kings Inns, where the corridors are broad, the walls are tall and the doors are big, perhaps to remind you just how small you are in the face of the law. 

Kings Inns is where Ireland’s barristers come to train, and it is in a grand drawing room off the main hall, sitting in front of a wall-sized portrait of Roger Casement’s trial for treason, that Fionnuala McCormack puts World Athletics in the dock. 

“I feel World Athletics have let us down in the last week. I feel they were weak, and it makes me sad. To me, that’s not what the sport is about.

“I feel like I’m the only one that really feels like that. No athletes seem to feel the way I feel about it.”

The subject is the governing body’s ruling on the use of shoe technology, in response to the game-changing technology of the Nike Vaporfly. 

The shoes use a large, hard but lightweight foam on the heel along with a curved carbon plate to create a spring effect that reduces the amount of energy used with each step. 

The claim is that the shoes improve performance by 4%, and they are tangibly revolutionising elite distance running: Kenya’s Brigid Kosge set a new world record for a women’s marathon in them last year, and athletes wearing the Vaporflys accounted for 31 of 36 top-three finishes in 2019′s major marathons. 

imago-20191027 The Nike Vaporfly. Source: Imago/PA Images

The respected sports scientist Ross Tucker has called the Vaporflys the “shoe that broke running”, while Kara Goucher believes her opponents’ use of the technology in qualifying for the 2016 Olympics may have cost her a place in Rio. 

World Athletics, however, last week announced they could be used at the Tokyo Olympics later this year. 

“I think they are a bit soft on the rule”, says McCormack. “It definitely seems to be playing up to the one brand, and set out as ‘We have this and everyone else can play catch up if they want.’ 

“It just doesn’t look fair to me.” 

McCormack is sponsored by New Balance, and they are developing their own shoe in response to Nike’s revolution. She says she can’t be forced to wear a similar shoe and would prefer not to…but admits she now has to consider it. 

“I haven’t worn a shoe with a plate or foam in it, I’ve always been minimalist. That’s what I’ve always been comfortable in and what I’m used to. I suppose now that they’ve made a rule I have to think about it differently. I don’t want to think about it differently.

“I’d prefer not to. It’s only been a few days [since World Athletics decision] and I’ve thought about it a lot, but I don’t know if I’m putting myself at too much of a disadvantage to not, I don’t know.

“Maybe it is technological advancement but even for me, how do I compare myself with myself after this? If I wore a shoe, would I have a PB before and after? Do I run a PB and believe it’s me? Maybe that’s just making it easier for myself. It would have been so much easier for me if they’d banned the whole lot. I wouldn’t be in a position where I’d ever have to make a choice.” 

That said, she insists it won’t affect her if she chooses to race without them. 

“Other people had the shoe in the last Olympics. It’s the same as standing on the start line knowing that there are drug cheats beside you. You don’t look at them and you don’t think about it, you run your own race and you run the best you can.

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“It won’t affect me in that way if I’m not wearing shoes that other people are wearing. That’s the way it always is.” 

Just over a year after giving birth to her daughter Isla, McCormack ran in the Chicago marathon at which Kosge and her Vaporflys set a new world record. She clocked a PB of 2:26:47 to qualify for Tokyo 2020, shaving four minutes off her previous best and setting the second-fastest Irish time in history. 

Not that she will actually race in Tokyo – the marathon has been moved 800 kilometres north to Sapporo. 

It’s a bit of a strange decision. I still don’t even know why they did it. Is it just because they ended up with too many people in Tokyo and they just decided that they needed to move us? I don’t think they’ve moved the other endurance sports that are outside to possibly nicer temperatures or whatever. It’s a strange one. Marathon running is so big in Japan, you kind of feel a bit for the people of Tokyo who are basically going to hand their city over to the world for a couple of weeks and the event they’re most interested in is shipped off 800 kilometres away.

“It doesn’t seem very fair.” 

This will be McCormack’s fourth Olympic games. Having competed in the 3000m steeplechase in Beijing and the 10,000m and 5,000m in London, she ran the marathon in Rio. Just over a year later, Jemima Sumgong, the winner of that marathon, was handed a four-year ban for using a blood-boosting hormone.

olympic-games-2016-athletic-track-and-field Jemima Jelagat Sumgong wins gold in the Rio marathon. Source: DPA/PA Images

 

A year ago, silver medalist Eunice Kirwa (from Kenya but running from Bahrain) was banned for taking EPO. 

“I don’t know, I’m very cynical now, I don’t know what to believe”, says McCormack. “She [Sumgong] doesn’t get her medal taken off her which I think is unfair.

“I know people say you can’t ban Kenya because it’s not state-sponsored, but there shouldn’t be that many people getting caught and it looks like they need to do more than just ban them four years later.

“The gold and silver medallists from women’s marathon in Rio have both been caught and they’ll both keep their medals and there’s something wrong with that.” 

So the dodgy shoes are permitted, the cheats are allowed to keep their medals and the biggest event in the field which dictates her entire life has been exported 800km north at short notice. 

How on earth does she keep going? 

“That’s what I mean when I say it makes me sad because all of those small things, they do build up. It’s hard to be in a sport where you see that…some of it, I think, is weak leadership of the whole thing: it’s not banning the right people, it’s not setting down the right rules, it’s not following the rules they’ve set down.

“When I get down about the whole thing it still comes back to the same thing for me: I just love running and I love being competitive. There are things I can’t do anything about, but I can still run.” 

 Fionnuala McCormack was speaking to promote the Kia Race Series 2020. To register see www.popupraces.ie/kia-race-series-2020/

– Originally published 18.38, 4 February

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