New Nike shoes threaten sport’s integrity – John Treacy

Tokyo results show use of Nike Vaporfly helps facilitate significantly faster times

Marathon runners using the controversial marathon shoe competing in Tokyo. “Essentially equipment should not come into the equation, whether that’s the 100m or the long jump or the marathon,” said John Treacy. Photograph:  Kyodo News/Getty Images

Marathon runners using the controversial marathon shoe competing in Tokyo. “Essentially equipment should not come into the equation, whether that’s the 100m or the long jump or the marathon,” said John Treacy. Photograph: Kyodo News/Getty Images

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Like many people famed in the art of marathon running, John Treacy looked at the results from Tokyo last Sunday with some disbelief. Not just because Treacy once raced Tokyo himself – though he still harbours mild disbelief about that one too – but more the unprecedented depth and quality of times which somehow presented themselves.

Led home in 2:04:15 by Birhanu Legese from Ethiopia, the top 17 finishers all ran under 2:08 for the first time in marathon history, Suguru Osako from Japan improving his national record to 2:05:29 in fourth.

The top-28 all ran sub-2:10, while women’s winner Lonah Salpeter ran a course record of 2:17:45. Already this year, the Dubai and Seville marathons had set records with the top 14 men running sub-2:08, before the spring marathon season really gets going, and unlike Berlin or Rotterdam, Tokyo is not a traditionally fast marathon course.

On closer inspection Treacy’s disbelief was soon explained – and turned to some inner rage. Of the top 30 men in Tokyo, 28 were wearing the Nike Vaporfly, either the Next% or the new Alphafly model released days before. Such shoe technology may have been approved by World Athletics under their updated rules earlier this year, only Treacy is not buying it – the times or the depth or the rule.

“This goes against all the grain, in terms of the essence of the sport, the fairness of the sport, and I find it very hard to comprehend,” says Treacy.

“In my view, and it might be the traditional approach, the essence of track and field is human performance, the human body competing against another human body. Essentially equipment should not come into the equation, whether that’s the 100m or the long jump or the marathon. It should be about the training, the dedication, the hard work, all of that.

“This is the very reason why drug use in our sport knocks the whole thing out of kilter, and why there is such outrage whenever an athlete is found guilty of doping. In fairness to World Athletics, I believe they have put a very good Integrity Unit together, are doing a great job on that front.

“But here we have a shoe that’s manufactured to improve the performance of the marathon by between three to four per cent, whatever it is, or three or four minutes in the marathon. Basically a piece of equipment that is allowing them to run faster.

“I call it the ‘bouncy-bouncy’, running three or four minutes faster than they normally would. To me, that’s undermining the integrity of the sport, and I think World Athletics have made a mistake, not only in allowing the advantage, which in my view is unfair, but putting other runners at a disadvantage if they are not wearing this shoe. And I think it needs to be looked at again, urgently.”

It’s 30 years since Treacy raced Tokyo, where he ran 2:11:23 to finish runner-up to Japan’s Takeyuki Nakayama, the disbelief there being Treacy never once saw him in front, and briefly believed he’d won.

Treacy’s Irish marathon record stands as the 2:09:15 he ran when finishing third in Boston in 1988, his 2:09:56 when winning silver at the LA Olympic marathon in 1984 the only other Irish sub-2:09, and Treacy absolutely believes it’s about time his record is broken.

Last month in Seville, Kevin Seaward improved his best by three and a half minutes, his 2:10:10 (finishing 24th) second only to Treacy, and also well inside the Tokyo Olympic qualifier. By his own admission, Seaward was wearing a pair of Nike Vaporfly, and Treacy doesn’t blame him; the problem comes back to the rule.

Lighter javelin

“Because of the way the rules are presented at the moment, you’d be mad not to wear them. And the rule is wrong, simple as that. It has allowed technology take the lead. I’ll be delighted when my Irish marathon record is broken, and some performances by Irish marathon runners in the last few years have been excellent. But I’d prefer to see it broken without the shoe technology, without the ‘bouncy-bouncy’.

“They may be doing what’s necessary, if that’s what the rule allows, so I wouldn’t hold it against them. But World Athletics in my opinion have got it wrong. They have very strict rules around the throwing and jumping events, because they can’t be seen to have any advantage. Would you want someone throwing a lighter javelin or a light discus? You’re not thinking they have a piece of equipment that gives them an advantage. Why would you allow it in marathon running, and possibly in running spikes too?”

So would Treacy wear the Vaporfly if he was competing today?

“You’d have to, you’d have no choice. You couldn’t be giving anyone a three-minute head-start. If you’re training towards the Olympic marathon, working extremely hard, you’d be nuts not to be in the shoes. But it shouldn’t be like that.”

There was further evidence at the US Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta on Sunday, the top three men were all wearing a Nike Vaporfly model. Treacy’s disbelief also extends back to when Eliud Kipchoge ran his 1:59:40 at the Nike-Ineos marathon stunt in Vienna last October.

“I didn’t even watch it, because it didn’t mean anything. Before, we might have been looking at the best chemist beside them, now we’re basically saying ‘who has best shoes?’ Do we want it to be an arms race? The rule is wrong, there is enough evidence out there now, and in my opinions they need to do something before the Olympics.”

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