Why outlawing Eliud Kipchoge’s Nike shoes helps the sport of running

Nihal Koshie
world athletics, Nike Vaporfly shoes, kenya's eliud kipchoge, nike shoes, shoe companies, soles of spiked shoes, sports news, indian express

Kipchoge has been the flagbearer of the shoes, wearing them to set a world record, win an Olympic title and go under two hours in ‘marathon’. (Source: Reuters)

World Athletics concluded that new technology incorporated in the soles of road and spiked shoes provided a performance advantage.

Why is this being called the democratisation of the running shoe?

Shoe companies can no longer develop cutting-edge footwear custom-made just for elite international athletes, without first releasing it in the open retail market where anyone can buy it. From April 30, 2020, a new shoe must be in the market for four months before it can be used in competition. This amendment to the rule governing competition shoes means everyone (who can afford it) can buy and use the very same shoe an elite athlete wears, say, at the Olympics or the World Championships. One of the biggest criticisms when Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge ran a sub-2 hour marathon in October was of the Nike Vaporfly shoes not being available in the mass market.

As of now, by the time the latest iteration reaches the stores, shoe giants would have already developed the next version for elite athletes, which meant the large majority of runners were a technological cycle behind. But according to the new rules, if a shoe is not available in the market four months before it is first used in a competition, it will be deemed a prototype - meaning it can’t be used at championships or races.

Will the sole get slimmer? Yes it will.

The most striking feature on Kipchoge’s Nike pair was the thickness of the sole, made of patented foam. The new rules, however, strike at the very sole of the shoe. They specify that the maximum thickness should be not more than 40 millimetres. In the case of spikes used by sprinters, it is limited to 30 millimetres.

What about carbon fibre plates in shoes?

They can be used, but with restrictions. The sole of the shoe must not contain more than one rigid plate or blade made from carbon fibre or any other similar material which assists in reducing the fatigue of runners or gives any other advantage, the new rules state. The one rigid plate can be placed in more than one area of the shoe but needs to be in the same plane and located sequentially, World Athletics’ internal working group which reviewed shoe technology ruled. When it comes to sprinting shoes, an additional plate is allowed but its sole purpose is for attaching spikes.

Which company is most affected?

World Athletics did not name any specific brand when it issued modified rules for competition shoes. Yet, it is clear that the advances made by Nike and the publicity, some of it negative, around Kipchoge breaking the two-hour barrier in Vienna in a controlled environment (he had a team of dedicated pacemakers and was the only competitor) while wearing Nike forced World Athletics to have a re-look at shoe technology.

The day after Kipchoge’s feat, on October 13, Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei broke the 16-year-old women’s marathon record. She was also wearing a shoe from the Vaporfly series. The shoe was introduced in 2016 and the top-five fastest marathons have been won by those wearing them. Japanese brand Ascis German brand Adidas are among those who have also made significant progress in making runners more efficient, but Nike has emerged as the clear favourite. At a recent relay marathon in Japan, 84 per cent of the runners used Nike. The next day, the share price of Asics fell by 3.8 per cent. Stocks of Mizuno, another Japanese giant dipped by 0.9 per cent. When news broke of World Athletics planning to modify rules, the share prices of Nike’s rivals surged.

Will there be more changes to rules?

World Athletics will continue to conduct research in shoe technology, a statement issued on Friday said. An expert working group to guide future research into shoe technology, and to assess new shoes that emerge on the market will be step-up. This group will report to the Competitions Commission, and ultimately to the World Athletics Council. World Athletics said it was open to 'continued dialogue' with shoe manufacturers on amended rules and their impact as well as the broader question of how to balance shoe technology and preserving integrity of the sport.

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