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Starting sometime during late 2018, there has been an uptick in the rate of national and world record-breaking performances. The current rate is typically manifested during epochs of doping. So, what’s new?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the 2020 and possibly the 2021 global race calendar, virtual races, track meets (devoid of spectators) and time trials have taken over.

Prognosticators have speculated that much of the record-breaking has been accomplished by athletes during the pandemic, as they have raced at paces that reflect their training fitness, rather than racing tactically in high-pressure meets. They are apparently going for it during virtual races or at low-pressure events. Many athletes of course were preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which have been postponed, so what is an athlete to do with all of that pent-up fitness and ambition?

The question of special shoes has also dominated the global conversation. All three factors may indeed contribute, but the special shoes seem to be worn in every new world record.

Is it the carbon-plated shoes?

The various Nike shoes are made from a special polymer—a rubber known by the brand Pebax. Pebax combined with carbon fibre plates work together to absorb and then return a percentage of the energy that the runner puts into each step. Nike professes that some shoes provide a benefit of up to 4%, tests have confirmed this. Nike even named one shoe the “Zoom Vaporfly 4% Flyknit”.

Pebax is a polyether block amide or “PEBA”. it is a thermoplastic elastomer (TPE), a product that is used in all kinds of sports equipment including shoes for baseball, football as well as racquet grommets, golf balls and ski boots. It provides superior mechanical and dynamic properties in flexibility, impact resistance, energy return and fatigue resistance.

ZoomX Vaporfly

World-class performances with advanced shoe technology

This year, Joshua Cheptegei broke Kenenisa Bekele’s 16 and 15-year-old world 5,000m and 10,000m records. His times are 1.9% and 2.3% faster than his own previous personal bests.

12:50.83 — 12:35.36 +1.9%
26:48.36 — 26:11.00 +2.3%

Letesenbet Gidey broke the women’s 5000m record during the same meet that Cheptegei took the 10,000m record. The meet took place on Oct. 7, in Valencia, Spain. She finished in the time of 14:06.62. Her previous best was 14:23.14 from 2018, which represents a 2.1% improvement. The previous record by Tirunish Dibaba from 2008 was 14:11.15.

The two athletes wore the Nike ZoomX Dragonfly spikes.

Shelby Houlihan improved her bests this summer from 14:34.45 to 14:23.92, nearly 11 seconds faster.

Mohammed Ahmed dropped his best to 12:47.20 from 12:58.16 or 1.4%. When he finally cracked the 13-minute barrier in June of 2019, he was very happy to join the sub-13 group as his competitors had already done, it seemed to be a tough mental barrier. Where did the additional 11 seconds come from? He is a Nike-supported Bowerman Track Club athlete—perhaps the shoes?

At the time, he told Athletics Illustrated, “I just wanted to get into the 12s as all of my competitors had run under the 13-benchmark.”

Jacob Kiplimo’s best was 13:13.64, suddenly this summer he ran a 12:48.63 at the Ostrava meet in early September. This represents a greater than a 3.2% improvement or 25 seconds. To the average sports fan, this may not seem like a big difference in performance, but at the top end, at the world-class level, it is a big step forward.

Nike / Zoom Vaporfly 4% / Zoom Vaporfly 4% Flyknit ‘Bright Crimson’ current price tag $468.00 Canadian, $357 USD.

Eliud Kipchoge ran 2:01:39 for the marathon in Berlin 2018, which is the current world record. He has also run under two hours in a time trial effort in Vienna, Austria, two years ago. That effort was an extremely coordinated, multi-athlete-paced run using Wavelight technology to guide pace. He ran a 1:59:40. Not an official time but was run at least as far as the required 42.195 kilometres (26.2 miles). He is a champion runner with an incredible win streak of eight consecutive major marathon wins, as well as the 2016 Rio Olympic Marathon. At one point he won 11 of 12 consecutive marathons and the year he didn’t win, he finished second.

The five fastest men’s marathons have all occurred over the past two years. All of them were run in Vaporfly shoes. The slowest of the five is 2:02:55 by Mosinet Geremew, two seconds faster than Dennis Kimetto’s world record from 2014.

The women’s marathon world record is just as impressive at 2:14:04 by Brigid Kosgei. She pulled it off at the 2019 Chicago Marathon, breaking Paula Radcliffe’s 2:15:25 from London 2003. Kosgei’s previous best was 2:18:35, which represents a 3.6% improvement on her own best time.

Kosgei wore the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly and upon finishing she boldly stated, “I can go faster.”

Geoffrey Kamworor wore the shoes when he took the world record for the half-marathon at an astounding 58:01 in Copenhagen last year.

Mo Farah ran 21.33 kilometres for his first career world record earlier this year. He and Dutch athlete Sifan Hassan ran for the one-hour world record and both achieved the intended goals. She finished with 18.93 kilometres run. Both wore Nike shoes.

The Nike adorned performances go on.

Are the athletes competing fairly?

What do today’s Nike adorned performances say about the integrity of the sport and of the value of former world-class athletics performances?

Liz McColgan, a former top-level Scottish international told Athletics Illustrated, “I feel strongly that the time has now come to cap technological input, all athletes should compete at the same level of shoe technology, no one should gain an advantage. Cycling and swimming saw this very early on in their sport and put a stop to it.  Nike is dominant and has resources far above what other sporting brands have. Their shoe technology is aiding in athlete performance, so they have a clear and unfair advantage.  All athletes should be on the start line as equals and presently they are not.”

Robert Johnson, owner of Let’s Run with his brother Weldon told the NY Post, “Running is not supposed to be about who has the best technology. It’s supposed to be about who pushes the hardest, has the most talent and trains the hardest.”

Nike avoids shoe ban by World Athletics

The new rules rolled out at the time permit shoes already on the market to be worn in competition but ban prototype shoes in competitions. which includes the Alphaflys worn by Kipchoge when he ran 1:59:40.

The ruling placed an immediate and indefinite ban on shoes with more than one plate and or with soles thicker than 40 millimetres. (The Alphafly sole is exactly 40 millimetres thick). Shoes with spikes attached by an additional plate must have a sole thickness of 30 millimetres or less.

For a shoe with spikes, an additional plate (to the plate mentioned above) or other mechanism is permitted, but only for the purpose of attaching the spikes to the sole, and the sole must be no thicker than 30mm.

In 2009, Paralympian Oscar Pistorius ran with an advantage because the prostheses were performance enhancing. He eventually ran in the 2012 Olympic Games.

Full-body swimsuits rewrote swimming records. The suits were challenged and eventually banned.

In baseball, corked bats are disallowed.

In all sports performance enhancing drugs are banned, partly to attempt to create an even playing field.

Just as Johnson said about the sport not being about athletes having the best technology, athletes who dope the most effectively have an unfair advantage.

So why are shoes that provide an advantage to runners currently permitted in competition and at the same time, national and world records continued to get ratified?

Is it about the massive Nike investment in athletics?

Nike is by far the largest sponsor of sport, which includes athletics, national sport organizations, athletes and events. They sponsor UK Athletics and United States Track and Field (USATF). Although Asics sponsors World Athletics, Nike spends the most on the sport.

It would be difficult to say no to Nike for all their contributions, so the World Athletics rules that were created, were a soft-shoe approach to appease the questioning public and to satisfy, to some degree, the credo of fair play in sport. Nike boasts that “we dare to design the future of sport.” While presenting an image of Kipchoge wearing the specially made marathon shoes that provide an advantage over regular footwear.

Kipchoge is currently the poster boy for distance running and Nike’s marketing team is supporting his running both literally with performance-enhancing shoes and as a sponsor.

Nike is re-writing the record books by providing athletes with a material advantage and there is currently no way to combat the domination. It will be up to competing shoe companies to come up with their own products to compete with Nike. How athletes are perceived that are sponsored by a different brand but are forced to wear Nikes is a head-scratcher and a bit of marketing brilliance on Nikes’ part.

The athletes are not to be blamed. In order to compete, they need to even the playing field themselves, by purchasing the performance-enhancing shoes. The governing bodies currently do not appear to have the will to enforce rules (that they publish) to protect the integrity of the sport.

World Athletics’ Technical Rules in force from November 1, 2019:

Shoes 5.2

Athletes may compete barefoot or with footwear on one or both feet. The purpose of shoes for competition is to give protection and stability to the feet and a firm grip on the ground. Such shoes, however, must not be constructed to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage. Any type of shoe used must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of the universality of athletics. World Athletics Technical Rules (1 November 2019) unfair assistance or advantage. Any type of shoe used must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of the universality of athletics.

Note (i): Adapting a shoe to suit the characteristic of a particular athlete’s foot is permitted if made in accordance with the general principles of these Rules. Note (ii): Where evidence is provided to World Athletics that a type of shoe being used in competition does not comply with the Rules or the spirit of them, it may refer the shoe for study and if there is non-compliance may prohibit such shoes from being used in competition.