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Athletic companies across the world love the Olympics and other international tournaments. It is a global stage to showcase new products and thrust their brands into the spotlight. A victory for the athletes wearing them is also a victory for the brand. Over the years, professional sports have experienced multiple revolutions focusing on enhancing athlete’s performance.

Today, another revolution is taking the world of sport by storm – the development of super shoes, helping elite athletes run faster and break records. The super shoe design has produced outstanding results in international races. Consequently, the results created another controversy regarding how technological advancements create an unfair advantage in professional sports.

In October 2019, Eliud Kipchoge, the famous Kenyan athlete, created a stunning record while wearing Nike’s high-tech Vaporfly shoes. According to Nike, athletes are 4 percent more efficient and at an advantage when wearing the Vaporfly shoes. Consequently, Kipchoge’s impressive marathon performance, which was destined to draw global admiration, was instantly mired in controversy.

Research in sports biomechanics explained that the Vaporfly sole is designed to help runners lose less energy per step. The secret is in the sole, consisting of a carbon-fiber plate and a foam layer fused together and designed to help runners get the most forward push for each stride. In addition to providing cushioned impact while striking the ground, the running shoes are designed in a way that stores and releases energy to propel athletes forward.

During impact, the midsole works like a spring that compresses when a runner lands and stores the energy from the foot strike and expands again to return the energy into the ground to thrust them forward. Traditional running shoes that use ethylene vinyl-acetate foam returns 65% of the energy a runner puts into it. In comparison, Nike’s Vaporfly, designed with a foam called Pebax, produces an astonishing 87% efficiency with the addition of a carbon-fiber plate, which helps the Pebax foam to compress and expand quickly.

While Nike’s Vaporfly created the most controversy, Adidas also unveiled a new shoe designed for a similar purpose – albeit with less publicity. Adidas shoes were worn by the four men who recently set world marathon records. Experts are concerned that age-group competitions and elite races might lose their competitiveness with the latest shoe technology.

In a recent move to preserve the integrity of athletics, World Athletics, the running’s governing body, announced a ban on Nike’s advanced prototype designed with carbon fiber plates and thick soles. The new rules set a permissible limit to the sole thickness and the maximum carbon plates to conserve a runner’s energy. All new shoe designs must also be available in the open retail market for four months before athletes can use them in competitions.

The rules and amendments are a balanced approach to address some of the potential unfair advantages and problems new technology can pose to professional sports. Experts applaud the move drawing a firmer line before footwear designs spiral out of control.

For example, the introduction of NASA-designed specially textured swimsuits to competitive swimming in 2008 facilitated record-toppling performance among competitors in the FINA World Championship in Rome. Twenty-nine world records were set in the first few days of the championship before the swimming governing body eventually outlawed the swimsuits.

Some experts argued that the latest technology should be seen as a new entry into sport’s list of impressive performance-enhancing innovations. However, we must consider ethical concerns to limit unfair advantages for individual athletes. Even with the ban, other versions of the shoes remain legal. While the World Athletics ban hopes to regulate running, the competition has taken on a new definition from being a foot race to an arms race.

Oyalola Lateef
Oyalola Lateef