It is the shoes, stupid. Anyone who says otherwise is deluded.

Without those chunky, super-fast prototype Nike alphaFLYs – the ones with platforms to make Ziggy Stardust swoon – Eliud Kipchoge does not shatter the two-hour marathon-distance barrier in Vienna.

Without those Nike Vaporfly Next%s, stacked with a carbon fibre plate and thicker Pebax foam that produce a spring effect, Brigid Kosgei does not eviscerate Paula Radcliffe’s women’s marathon record in Chicago a day later.

And without the key-lime-pie-coloured consumer version, £239.99 from your nearest Nike store, legions of club runners are not lopping chunks off their personal bests either.

Of course it is the shoes. Depending on the model and athlete they typically improve a person’s running economy by 4-5% – which translates to at least a minute- to 90-second advantage for an elite male runner over 26.2 miles. Perhaps even more.

But I have news for the athletes and agents who have approached the IAAF, athletics’ governing body, urging it to ban the shoes. It is not going to happen. In fact do not be surprised if the arms race in shoe technology soon goes nuclear.

Why? Well, on Monday the IAAF’s technological committee – which has been studying Nike’s Vaporfly shoes since 2017 – will hold an important conference call involving scientists from the University of Queensland and legal experts. While its thinking is a closely guarded secret, there is no hint the Vaporflys will be banned. Instead, I understand it is considering making a proposal to the IAAF council in the next two to three weeks that a running shoe should be regarded as legal providing it gives no “motor assistance” to an athlete. In other words, if the only power source remains the person running in the shoes, they would be legally compliant.

This could be just as much a gamechanger as the introduction of the original Vaporflys in 2016. Under such rules the shoes Kipchoge wore in Vienna – said to contain three carbon fibre plates, four cushioning pods, and two distinct layers of midsole foam in order to improve running economy by 7-8% – would be allowed in official races. Forget the 90-second advantage of the Vaporflys in a marathon, it could be three-minutes plus with the alphaFLYs.

Some will shrug their shoulders. Sport and technology have, after all, always gone hand in hand. A friend of mine in cycling points out that Ineos are using wheels from Germany, costing £6,000 a pair, that are lighter and stiffer than those used by other teams. That is an undoubted advantage. My friend also suggests modern bicycle tyres are worth 40 seconds on Alpe d’Huez over those from 20 years ago, another sign of how technology inevitably rewrites the rules and the record books.

But athletics is supposed to be different. With the odd exception – such as the switch away from cinder tracks – technological innovation tends to be subtle and incremental. Tell someone you are a three-hour marathon runner and that means much the same whether you did it in 1985 or 2015. But remarkable as Kipchoge’s run in Vienna undoubtedly was we have no way of knowing how much was down to him – and how much was the impact of his shoes.

We know the Vaporflys may have producing sliding-doors moments in major races. In the 2016 US Olympic marathon trials the Nike athletes Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan came first and third wearing early prototypes of the Vaporflys while Kara Goucher, who was not, missed out by one place. The gap between Flanagan and Goucher? Sixty five seconds.

True, other brands like Saucony and New Balance are rumoured to be close to unveiling similar shoes. But Nike has been so far ahead for the past three years you wonder how much the gap will really close.

And it is not just on the road. At the recent world championships in Doha, Sifan Hassan and Laura Muir were among a number of athletes who ran startling times wearing prototype Nike spikes – though the heat of competition, the lack of wind and a lightning-quick track helped too.

So what should be done? Clearly it would be legally tricky to ban the Vaporflys given they have been so widely used for nearly three years. So instead the question will become how to find the sweet spot between encouraging innovation without destroying the time-worn characteristics of track and field: universality and fairness.

Brigid Kosgei wins the Chicago marathon in a world record time this month.



Brigid Kosgei wins the Chicago marathon in a world record time this month. Photograph: Quinn Harris/Getty Images

One reasonable suggestion, made in the British Journal of Sports Medicine by Geoffrey T Burns and Nicholas Tam, is to introduce rules to regulate the thickness of the midsole of a shoe. “If set at 31mm current competition footwear would remain eligible and advances would take place within this geometry, ensuring footwear remains an accessory to physiological competition,” they argue.

As Burns and Tam also point out, similar rules regarding heel thickness for shoes are already used in high jump and long jump competitions. And by adopting a similar approach for running shoes it would “provide a transparent standard that supersedes the band-aid approach of litigating every new development”.

But whatever the IAAF does next, it must more closely observe its own rule 143.2, which states shoes “must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage”.

Yes, the playing field in sport is never going to be truly level but it cannot remain obviously lopsided either.

source: theguardian.com

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