Have Nike’s special shoes overstepped their bounds?

Eluid Kipchoge, marathon world record-holder, at the 2015 Berlin Marathon. BETHEL/WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

Most people can’t run a mile in four minutes and 30 seconds, much less keep that pace for the length of a marathon. But on Oct. 12, Eluid Kipchoge did just that, becoming the first person to ever run a distance of 26.2 miles in under two hours (albeit under optimal, manufactured conditions). The very next day, Brigid Kosegi broke the women’s marathon record with a time of 2:14:04. Besides hailing from Kenya and being at the top of their games, what do the two have in common?

They both wore Nike’s ZoomX Vaporfly Next% shoes when they accomplished their amazing feats.

Normally, it wouldn’t be newsworthy that two top athletes wore the same footwear. After all, Nike spent more than $1 billion on endorsements alone in 2015, according to CNN. But the Vaporflys are not your average sports shoes. In fact, they are very controversial in the long-distance running community because of the supposed performance enhancement they provide to wearers.

In 2016, Nike claimed that the first version of the Vaporflys, the 4%s, would make runners 4% more efficient (as the name suggested). Four percent may not sound like a lot, but in the context of a marathon, that 4% translates to invaluable minutes which could, for instance, spell the difference between breaking a world record or not.

In 2016, Nike claimed that the first version of the Vaporflys, the 4%s, would make runners 4% more efficient (as the name suggested)

Companies have frequently made claims like this only for them to be exposed as marketing schemes, but the Vaporflys were tested in peer-reviewed research which found that the shoes did give runners the 4% advantage it claimed. According to WIRED, the Vaporflys mainly do this through the use of two innovative technologies: a foam midsole which absorbs energy when the wearer’s foot hits the ground and returns that energy to their stride, as well as a carbon fiber plate in the shoe which preserves energy by stabilizing the runner’s ankles and toes.

Then, in 2019, Nike came out with the ZoomX Vaporfly Next% shoe, which are said to be even better at making runners more efficient than its predecessors. Nike has kept exactly how much more efficient this version of the Vaporflys makes a runner under wraps this time, likely in an attempt to avoid the shoes being banned by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the body which governs marathon racing.

Incidentally, a ban on the Vaporflys is exactly what some people are calling for after Kosegi and Kipchoge’s record-setting runs. Critics of the shoes believe that the Vaporflys are a performance-enhancer and give Nike-sponsored runners an unfair advantage over the rest of the field.

To which I say, so what?

Yes, this does give Nike-sponsored runners an advantage over others, but why should the athletes be penalized for Nike trying to improve their product? Nike scientists were the first (and only) ones to utilize this technology thus far — why punish them for being good at their job? It’s not as if Nike is the only superpower in the shoemaking business. Other running-focused brands (New Balance, Under Armour, Saucony, Brooks, etc.) have similar access to resources like Nike. They could be innovating and researching technologies to keep pace with Nike and its runners, but instead, use parity as a crutch to lean on. Let’s not throw a pity party for multi-billion dollar corporations. Instead, let’s challenge them to use the money we put in their pockets to contribute to human achievement.

Roger Federer prepares a backhand volley with a composite racket, which has become a staple of modern tennis.

Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of innovation in sports. It should be something we celebrate, not condemn and complain about. Technological advancements and sporting achievements have always gone hand-in-hand: think Jesse Owens wearing innovative Adidas track spikes at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, tennis players starting to use bigger composite rackets instead of wooden ones in the ’70s, and NFL players beginning to use adhesive gloves which allow for amazing catches like Odell Beckham Jr.’s iconic snag against the Dallas Cowboys in 2014.

All of these achievements, and many others, demonstrate what is possible when tech and sports come together. But the technology an athlete uses only serves to complement their amazing abilities; it should not define them. On-field technology allows for more amazing moments; however, it should take nothing away from just how gifted the athletes using this technology are and just how difficult it is to do what they do. It is offensive to attribute the awe-inspiring nature of the accomplishments of athletes like Kiphchoge and Kosegi solely to the shoes on their feet (although they do present an advantage), disregarding their natural talent, years of hard work, and will to win.

After all, what’s a special sneaker without a world-beating wearer?


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