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More controversy awaits as running steels itself for Nike's latest shoe revolution

The Alphaflys will make their debut at the US Olympic trials this weekend, exposing the weak leadership of World Athletics.

The new Nike Alphaflys.
The new Nike Alphaflys.
Image: Alexandra Olson

REMEMBER WHEN WE could fight over running’s soul?

Quaint days, given we’re now squabbling about its soles.

The US Olympic marathon trials this weekend offer an interesting point for reflection on Nike’s all-conquering shoe technology. It was at this event in 2016 that the Nike Vaporflys justified the steady hum of private hype.

Now the trials have swung around again and the latest pair of shoes are the only show in town. The Vaporflys are old news: meet the Alphaflys, a version of the shoes in which Eliud Kipchoge ran a sub-two-hour marathon last year. 

They have been amended to fit new World Athletics rules, and Nike are offering a free pair to every athlete in Atlanta this weekend without any obligation to wear them.

Since those trials were held four years ago, the shoes’ technology hasn’t just conquered the sport’s market, it has conquered the sport itself.

All new-fangled pieces of sports apparel debut with marketingspeak as to what it does and what improves, but it was at these Olympic trials four years ago that we learned that when Nike said their Vaporflys improved running economy by up to 4%, they meant it.

Kara Goucher, who cut ties with Nike over her objections to Alberto Salazar and the Oregon Project, missed out on a place in Rio as she finished fourth in those Olympic trials, and then watched two athletes clamber to the podium in Vaporflys.

Goucher subsequently told Forbes that “I could handle not being good enough to make our team, but learning that a propulsion device in a shoe might have kept me out was just devastating.”

2017-iaaf-world-championships-day-two-london-stadium Kara Gocher. Source: Yui Mok

The evidence that the Vaporflys are drastically improving athletes’ times is now irrefutable. A July 2018 New York Times study of 500,000 marathon times found that the shoes have improved performance by three to four percent, and are one percent better than other shoes trying to replicate the Vaporflys’ tech.

A one percent improvement to Goucher’s time four years ago would have earned her a spot in Rio.

Ready for the bit of this article that delves into the mechanics and dynamics of a shoe? No? Well too bad, because it’s grimly necessary.

The big, um, step forward in technology has been Nike’s ability to curve a carbon-fibre plate in the shoe’s sole, made possible by a heightened heel hewn of a firm, Pebax foam.

The plate stores and releases energy, creating a cushion effect that means the athlete exerts less of themselves with each stride. World records have fallen in their wake, with Vaporfly athletes setting new times at the men’s and women’s marathons and half-marathons.

The Alphaflys will bring an even greater improvement in performance, as they have an increased “stack height” (the height of the foam heel) of 39.5 mm, which sneaks beneath recent World Athletics recent regulations on shoes.

The governing body’s rules around footwear to that point were vague, stating that footwear must not offer any “unfair assistance or advantage.” The updated rules are more specific, and limit stack height to 40mm.

Nike curiously released the Alphaflys five days after the regulations were announced, which seems like a pretty remarkable coincidence. The governing body have been accused of having too cosy a relationship with Nike, with the fact there’s a building at Nike HQ named after World Athletics president Sebastian Coe not doing a whole lot to deflect those questions.

World Athletics told The Guardian’s Sean Ingle that Nike weren’t tipped off about the upcoming regulations, and that the governing body spoke to several shoe companies, including Nike, ahead of the announcement. 

While World Athletics reserve the right to ban the shoes if further study shoes they are giving some athletes an unfair advantage, at the moment they are fair game for the Olympics.

It might be too late to ban them. Reid Coolsaet is a Canadian runner who decided against renewing his contract with New Balance so he could run in the Alphaflys and get one last crack at the Olympics, and said in a recent radio interview that banning the shoes at this point would “be quite unfair to anybody else still looking to meet that qualification standard.”

For now, non-Nike athletes have decisions to make. Do they break contracts to keep pace with those in Alphaflys? Or do they skirt around the issue by doing what some have craftily done, and paste their sponsors’ logo over the Nike swoosh?

Speaking to The42 at the start of February, Fionnuala McCormack was unsure as to what she would do, resented the fact she had to make a decision and wondered aloud whether a PB set in Vaporflys is truly a PB.

“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.

The governing body have been too slow to wake up to the revolution that began quietly four years ago, and it has now spiralled beyond their control. Coe said it’s not their job to regulate the shoe market, but this market exists because they were too slow to regulate the shoe. 

Their lassitude about Nike’s carbon-fibre plates is all the more strange when you consider that this is an organisation that went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to argue that Oscar Pistorius’ carbon-fibre blades gave him an unfair advantage against opponents with mere legs. 

Technological progress in sport is inevitable, but it should be incremental and shouldn’t fiddle with the vocabulary we reach for to describe sporting triumph and disaster. At no point should talk of the intangibles of human achievement be displaced by mention of Pebax Foam.

After she won 5,000-metre silver at the Sydney Olympics, Sonia O’Sullivan was asked how she managed to pull away from third-placed Gete Wami.

“Maybe she wasn’t brave enough to take it on out there. Cos, you know, that’s what the Olympics is all about.”

That’s what the Olympics should be about, but this year, it’s about a pair of shoes.

Nice work, everyone.

Originally 08.30

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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