In defence of Nike’s superfast shoes

Eliud Kipchoge, INEOS 1:59 challenge | Source: NYTimes
Eliud Kipchoge, INEOS 1:59 challenge | Source: NYTimes

On October 12, in Vienna, Austria, Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge became the first human being to run a marathon in under 2 hours. While it wasn’t ratified as an official record, the INEOS 1:59 challenge was a testament to human endeavour and compared to Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile breakthrough in 1954. Indeed, Bannister was present at the finish line to congratulate Kipchoge.

A day later, Kipchoge’s compatriot Bridget Kosgei, shattered the women’s marathon time by 81 seconds, a record that stood unbroken for 16 years.

No doubt this marked a shift in endurance sports, with many deeming the weekend, in addition to the athletes, ‘the fastest in history.’

This wasn’t Kipchoge’s first attempt. In 2016, Kipchoge along with Ethiopian Lelissa Desisa and Eritrean Zersenay Tadese took part in Nike’s Breaking 2 project. A year-long project devoted specifically to break the 2-hour marathon. Kipchoge was the only one to come close, as close as 25 seconds.

But what marked the peak of human performance, as far as distance running goes, became a watershed moment for athletes, and for what was on their feet.

In addition to the two runners pushing human limitations and hailing from the marathon capital of the world, Kenya, Kipchoge and Kosgei had something else in common. Both of them used a brand of shoes from manufacturer Nike, that would be called into question for “Mechanical Doping.” Kosgei wore Nike VapourFly NEXT%, while Kipchoge wore a superior version called Nike AlphaFly NEXT%.

Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT% | Source: nike.com

The VapourFly and the AlphaFly both have a combination of a thick cushion and carbon fibre, meant to be more energy efficient. Nike claims that the shoes can improve running economy by up to 4%, and its technological prowess is exactly what is at the centre of a huge controversy.

So much so that many in the sport, are calling for the shoes to be outright banned.

World Athletics, the sport’s governing body, stated that the shoes were “legal” and can be used in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. While Nike may have run away with it, technological innovation being likened to ‘doping’ or artificial stimulation of human biology for performance gain, so much so that a ban needs to be imposed, seems too much.

Technology can be seen neither in isolation nor as static. It acts as a medium, improving what it is applied to, be it education, food, healthcare, or even sports. Nike is simply doing what any manufacturer would, improving shoe-technology for athletic performance. Isn’t that the point of shoes in the first place?

Trivial as it seems, weren’t shoes invented and improved to ease performance? To see how much can we push human limitations? And we did.

At the beginning of the century, the men’s marathon record stood at 2:05:38, it has been broken 7 times since. Every sport from swimming to Olympic weightlifting has had new records. Technology, whether by design or analytics, has had a big role to play.

But is this too much? How much can we credit the runner, when the shoes provide so much support?

If running, at least road and track running, was limited to the athlete’s prowess, then why don’t we strip them to the bare minimum? Barefoot running. It, unlike any other parameter, would provide an essential gauge for primal performance. Speed and endurance. How much can the human feet take?

What’s the alternative? Prevent shoe-manufactures from innovating? Limiting the cushion seems an appropriate measure, but innovation would, quite literally, work around it. Companies would work on arc-design, sole-structure, weight-reduction all in the name of improving performance. Would each measure be regulated? so that a ‘standard shoe’ would be worn by all athletes.

What incentive is there to innovate then?

A standard shoe worn by all would take away manufacturing competition. Companies, seeing no reason to innovate beyond the standard would either keep fighting away with regulators or recede, a growing trend in other tech-domains.

The other argument is that it would create an unnecessary demand for Nike’s shoes. Well, shouldn’t it? If the quality and performance are improved, why shouldn’t it be reflected in demand?

Where I will disagree with Nike is limiting the AlphaFly to 29 NikePlus members. Limiting innovation by regulation is one thing, innovating and limiting the benefits of innovation by the innovators themselves is another. Neither should happen.

Nike should produce based on demand. And with endorsements from elite-runners the world over, there is no doubt that the shoe will be a hot favourite. Yes, its priced quite high, the Nike VapourFly is priced at $250, and according to Runner’s World, the AlphaFly will be priced at $300. Not as much as your average weekend running shoe, but this isn’t for your average weekend runner. It’s priced based on use.

Critics also say Nike will become a monopoly in the running-shoes market. Soon at the start of every major marathon, and every weekend fun-run, VapourFlys and AlphaFlys would run amock. What’s stopping Adidas, Asics, Brooks and the other elite running-shoe competitors from innovating?

Further, with the VapourFlys and the AlphaFlys priced so high, competitors could undercut Nike, taking the amateur market and step-up innovation for higher levels. With increasing technological innovation, the price effect will trickle down into average $50-$150 shoes, making the entire supply cheaper by the mile.

Is this a case of an “unfair advantage,” are the runners achieving better times solely [pun intended] because of the shoes?

While there is a strong case to be made about how much did the shoes actually cut from Kipchoge’s time, it fails to take into account the holistic nature of modern-sports. Technology, as much as a fairly new addition to sports, psychology, plays a crucial role in an athlete’s overall performance.

I’m no sports scientist, but there should be a difference, in science and regulation, on the need to preserve energy versus create it. Nike is doing the former.

The addition of a cushion, as Nike states, will only help preserve energy. The shoes will not act as an addition to the energy reserves of an athlete, it will simply maintain it, the reserve-depth will still depend on the athlete. The athlete will still push their own reserve limitations, with the shoes simply ploughing back the energy into the reserve.

If at any time a piece of technology, shoes or otherwise, provides performance impetus by creating energy, separate from the athlete, it should be curtailed.

The athlete should always be primary, and the skill should always be tested. No piece of technology is bigger than the sport. No record so lucrative that unfair means should be used. But to equate this to acts like ‘cheating’ is incorrect.

And to limit innovation is short-sighted. Indeed, it limits the athletes themselves.

Whether we like it or not, technology has ingrained itself in sports. But for better, not for worse.

Sports, especially individual-primal sports, are based on pushing limitations, redefining boundaries, and testing capabilities. Eliud Kipchoge’s famous words, words that he lives by are “No Human is Limited,” and limiting him, or his shoes will achieve nothing.

The sport of marathon running has come a long way since the Breaking 2 project where the feat and the shoes were put to the test. Since then, the record has been broken once officially and once unofficially. In the end, no matter if the controversy is around running shoes, world-class pacers or guiding cars, it comes down to what one of the project’s scientist said, which seems simplistically fitting,

‘No matter what we do, they have to run 26.2 miles in under 2 hours. No matter what we do, that’s on them.’

Writing as opposed to keeping the thoughts locked in my head.

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