Technological advances in running shoes are as old as the industry itself. Decades before becoming a giant in all major sports, Nike was born from the sale of shoes to distance runners thirsty for faster times. He employed cutting-edge methods, which in 1971 meant that co-founder Bill Bowerman created a sole by pouring urethane into a waffle maker.
Over the next 50 years, shoe companies pursued the next leap, helping to improve human capacity with small advances, many of them quickly copied by competitors, and little controversy. Progress was constant and celebrated.
In January 2016, Kenyan marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge tested a new shoe that would be known as Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite. A straight line of progress, unknown to the athletic universe, was about to become irregular and complicated.
The Vaporfly series, and the begotten Alphafly series, broke down barriers. Controversy was generated. Last week it triggered a response from the athletic governing body, months after Kipchoge used a prototype Air Zoom Alphafly Next% pair when he became the first person to run a marathon in less than two hours. Nike calls Kipchoge "the essence of progress." His shoes, wrote South African sports scientist Ross Tucker, "interrupted the meaning of running."
When it comes to sports equipment technology, where is the line between acclaimed and harmful established? Other sports have tried to answer the question for years. Swimming banned certain materials from the suits after the records fell at alarming rates in 2008 and 2009. Golf is dealing with the effects of slightly regulated advances on balls and clubs. Cycling is constantly at war with itself so two wheels should be able to achieve.
The distance race took time to realize that he faced the same problem. The powers of the sport could not see the running shoe as a piece of equipment. They regulated shoes as if they were clothes instead of a race car or a tennis racket or a pair of alpine skis. When they finally acted, it was as if they were putting toothpaste back into the tube.
"If you wanted to put everyone on the same starting line, you can demand that people run with bare feet," said Damiano Zanotto, head of the portable robotic systems laboratory at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. "Which makes no sense. There is no negative or bad technology. There is a need for regulation and clear regulation."
World Athletics, the athletic governing body formerly known as IAAF, published regulations last week aimed at curbing the effects of advanced technology. Critics, including executives of rival footwear companies, called it a compromise that came too late, attended to Nike too much, presented ineffective standards and provided more confusion than clarity months after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
"I think, as the governing body, they should start thinking of the shoe as the piece of equipment," said Shawn Hoy, vice president of global product at Saucony. "It is no different than golf clubs or a tennis player's racket." There have to be parameters within which those products are created, otherwise there is an unfair advantage in footwear.
"That said, there is nothing particularly fair in the elite race. If you are a Nike runner, you have advantages that a Saucony runner does not have. If you are a Saucony runner, you have advantages that a non-sponsored runner does not have," He continued today. “If you can train at altitude in Kenya, that's a bit different from being able to train in Providence, Rhode Island. I think the equity conversation has also become a kind of unfortunate sidebar in all this. … But the genie is out of the bottle, and now we are trying to put it back. It's just leading to a messy conversation. "
A technological leap
The Vaporfly improved old ideas and used them in a novel and refined harmony. He embedded an elastic carbon fiber plate in the midsole, which Fila had made in the early 2000s. He used a new foamy substance that Nike called ZoomX, which was an improvement on Adidas Boost foam, first introduced in 2013. Nike made the extra thick sole, which many companies, including, in the most extreme case, Hoka, had tested.
None of these advances generated more problems than loading rubber into a waffle maker. There was not a single silver bullet to suggest that the Vaporfly would turn upside down, and in fact, the notion that the advancement of any shoe could alter the sport was strange.
"I really realized these shoes in early 2019, more or less when the world in general realized," said Tim Hutchings, an analyst at NBC Sports who has been involved in the elite marathon for decades. "Even then, few had any idea of the seismic change in the times of the corridors they could produce."
The combination of these factors, and the way Nike integrated them, made them a game changer. The investigation showed that shoes improved the running economy by an average of 4 percent, a monumental total. The runners who used them could break records, and the runners who did not could not keep up. Rumors of brokers circulated under contract with other companies that ran in unmarked Vaporfly shoes.
"The question is, ultimately, is the deck stacked?" Said Mark Conrad, director of the sports business program at the Fordell Gabelli Business School. “Does this cause the platform to stack in terms of the brokers using this product achieving an unfair level? If he does, it would clearly not be ethical unless everyone has access to it. ”
What makes the Vaporfly series unique, some say, is that technology could be problematic even if everyone has access to it. In an exhaustive blog post published on Thursday, Tucker argued, with studies that support him, that even if each runner has access to Vaporfly technology, or something similar in another brand, it would still create an unbalanced playing field.
Some runners, according to studies cited by Tucker, respond to shoe technology more effectively in terms of running efficiency, and those who respond well have a great advantage over those who do not. The advantage is so marked, Tucker wrote, that runners who do not respond well to the shoe would receive the gain of a competitive race at an early age.
"When the difference marked by technology is greater than the normal difference between athletes, the integrity of the result changes," Tucker wrote.
Danny Orr, general performance manager for New Balance, said Nike could have been more transparent with the IAAF in developing the Vaporfly. But he joined other experts to put responsibility in the governing body of sport to create parameters for companies to innovate.
"Very early, we saw unprecedented results with that product, and we felt that at that time the world governing body probably had the opportunity to act," said Orr. "The fact that they didn't do it since 2016 is what puts us in the position today."
Last October, in an unauthorized exhibition in Vienna, Kipchoge became the first person to run a marathon in less than two hours. It carried the Next%, an evolutionary and extra thick version of the Vaporfly. (The next day, Brigid Kosgei broke the record for 16-year-old women in 1 minute, 21 seconds in the Next%). The Guardian reported that the Next% could increase the efficiency of a runner by 7 to 8 percent. Kipchoge broke the mark in a closed course with the help of pacemakers, runners there just to push it. Still, much of the resulting speech focused on his shoes.
"I don't know if we'll have this conversation if it wasn't for the two-hour marathon of Kipchoge," said Hoy. "So much attention has been paid to the shoe in the runner's performance. That threw a great light on this."
While rivals have largely updated with the technologies in the Vaporfly, the Alphafly represented a new frontier. The components are proprietary, which led to conjectures on multiple plates in the midsole and the role of a striking airpod placed under the sole.
On January 31, World Athletics acted in a way that left few satisfied. It was ruled that shoes worn in competition must be "available,quot; for four months and not a prototype. For running shoes, he prohibited soles of more than 40 millimeters and the use of more than one plate.
"It is not our job to regulate the entire sports shoe market, but it is our duty to preserve the integrity of the elite competition by ensuring that the shoes worn by elite athletes in the competition do not offer any unfair assistance or advantage," said the president. from World Athletics, Sebastián. Coe said in a statement. "Upon entering the Olympic year, we do not believe that we can discard shoes that have generally been available for a considerable period of time, but we can mark a line prohibiting the use of shoes that go beyond what is currently in use." the market while we investigate further. "
Experts saw the changes as insufficient. Conrad called it a "partial ban on future technology." Zanotto said there are reliable and rigorous ways to test how much energy a shoe can store and recover. Regulations should be based on that, he said, and not on simple measures.
"I don't think that fixing the maximum thickness of a shoe solves the problem," Zanotto said. “With the new simulation capabilities we have, you must be more specific than that to really make sure that the shoe's performance is uniform. Establishing those basic geometric constraints is not enough. "
From a practical point of view, the new rules regarding prototypes bothered shoe companies. Today he said there was no clear definition of "readily available." Orr said New Balance had planned to release some shoes after the Olympics, and will now rush them to sell in April to ensure their athletes can use them, altered sales and marketing plans. .
"Our biggest concern is that nobody picked up the phone and asked us what we thought or included us in the decision-making process," said Orr. "It's not just us. It's the rest of the sporting goods companies, except maybe one."
Orr didn't say it, but that company is Nike. Last week, Nike offered the public a limited version of the Air Zoom Alphafly Next%. It was legal according to the new regulations of World Athletics and had a sole of 39.5 mm. "There were many whispers," World Athletics consulted Nike before they published their regulations, Orr said. (In a statement last week to the Guardian, World Athletics denied doing so.)
"What we didn't get from World Athletics is an indication that those decisions were based on science," said Orr. "They seemed to be based on a competitive product that meets those numbers exactly, and that is how decisions were made against something that was really based on science."
Nike's central role in the saga has amplified the problems related to the new technology.
"To be honest, if we had done it and (Saucony runner) Jared Ward ran a marathon of less than 2 hours, I don't know, I don't think we have this conversation," said Hoy, who used to do it. work for Nike “There is a part of this that is that Nike is great. They have a huge stable of runners. And therefore, it feels unfair. I don't subscribe to that. I don't think you can compete and then, if you don't like the result, you say: "That was not fair." This is not how the competition works. "
It is probably a matter of time before the next jump, before the next controversial shoe causes a similar conversation. How innovation affects competition is what matters to fans, but what keeps the competition afloat is a running shoe industry that needs to sell the next big idea. Innovation, in some eyes, can confuse competition. It is also what keeps the industry alive and, therefore, is both necessary and inevitable.
"I don't think the gap between what Nike has created in this space and what we are capable of creating is significant," said Hoy. "My hope is the Olympic Games, in four years, maybe it is we who are in the middle of a conversation about what incredible product we made and how it improved the runners." That is what keeps you moving forward. "