Stop WatchOn Saturday 6 May 2017, Olympic Gold medallist Eliud Kipchoge donned a pair of Nike ZoomX VaporFly Elite shoes (containing a specially designed carbon fibre plate promoting a forward-tilt of the feet) and ran 17 laps of the Monza Italian F1 track, surrounded by a troupe of 30 fellow elite pacemaker runners, running behind a car, and tended by mopeds carrying  water and energy drinks.  This was the culmination of Nike’s much-hyped Breaking2 initiative, announced in December 2016 which aimed to achieve the world’s first sub-2 hour marathon.  The result was the world’s fastest marathon time on record at 2:00:25 – a mere 25 seconds shy of the elusive 2 hour mark.

It is, in many ways, fitting that Nike, Kipchoge and his teammates attempted to ‘break 2’ 63 years to the day after Roger Bannister ‘broke 4’ by running the first sub-4 minute mile at Iffley Road, Oxford.  Indeed the rhetoric employed by Nike in its marketing build-up to the race on 6 May 2017 is reminiscent of Bannister’s account of the race he ran on 6 May 1954.  According to Bannister “the four-minute mile had become rather like an Everest – a challenge to the human spirit… an irksome reminder that man’s striving might be in vain… the “Dream Mile”.” And as Nike put it, “for decades, the two-hour marathon has been a dream” and Breaking2 represented “an innovation moonshot designed to unlock human potential” and “challenge the perception of what is possible in sport”.  

Rhetoric aside, the two races are also separated by a number of differences: one a mile, the other a marathon, one successful, one just shy… one a World Record, the other an unofficial record.

Nike’s initiative was not about achieving an official world record, it was about seeing what was possible in the right conditions, using the best technology.  Any attempt to break (either officially or unofficially) a world record by such a substantial margin (the official word record was, and of course remains, 2:02:57, set by Dennis Kimetto in Berlin) is bound to attract attention and scrutiny, and rightfully so.  Yet, of all the methods employed by Nike to create the perfect race conditions – the cars, the choice of track, the mopeds, and the pacemakers – the aspect that has attracted the most scrutiny and debate is the shoes, particularly the carbon fibre plate encased within the foam of the sole, which Nike claims makes runners 4% more efficient by creating a forward tilt of the foot and effectively forcing a more athletic running style with less effort.  It was not, however, the shoes that prevented the attempt from qualifying as an official world record but rather aspects such as the use of rotating pacemakers and the methods of delivering refreshment to the runners.

The shoes had in fact been considered, tested and approved by the IAAF under Rule 143 of the IAAF Competition Rules, which simply state that  shoes “must not be constructed so as to give an athlete any unfair additional assistance, including by the incorporation of any technology which will give the wearer any unfair advantage”.

Reading the rule (which also clarifies that barefoot running is permitted) in full, the fundamental thinking behind it is clear.  In basic terms, the rationalisation has traditionally been that, whilst shoes add support they also add weight, therefore negating any advantage over barefoot running. But the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Elites have once again raised the question: have we now arrived in the realms of footwear which goes beyond a functional remit and in fact provides a tangible advantage?  Haile Gebrselassie has expressed the view that the last 12 minutes gradually shaved from the marathon record can be attributed to incremental improvements in footwear technology.  In his opinion, the best time a man can truly run the marathon: “[with] No technology, no help? That is what Abebe Bikila ran in 1960. That was barefoot. The cleanest.”

It is the reference to ‘clean’ in this context that is particularly noticeable. A term more often associated with drugs doping, its use in this context is especially interesting at a time when the IAAF is considering wiping the pre-2005 record slate clean, in the hope that this will clear the sport of athletics of the unanswerable questions surrounding records tainted by doping athletes.  Yet the analogy between gaining an advantage from drugs versus an advantage gained from technology is one that has been drawn frequently enough to lead to the coining of the term ‘technology doping’.

The dividing line between innovation and unfair performance enhancement is one with which sport governing bodies have had to grapple for decades.  The fundamental question, which verges on the philosophical, is when does technological advancement start to detract from the nature of a sport?  In some respects, this question is answered differently depending on the sport.  For example, golf (an equipment-heavy sport) is subject to strict and detailed rules governing the shape, size and make of conforming clubs and even the permissible techniques for using certain clubs (such as the recently banned ‘anchor’ method of using a long putter), which have developed in response to advancing technologies that enable players to achieve more power and accuracy than ever before.  Swimming (a comparatively non-equipment based sport) enacted a rule change in the late 2000s to outlaw the infamous Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit.  Whilst the suit was initially approved for competition by FINA, it transpired that the combined effects of body compression and increased buoyancy led to competitors wearing the suit for additional assistance (with some even wearing two!).  After 130 records were broken in the space of 17 months, FINA decided to act, imposing a ban on full length swimsuits.

It has not gone unnoticed that all three marathon medallists at the Rio Olympics donned a version of Nike’s Zoom Vaporfly, later followed by the winners of each of the Berlin, Chicago and New York marathons.  This has led some to question whether this new footwear technology might be the LZR Racer of marathon running.  The IAAF has stressed that “this is not just linked to one manufacturer. There is a development in shoe tech across the board” and it is something that is being watched closely.

For some, this is problematic because it risks detracting from the pure athletic nature of sport, and risks opening up a world of technological advantage to teams and individuals with enough money to fund developments to which only they have access, meaning competition does not occur on a level playing field.  On the other hand, Nike’s ZoomX Vaporfly technology is widely available, including on the highstreet.  Indeed, for Nike, and other footwear brands, the ‘legality’ of the particular shoe will not necessarily matter, as it is not the end of the story.  In the same way that F1 technology often makes its way down the automobile chain into commercial cars, these products are not confined in purpose to their elite debuts; they represent serious commercial potential throughout the sports apparel ecosystem, often even if they are not ‘legal’ for the purposes of the governing body’s regulations (much in the same way that there is a substantial market for ‘illegal’ golf clubs).  In other words, Breaking2 was a commercial endeavour as much as it was a sporting one.

The IAAF, on the other hand, must continue to grapple with the philosophical question of technology’s place in sport and the unenviable task of defining the line between innovation and unfair advantage.