- Nike’s controversial Vaporfly shoes, worn by record-breaking marathoners, just avoided a ban ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
- New rules announced Friday permit the shoes already on the market to be worn in competition, but ban prototype shoes in competitions, which includes the Nike Alphaflys worn in the first ever sub-2-hour marathon.
- Vaporfly soles give runners more energetic efficiency, but some researchers and runners think the shoes confer an unfair advantage.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Nike’s controversial Vaporfly shoes have avoided a ban ahead of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
World Athletics, the organisation that governs most international track-and-field events, announced new shoe regulations on Friday. The ruling places an immediate, indefinite ban on shoes with more than one plate or with soles thicker than 40 millimetres. (The Vaporfly sole is exactly 40 millimetres in thickness, according to Runner’s World.) Shoes with spikes attached by an additional plate must have a sole thickness of 30 millimetres or less.
As previous reports predicted, the change does not ban Nike Vaporfly shoes. The man and woman who hold the world records for fastest marathon both compete in Vaporflys, and the footwear has stirred controversy since some critics say its technology confers an unfair advantage.
The new rules do, however, ban prototypes. Starting April 30, athletes will only be allowed to compete in shoes that have been on the market for at least four months. That means that Nike’s prototype Alphafly shoes - which Eliud Kipchoge wore when he ran the first sub-2-hour marathon ever - likely won’t be allowed in competitions.
The ruling also stipulates that World Athletics can ban any shoe or technology that the organisation believes might violate the rules while it investigates.
“It is not our job to regulate the entire sports shoe market, but it is our duty to preserve the integrity of elite competition by ensuring that the shoes worn by elite athletes in competition do not offer any unfair assistance or advantage,” World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said in a press release.
He added: “As we enter the Olympic year, we don’t believe we can rule out shoes that have been generally available for a considerable period of time, but we can draw a line by prohibiting the use of shoes that go further than what is currently on the market while we investigate further.”
The ban on prototypes does not, however, apply to shoes that have been customised for aesthetic or medical reasons, so long as the original version is available for anyone to buy.
Critics say the Vaporfly design gives an unfair advantage
Before the new rulings, the World Athletics regulations simply stated that running shoes can’t confer any “unfair assistance or advantage” and have to be “reasonably available” to everyone. But the organisation did not define those standards more specifically until Friday.
Some runners and researchers think the Vaporfly does confer an unfair advantage, since the shoes’ foam and carbon-fibre sole is designed so that less energy is lost in each footfall. Both independent and Nike-sponsored studies have shown that Vaporflys increase athletes’ energetic efficiency by 4% or more. In marathon-length distances, that yields significant dividends.
Kyle Barnes, a movement scientist who authored a study about the Vaporfly shoes in February 2019, previously told Business Insider that the carbon-fibre plate is curved under the front of the shoes, which also makes a big difference. That curvature, he said, helps quickly rock a runner from their heels to their toes as they land and push off again.
“As soon as you put the shoes on, you have this ‘Aha!’ moment in which you know these are different than anything you’ve put on before,” Barnes said. “I have several pairs.”
Jake Riley, an American runner who finished ninth in the 2019 Chicago marathon, has said the Nike Vaporfly shoes feel like “running on trampolines.”
The superiority of Vaporflys
The Vaporflys’ performance record speaks for itself. In 2019, runners wearing Vaporflys claimed 31 out of the 36 male and female podium spots in the six biggest marathons around the world. Brigid Kosgei beat the previous marathon world record by 81 seconds when she finished the 2019 Chicago marathon in 2 hours, 14 minutes, and 4 seconds wearing Vaporflys.
“The runner runs the race, but the shoe enables him or her to run it faster for the same effort or ability,” Geoff Burns, a kinesiology researcher and pro-runner, previously told Business Insider. “So for two athletes of equal ability on race day, the one with the shoes is going to beat the one without the shoes.”
World Athletics formed a working group of athletes, scientists, and legal experts last fall to review Vaporflys and their technology. On Friday, the organisation announced that it will also establish a new working group to assess new shoes as they enter the market, and also plans to oversee research into future shoe technology and potential regulations.
Some runners sponsored by other shoe companies might have liked to see World Athletics issue stricter rules about existing Nike Vaporflys. Sara Hall, an Asics-sponsored runner, told Outside Online last year that because of the shoes, “it’s hard to really just celebrate performances at face value right now.”
“I think it would help to have some limits, just like other sports have, like swimming, or triathlon, or cycling,” she added. “They all have limits of the gear. So I think that would help create more of an even playing field.”
The challenge, World Athletics said last year, is finding “the right balance in the technical rules between encouraging the development and use of new technologies in athletics and the preservation of the fundamental characteristics of the sport: accessibility, universality, and fairness.”
- Read more:
- Nike’s controversial Vaporfly shoes are helping runners set new records, but some think it’s ‘technology doping.’ Here’s how they work.
- The winner of the New York City Marathon and the fastest marathoner in the world have one thing in common: Both wear the same controversial shoes
- Nike’s controversial Vaporfly shoes powered the world’s 2 fastest marathoners to victory. When I tried them, it felt like running on rocking horses.
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