Athletics chiefs are under pressure to outlaw controversial ‘super-shoes’ after the sport’s top scientist admitted the rules governing them need to be revamped.
Olympic records are expected to tumble at Tokyo 2020, with competitors using hi-tech footwear that has led to record books being rewritten at an astonishing rate.
Usain Bolt last week joined the outcry against the governing body for permitting the shoe technology, with the sprint legend describing the situation as ‘laughable’.
Now Stephane Bermon, director of health and science at World Athletics, has admitted that the global ruling body needs to update its rules to keep up with developments.
Figures within World Athletics have previously avoided giving any indication as to whether the rules will need to be changed once a moratorium on doing so ends after the Games. ‘After the moratorium we will very likely have new rules governing these shoes,’ said Bermon. ‘In the longer term, we will probably have new rules based on different characteristics other than a simple measurement.
‘It seems what is mediating the highest performance-enhancing effect is likely the stiff plate. Regulating this would mean — and this is something we are likely going to move — just regulating on measuring the shoes and the number of plates is not enough. We should move to a system that is based on energy return.’
Elite road running has been transformed since Nike released its VaporFly shoe four years ago, with athletes producing a slew of remarkable performances.
They included the Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge breaking the fabled two-hour marathon barrier wearing a pair, while his compatriot Brigid Kosgei beat Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year-old marathon world record by 81 seconds a day later.
The introduction of track spikes using similar technology has had a similarly transformative effect and will be widely used in Tokyo. Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei set world records over 5,000m and 10,000m wearing a pair, while in June Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce clocked 10.63 seconds in the 100m, second only to Florence Griffith-Joyner.
Fraser-Pryce last week argued that too much signifance has been assigned to the shoe, saying: ‘You can give the spike to everyone in the world and it doesn’t mean they will run the same time as you or even better. It requires work.’
But Bolt believes they are unfairly enhancing performance, saying: ‘It’s weird and unfair for a lot of athletes because I know that in the past shoe companies actually tried and the governing body said ‘No, you can’t change the spikes’, so to know that now they are actually doing it, it’s laughable.’
Scientists are uncertain why the shoes bestow such enormous benefits but it is understood the key technology is the stiff plate, often made of carbon, and the ultra-light, springy foam.
Along with an upper in the road shoe that is more curved than previous designs, it is felt that these qualities significantly reduce the amount of energy the runner expends.
World Athletics has capped the depth of the sole at 40mm to limit the effect of the foam and insisted on a maximum of one plate per shoe. Critics have said those rules do not go far enough. Especially when some athletes find much less benefit from the shoes compared to others and some enjoy no improvement at all. The reasons for that phenomenon has also so far baffled the scientists.
‘The same shoe gives you a massive variability among different athletes — even greater than 10 per cent [improvement in performance] in some cases,’ says Professor Yannis Pitsiladis, who sits on the science and medical commission of the International Olympic Committee.
‘How you respond to the shoe can determine if you’re going to be an Olympian or watch it on TV. You know who is going to win and who can qualify [for the Games]. Athletes have qualified because they had access to a super shoe. And many who were not running in these shoes didn’t qualify.’
Pitsiladis compares the shoes to a form of ‘technological doping’ and wants the regulations to be changed so that the shoes cannot determine the outcome of a race.
‘One solution is to minimise the stack [sole] height, while allowing the shoe companies to innovate in a smaller area, minimising the impact of any performance-enhancing mechanisms such as the carbon-fibre plate,’ he says.
‘Let the best companies come up with half a per cent [improvement in performance], say, or one per cent. But not a situation where you have improvements in running economy of even greater than seven per cent.’
Experts fear that the working group World Athletics has put together to advise the ruling body on the regulations post-Tokyo will not go far enough, especially when representatives of six sports brands are sitting on it.
‘The moratorium was also because we had to discuss with the manufacturers,’ said Bermon. ‘It’s very important that you respect the manufacturers. They have spent a lot of time and money designing these shoes. We have to take decisions that do not put them into difficult economic circumstances.’
The working group also includes representatives from the governing body itself, its athletes commission, the ‘sporting goods industry’ and a scientist. World Athletics said: ‘The group is examining the research around shoe technology in order to set parameters, with the aim of achieving the right balance between innovation, competitive advantage, universality and availability.’
I raced in the Nike Air Zoom Victory spikes for the first time on Saturday and broke my 800metres personal best by more than a second.
I reached 600m and thought ‘Wow, I have a lot left in the tank’. I felt like I saved more energy with each contact with the ground.
They are so springy. I put my foot down and felt a burst of energy, a lovely bounce, when I came up. They really work with you, you get a spring up and it is a lot more efficient, as it absorbs the energy when you go down and pushes you back up, so you fatigue less.
National 800 metre runner Thomas Baines raced in the Nike Air Zoom Victory spikes
You just don’t have to work as hard so it is helping with the basic biomechanics of running. It allows you to get a longer stride without putting any extra effort in. It is not that the spikes make you run quicker, just that you have so much more left at the end. That’s the key.
I finished in 1min 49.6sec at the Loughborough Grand Prix, which is 1.1sec off my previous best. I was second behind a 1500m European junior champion also wearing the spikes.
My aim now is to get to GB under-23 level, to compete at the European Championships. If I can keep improving the spikes will definitely help too. I trained in the Vaporfly trainers on a 10km run last week.
Running at an easy pace I would normally be clocking 4min 40sec pace per kilometre. Putting in the same amount of effort, I got a few kilometres in, glanced at my watch and was ‘Oh my God!’ I’m running 4.20 per kilometre. It felt very easy. The same route took two minutes quicker in the end.
You can see why the professionals are using them. You can see the difference they make in the times. In 2019 there were two runners who ran under 1min 45sec. This season already there are six, with Elliot Giles now No4 on the UK all-time list behind Seb Coe, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott, with Oliver Dustin No6.
We haven’t had these sort of times run before from so many in the same season. It is making a big difference but at the Olympics all the elite athletes will be wearing spikes that use this technology, so it is a fair test.