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Technological Doping: is it killing the marathon?

James Moultrie challenges whether the advantages Nike have in the running shoe industry has gone too far

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Image Credit: Michiel Jelijs

ELIUD KIPCHOGE AND Brigid Kosgei stole sports headlines with the two greatest long-distance running performances in history. This article is in no way trying to take away from either of the athlete’s skill or the amount which they have inspired people, but simply to address the future of running shoe technology and Nike’s overwhelming growth in dominance over the last five years.

Kipchoge ran a 1:59:40, breaking the two hour barrier which commentators have built up as an unbreakable ceiling showing a landmark moment in the sport. His truly inspiring story as a boy who used to run two miles every day to school, to reaching the absolute pinnacle of long-distance running- you can say nothing more or less than that he is the best marathon runner ever. Brigid Kosgei’s performance in the Chicago Marathon just the day after Kipchoge’s rounded off a great weekend for the sport as she broke Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year-old record by 81 seconds with an unheard of 2:14:04.

Her obliteration of the old record showed a truly amazing performance; arguably much more impressive than Kipchoge’s given that her time will go down as the official IAAF recognised record of finishing six minutes ahead of the next female finisher. She also would have finished 23rd in the men’s event. Put into context, in the recent York marathon, the highest finisher in the women’s event finished slower than 81 male runners.

Running as a sport, or even just as an activity, is great because just about anyone can do it, anywhere, with very limited equipment; the only essentials being clothes and shoes. This makes for very limited room for unfair advantages when it comes to kit.

This is very similar to swimming in how stripped back they are; not much can be said on what the athletes are using. Despite this, swimming as a sport experienced a huge advancement (and subsequent banning) in equipment following the 2008 Beijing Olympics where Speedo’s LZR elite suit took all the headlines. 98 per cent of all medals went to athletes wearing the suit along with the fact that only a year and a half after its release, 93 world records had been broken. The athletes not wearing the suit were at a huge disadvantage. This was due to the oxygen saved through drag reduction and higher core stability. With Speedo already being the leading name in the industry this bridged the gap too far and took away from the nature of swimming and athletes’ abilities.

Long distance, and specifically marathon, running, is suffering from a similar issue as Nike have gained a huge dominance in the running shoe industry. Both Kipchoge and Kosgei were wearing Nike shoes in their record-breaking attempts-with Kipchoge’s being a bespoke unreleased model with added carbon plates in the midsole providing propulsion forward every time his foot hits the ground. Kosgei was wearing the regular Vaporfly Next % which is at the forefront of current Nike models available both designed around the basis of percentages- referring to the added running economy gained by wearing the shoe. Four to six per cent Running economy amounts to one to three minutes advantage solely from the shoe, according to South African sports scientist Ross Tucker minutes advantage solely from the shoe.

Both athletes broke huge boundaries and are undeniably the two greatest marathon runners ever. However, the argument is not so much about them, but more that Nike has gained the same advantage Speedo did in 2008 and the technology should either be made available to all or removed completely. The top five men and top four women in the 2019 London marathon were all sponsored by, and wearing Nike running shoes.

The final issue is whether this is simply a business-driven movement, with the shoe Nike sells retailing for £240 and the event being held by the Multinational Chemicals company INEOS.

Kipchoge’s inspirational breakthrough won’t count as the official world record given the nature of the attempt being done at near perfect conditions, with a group of elite pacemakers, on a flat course with limited corners (which slow down runners) in Vienna’s Prater park. There was a previous attempt the year before, spearheaded by Nike, but Kipchoge missed out on the two hour barrier by 20 seconds.

Nike’s shoes and marathon running will undeniably benefit from this one weekend of long-distance running history as people will want the best shoes possible which both Kosgei and Kipchoge proved to be made by Nike. However, the poorer athletes from less developed countries won’t have access to the expensive Nike trainer - an issue which Speedo’s LZR Elite also got criticised for (LZR Elite suits retailed for £320). This added to the other factors leading to the swimsuit being banned and similar steps should be taken by the IAAF to remove this seriously worrying advantage one brand’s technology holds, unless Nike are willing to give up the technology to other brands unlikely, given they have already obtained a patent on the specific use of three carbon plates. It’s going to have to be either all or nothing if the sport is to remain as pure as it once was.

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