By national sport reporter David Mark
When a world record is broken, it is normally a cause for celebration.
- Joshua Cheptegei broke the five-kilometre road world record by 27 seconds wearing Nike’s controversial Vaporfly Next% shoes
- Eliud Kipchoge wore a protype of the shoe when he became the first person to run a marathon under two hours last year
- Marathon great Robert de Castella said he was “saddened” that technology has become such a major factor in bringing times down in road races
But Australia’s former marathon world record holder, Robert de Castella, says he is “saddened” by Joshua Cheptegei’s effort in smashing the 5-kilometre road world record by 27 seconds.
Cheptegei ran the race in Monaco in an astonishing 12 minutes and 51 seconds, wearing Nike’s controversial Vaporfly Next% shoes.
“I’m probably saddened,” de Castella said.
“Because it’s making a little bit of a farce out of our sport and I don’t believe that it’s right and fair that technology — which I believe is a major contributing factor — should be playing such a big role.”
Sport has been involved in a technological arms race ever since someone decided we did not need to perform in the nude.
And just like the battle against doping, with each step forward in technology, sports administrators have to play catch-up as they decide just what is and is not fair.
The question at the heart of the dilemma is where do you draw the line from innovation which pushes a sport forward, to that stage when technology has gone too far?
Running facing new challenge with Vaporfly
Swimming and cycling have been down this road before and now it is the turn of athletics.
Complete with a thick and elastic mid-sole foam and integrated carbon plate, the shoes are said to return more energy to the runner, which would otherwise be lost. Nike claims they improve efficiency by 4 per cent.
De Castella said they act in a similar way to a spring.
“The principle of running with springs in your shoes makes an absurdity of it,” de Castella said.
“You’re creating an energy rebound effect that has never been used by runners in the past.”
The shoes do not provide extra energy (they cannot provide any more than the athlete is producing), they just make more use of the energy that is already there. Think of the difference between dropping a fully inflated basketball and a flat one from the same height.
“So instead of you hitting the road and 70 per cent of your energy coming back to you, it’s more like 90 to 95 per cent of the energy returned and your legs get a lot less beat up,” said Australian running coach Nic Bideau, who is sponsored by Nike.
A prototype of the shoe was worn by the Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge when he became the first person to run the marathon distance under two hours last year.
Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei was wearing the current version on the market, the Vaporfly Next%, when she beat Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year-old marathon world record last year.
Under pressure, World Athletics has created a new set of rules that stipulate the shoes cannot have more than 40mm of foam and only one carbon plate, and they must be on sale for at least four months before being used in competition.
It is expected the Alphafly will be worn and available at the Tokyo Olympic Games and according to Bideau, it will have a foam height of 39.7mm to just scrape in under the limit.
‘People believe they’re better’
Bideau’s top-flight athletes are also sponsored by Nike, but he was surprisingly ambivalent about their benefits.
“I can’t tell you how good they are, but the big thing for me is that people believe they’re better,” he said.
Bideau’s athletes are a case in point.
“My athletes that have worn them won’t want to go back to wearing something else,” he said.
“They just feel that their legs get less damaged in races.”
For Bideau, it is the suggested reduction in damage — rather than a mechanical advantage — which is the big bonus, but others are not so sure.
After all, the shoes have been worn in world-record-breaking efforts for men and women in the marathon and half marathon as well as the 10km.
Many athletes have set personal bests in the shoes, such as Bideau-trained Brett Robinson, who recently broke the Australian half marathon record wearing a pair of the Vaporflys at a race in Japan.
The question for de Castella is are athletes wearing Vaporflys still running?
“If there is a significant enhancement that changes the biomechanics of the activity then it’s no longer the beautiful and free activity that it always was,” de Castella said.
But Bideau countered by arguing if springs on shoes worked, they would have done it by now.
“You have to re-acquire the skill of running if you’re running in springs,” he said.
“There’s a point where it’s too far.”
The ‘supersuit’ era
In any case, while the Nike shoes are dominating in world athletics at the moment, it is not all one-way traffic.
In January, Kenya’s Rhonex Kipruto slashed 14 seconds off the road 10km world record in a pair of conventional Adidas runners.
But that effort may be the last world record in an older style of shoes.
Other shoe companies are now racing to come out with their own versions of a shoe with light, thick foam and a stiff carbon plate before the end of April, so they can be used in time for the Olympics in Tokyo.
“I think we’ve seen almost across every sport where technology has played a part, whether it be cycling or swimming or tennis, that sooner or later the bodies that are responsible need to step in and set some reasonable guidelines,” de Castella said.
That debate brings to mind swimming’s supersuit era. In 2008 and 2009, more than 100 world records tumbled in the extraordinary suits designed by Speedo that massively reduced drag, allowing swimmers to move through the water more quickly.
In the Rome world championships in 2009 alone, 43 world records were broken.
But the suits were so fragile they broke after just a few uses and were insanely difficult to put on — it could take up to 20 minutes to squeeze into a suit. That and their cost put them out of reach of anyone bar an elite athlete competing at a major event.
And therein lies one of the defining criteria that sporting bodies use to determine how far technology can be pushed in sport, the simple test: Is this product within reach of normal people?
World Athletics made that a central plank in its decision about runners — they must be available in a shop. But while the Nike shoes will be expensive (the Vaporflys retail for more than $300 and the Alphaflys will likely sell for more), they are within reach.
Whereas, the Speedo bodysuit is beyond ridiculous for the local lap swimmer.
Cycling’s complex relationship with development
But where does that leave the sport that owes more to technology than any other: Cycling?
After all, it is a sport that, unlike running and swimming, relies on a machine and perhaps as a result no sport has been so befuddled by technology, by what is and is not legal, fair and strangely enough, aesthetic.
And while the sport has benefitted greatly in recent years from huge advancements in materials, arguably the biggest technological change to ever hit the sport was not about what the bike was made of, but about position.
In 1993, a little-known Scot, Graeme Obree, shocked the cycling world with a machine he built himself out of spare parts and ball-bearings taken from an old washing machine.
Ride Media’s Rob Arnold has been a long-time fan.
“He (Obree) came along with — to call it an unorthodox position would be an understatement — it was completely left-field thinking and it was completely his idea,” Arnold said.
Instead of riding a conventional bike with drop handlebars, Obree’s Old Faithful — as he called it — had incredibly small handlebars, set way back.
Obree tucked his chest directly over the handlebars and brought his arms and elbows into his side in a ski-tuck position, which dramatically reduced wind resistance.
In 1993, he broke the world hour record and won the world individual pursuit championship on Old Faithful before cycling’s world governing body, the UCI, stepped in.
“The UCI got so enraged by the aesthetic of his world championship-winning pursuit they started to alter the regulations and basically did what they could to ban Obree’s outside-the-square thinking,” Arnold said.
Undeterred, Obree went back to the drawing board and this time he installed a set of long handlebar extensions, which extended his arms straight and way out in front of his body in what was dubbed the Superman position.
He won the world individual pursuit championship once again in 1995.
Another Briton, Chris Boardman, used the Superman position on a carbon-fibre bicycle designed by the motorsport team Lotus in another attempt on the hour record and set a distance of 56.375km, which has never been beaten.
Once again, the UCI stepped in and banned the position. It just did not look like cycling, your honour.
Advancements made at a significant cost
Since then, cycling technology has continued to evolve and prices have increased astronomically.
Team GB’s track bike for the Tokyo Olympics is a futuristic-looking machine designed by Lotus and the cycling company Hope.
And while the UCI — like the governing bodies of swimming and athletics — states for bikes to be legal they have to be available for sale, you wonder just how many people could afford the $57,000-odd (depending on exchange rate fluctuations) just to buy the frame, handlebars, forks and wheels to buy a state-of-the-art carbon-fibre track bike.
Hope Technology tweet:We can now unveil the HB.T. An innovative new track bike designed to help the Great Britain Cycling Team (GBCT) achieve their goals at next summer’s Olympic Games. #hopetech
That cost does not include extras like cranksets, pedals, saddle, helmets and suits, which would set you back literally tens of thousands of dollars.
Available for sale and to the public? In name only.
Where is the big advantage? Team GB thinks the bikes increase efficiency by around 2 per cent, but of course, in a sport measured to within one-thousandth of a second, that could make all the difference.
Team GB is not alone. Australia is spending up big on its track bikes through the companies Argon and Zipp.
And while the big teams can pour in money to technology, that is not going to be the case for the poorer nations, whose start line at the Tokyo velodrome may as well be set back by many metres.
But what of the top runners at the Olympics? Will they be on a level playing field?
“The shoes do need to be available to everyone,” de Castella said.
“Whilst ever Nike has a patent that prevents other companies from utilising it, then I think that’s an issue.”
Running is entering uncharted waters — the question is whether it is simply the progression of technology or something entirely new altogether?
The Tokyo Olympics will tell a very interesting story.