In these days of corporate malfeasance and rampant distrust of large corporations, big multinational companies can expect to be criticized from many directions and investigated for all kinds of wrongdoing. Even so, it seems surprising that  Nike is being investigated by the International Association of Athletics Federations...for making a shoe that helps athletes run really fast.

If you thought that making running shoes that help people run fast was in fact part of Nike's mission, you were right. Its mission statement is: "Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world." To that end, Nike has been working closely with elite Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge and other top distance runners on a moon shot goal: To run a marathon in under two hours. At the time that goal was announced, the record for the marathon (which is 26.2 miles) was two hours, two minutes and 57 seconds. 

Working with Kipchoge, Nike developed its Vaporfly running shoe line, in particular the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Next%. The shoe features special thick foam soles and is incredibly lightweight, in some ways like running barefoot with an extra spring in your step. Kipchoge was wearing a newly developed model of the shoe when he succeeded in breaking the two-hour barrier on October 12. He ran an unofficial marathon in Vienna in one hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds. The following day, another Kenyan, Brigid Kosgei, set a new women's record of two hours, 14 minutes and four seconds at the Chicago marathon, beating the previous record by well over a minute, while wearing similar Nike shoes. 

Nike, as you might expect, is proud of these accomplishments. But with two marathon records broken in as many days, several elite runners lodged complaints with the IAAF, which began an investigation into the shoes and whether they confer an unfair advantage. Some of these runners have proposed a thickness limit on the soles of running shoes worn in races. 

I have to confess that I'm not a racer or even a runner and maybe if I was I would see things differently. But it seems absurd to me that a running shoe company is being criticized and investigated for doing what every company in the world strives to do--creating a product that's better than its competitors'.

You can buy the Vaporfly for $250.

The shoes may well confer an advantage, but is that advantage unfair? The Nike Zoom Vaporfly Next% is widely available from the Nike website and many other retailers, at a price of about $250. Runner and author Amby Burfoot wrote a long New York Times essay arguing that the Vaporfly should be banned from races in part because he has fond memories of winning the Boston Marathon in 1968. A cash-strapped student at the time, he was wearing running shoes that cost $9.95 which was all he could afford. That's a wonderful accomplishment, but today's elite marathon runners can certainly pay $250 for a pair of running shoes, or if not their sponsors and backers can.  

During Kipchoge's record-breaking run, he was wearing a special prototype shoe Nike developed for him, so that might indeed have conferred an unfair advantage. Then again, he ran with a phalanx of five pacemaker runners deployed in front of him in a V configuration, helping to keep him at the right pace and improving his aerodynamics, much the way geese do for each other when they fly in a V, or distance bicycle racers do when they position themselves behind other racers. If you were concerned about unfair advantages, removing those pacemakers would be a good place to start. But the idea wasn't to run a fair race against other runners, it was to see whether breaking the two-hour barrier was possible at all.

Some observers seem mostly dismayed that the new faster shoes mean more racing records will now be broken. But it seems to me that the hope of breaking existing records is why many elite runners get out of bed in the morning. In any case, after some investigation and a conference call with scientists and legal experts, the IAAF has given no indication that it intends to ban the Vaporfly--which, by the way, has been in use in some form since 2017.

So my guess is that the shoe will stay in use for marathons and other long-distance runs. And that some of the athletes who've objected to it will wind up buying themselves a pair.

Published on: Oct 24, 2019
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