A spring in the step - The Nike dilemma
Sport’s level playing field is questioned
What is unfair performance enhancement in sport? And can its governing bodies produce both a consistent definition, and workable rules to eliminate “cheating” and preserve the “spirit of sport”?
The arguments have been most elaborated publicly over doping and the evolving, contested definitions of what is permitted. But what about physical aids to performance? There was the controversial approval of prosthetic blades worn by South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. And swimming allowed record-setting, full-body suits, then banned them after the 2008 Beijing Olympics because they gave an unfair advantage in buoyancy and speed. Or the humiliating gender tests imposed on some women athletes.
And now running, and Nike, which is centre of a gathering storm over its $250 Zoom Vaporfly shoe which, in a customised form, the company boasts will be key to its much-publicised efforts to break the two-hour marathon – as much a branding as a sports event. But the shoes do appear to have fans among runners who clearly believe it can enhance performance – the three marathon medalists in Rio last year all wore them.
Who is going to examine the feet of 20,000 marathon runners before they set off?
Embedded in the length of the midsole is a thin, stiff carbon-fibre plate scooped like a spoon. Nike says its spring-like effect saves four per cent of the energy needed to run at a given speed compared to another of its popular shoes. If accurate, one South African sports scientist says that is “massive”, “the equivalent of running downhill at a fairly steep gradient” of one to 1.5 per cent.
The technical committee of the International Association of Athletics Federations will meet shortly to consider whether it needs to prohibit the shoe, specifically the “spring”. Whether that would be feasible, if desirable, is another matter. Who is going to examine the feet of 20,000 marathon runners before they set off?
In truth, all shoes are performance enhancers compared to running unshod. Perhaps the only way to get back a genuinely level playing field is to return to the Greek Olympic tradition, in homage to Zeus, of athletes running naked. Or maybe not!