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In sport, the smallest advantage can mean the difference between winning and losing. Nowhere are these tipping points more apparent than in the Olympic race, where the level of talent is so high that a split second can be the difference between a gold medal and fourth place. Because the sport requires so little equipment, great attention has been paid to the main piece of equipment that every runner needs – the shoes.
Last year, World Athletics (WA), the running governing body, banned prototype Nike Vaporfly shoes from the sport. A first for WA, the shoe ban is based on the belief that the combination of technology and product scarcity gives the Nike runner an undeniable advantage over its competitors.
“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 athletes competing elite do not offer any unfair help or advantage,” WA Chairman Sebastian Coe said. noted.
To level the playing field, the WA ruled that any shoe worn at the Olympics must be available in the retail market for four months and also introduced new specifications for shoes that can be worn. In order to understand these qualifications, it is essential to know how Vaporfly works.
Go Vaporfly now
Since September 2018, the fastest four times recorded in men’s marathon history have been achieved by athletes wearing the latest Nike running shoes. On November 3, 2019, Geoffrey Kamworor wore Nike Vaporfly to win the New York City Marathon, and fellow Kenyan Eliud Kopchoge ran the first-ever Sub-Marathon 2.
What is the magic behind these shoes? To paraphrase Billy Joel, it’s all about the sole. All running shoes are designed for a dual purpose: to protect the feet and to boost the runner’s forward stride. When the foot hits the ground, the sole compresses and then expands to give the runner a boost. (For those who have watched Black Panther, the running shoes essentially act as his costume, storing energy and then returning it to the user.) For Nike users, this boost, according to Jake Riley, equates to ” running on trampolines”.
This trampoline effect in Nike shoes is created by fusing a layer of foam and a carbon fiber plate into the sole. While most shoes return 65% of the energy when pushing forward, the foam used by Nike, called Pebax, is 87% efficient. The carbon fiber plate allows the foam to compress and expand. The plate also adds a structural advantage, as it curves completely under the front of the shoes to allow the runner to “rock…from their heels to their toes while landing and pushing off.”
According to a study published in February 2019, the shoes offer a 4% advantage over competing brands. This means Vaporfly users expend 4% less energy than their fellow non-Nike runners – a huge advantage in an endurance sport where energy conservation and efficiency are on par. It was thanks to such studies that the shoes were accused of “technological doping”.
With the technology and design already widely implemented around the world in marathons and other races, the WA decision seeks to limit further modifications through the following requirements:
- Soles cannot be thicker than 40 mm
- Shoes can only have one rigid plate or blade built into them
- Spike shoes may have another additional plate, but only to attach the spikes to the sole. In this case, the thickness of the sole may not exceed 25 mm for events of 800 meters and 20 mm for events of less than 800 mm.
where the road leads
Although the initial decision in January caused consternation due to the approach of the Olympics, the global pandemic has given all parties much-needed leeway to assess and comply with the regulations.
Design regulation and the market availability requirement should help level the playing field, but it will continue to be a source of contention as sponsorships and endorsements from other brands could prohibit athletes from using the shoes.
It’s a problem that may not have a practical solution, according to Bryce Dyer, sports technologist and product design expert at Bournemouth University. “Unless you ensure that all athletes wear the exact same shoe of the same brand, appropriate for their size and ability, you can never insulate or immunize the sport away from the influence of technology” , he said. .
The shoes don’t go anywhere. For Nike, the initial WA ruling earlier this year would have banned prototypes worn by record holders, but earlier models that meet the standards are accepted. Moreover, if the prototypes meet the specifications and are made available in the market for the required time, these could also make an appearance at the Olympics. As for the competition, faithful to the sport, it would do better to take advantage of this time to catch up.
Image credit: Special Olympics Austria / Flickr.com