World athletics is coming under increasing pressure to introduce strict rules on running shoes amid concerns that technological advances by Nike could allow inferior sprinters to break Usain Bolt’s world records.
Nike’s controversial Vaporfly shoe for endurance athletes has had a transformational impact on the times run by the world’s elite long-distance runners — including Eliud Kipchoge, who wore them as he became the first man to run a sub-two-hour marathon — and amateurs.
British middle-distance runner Laura Muir wore special Nike spikes last year that benefited from similar innovations in shoe design, and industry insiders fear prototype Nike spikes developed for sprinters could allow athletes such as Christian Coleman, the 100m world champion, to beat Bolt’s best of 9.58 seconds at this year’s Tokyo Olympics.
Pictures of what appeared to be Nike spikes with a plate built under part of the sole have been circulating on the internet in recent weeks.
A technical committee appointed by the global governing body to examine Nike’s shoes is due to deliver its findings this month, with the introduction of parameters that limit the thickness of soles and the use of carbon plates a likely outcome.
Sports industry chiefs and elite coaches are concerned the new rules will not go far enough at a time when the development of certain footwear is “threatening the integrity of athletics”.
Images of the new sprinting spike prototype have emerged within the past few weeks. “What happens if Coleman, a Nike-sponsored guy who’s run 9.76, suddenly puts on these crazy new spikes with two carbon plates and runs 9.40?” one sportswear executive says.
“Sports like swimming, cycling and motor racing have strict parameters for the use of equipment and it’s time athletics did the same. There needs to be a limit on things like stack height (the thickness of the shoe’s midsole), the number of carbon plates in a shoe and even the angle of those plates.”
Developments in Japan this month will increase the pressure on World Athletics. In September, World Athletics president Sebastian Coe celebrated a $US100m ($144m) deal in which Asics extended its partnership with the governing body until 2029. This week the share price of the Japanese sports shoe manufacturer plummeted after another road event dominated by Nike and its controversial trainers.
Bloomberg reported that 84 per cent of athletes in a televised road race in Japan were wearing a form of the Vaporfly shoe. That apparently affected the Asics share price on Monday, when it had its biggest drop in two months.
Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei smashed Paula Radcliffe’s world marathon record in October in Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next% shoes, reducing the mark by 81 seconds.
Runners wearing a version of the Nike Vaporfly ran 4-5 per cent faster than a runner wearing an average shoe, and 2-3 per cent faster than the next fastest popular shoe, The New York Times said.
Industry chiefs do not expect World Athletics to issue a blanket ban on the Nike technology. It would almost certainly face a legal challenge from the sportswear manufacturer and could affect mass participation.
What is more likely is an attempt to control the technological advancements while making sure firms such as Nike adhere to the rules. They state that shoes must not “give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage” and must be “reasonably available to all”.
The shoe worn by Kipchoge to break the two-hour barrier in October is not yet available to all. There is a suspicion that the Nike alphaFLY, due for release this year, will not meet the new parameters because of its triple-plate design and thick soles. The racing spikes worn by Muir are still not available to all but are popular among elite distance athletes.
“It is too late to save road running,” one elite distance coach says. “These new Nike spikes are threatening the integrity of athletics on the track and there is still time to do something about that.
“The distance spikes are ridiculous when you’ve got guys obliterating their own personal bests the moment they put the shoes on.”