Technology sets its pace, but is there an unfair advantage?

Last year, as the world grappled with the coronavirus disease pandemic, long-distance running quietly took some big steps forward. Since June 2020, the men’s and women’s world records have fallen in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres. The last time he fell was on June 6, when Dutch sprinter Sivan Hasan broke nearly 10 seconds off the previous 10,000m record to set a thrilling time of 29.06.82.

Two things tie the records: the four racers wore Nike’s Vaporfly shoes, and the races featured speed-sensitive lights. Both developments led to much controversy in the sports world.

(There is another connection between the record-setters, but more on that later.)

First the lights. Developed by a Dutch company, a string of lights line the track and flash in front of or behind a runner to indicate the difference in the runner’s speed by a certain amount of time. In the case of the 5,000m and 10,000m records, the lights were set to world record times.

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Speed ​​is critical to endurance events, especially for those in the lead. Instead of relying on their own internal rhythm, 22-year-old Ethiopia’s Letsenbet Gedi (women’s 5,000m) and Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei (men’s WR 10,000m) can chase the bright lights and eventually overtake them to set records of their own.

Cheptegei underestimated the role of light in running.

“I wasn’t looking for the light,” he told Letsrun.com in August. “It was Cheptegei and the world record.”

The lights, which will not be used at the Tokyo Olympics, obviously do not present an unfair advantage – they are there for all runners to see – and it is up to the runner whether he has the ability to get past them.

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However, the controversy over the shoes did not stop. It started as a whisper in 2016, when all three race medalists took the podium at the 2016 Olympic marathon in identical shoes — a soon-to-be-released Nike prototype called the Vaporfly. It exploded when Nike and the world’s best marathon runner, Eliud Kipchoge, performed the biggest publicity stunt in the sport’s history by running a marathon in under two hours on a foggy Vienna morning in October 2019. Kipchoge wore another Vaporfly prototype, in his signature onion look. , Neon color. The next day, Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei set the world record for the women’s marathon in Chicago wearing the same shoes.

Why are these shoes so controversial? Critics point out two things. The first is that the proprietary technology violates a World Athletics (WA, track governing body) rule that states that all equipment used must be reasonably available to most athletes. The second is that the technology is so advanced that it spoils the integrity of the sport itself. The outcry culminated in a call to ban these shoes from formal events – WA had to rule the case in August 2020. Instead of banning the shoes, they put a thick cover on the sole of their running shoes.

WA was right not to ban shoes. this is the reason. First, what exactly is this very groundbreaking new technology? Nike shoes have two unique design elements: one is a thin carbon plate that is inserted into the midsole and the other is a type of foam used in flight technologies, which is lighter and more active than anything else used in shoes now. While the exact reason these shoes work so well isn’t yet understood (Nike says it has to do with transferring energy from the sprinter’s stride, boosting running economy), Paper published this year In Frontiers of Sports and Active Living, I found that it really does contribute to a significant drop in race timing.

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But does new technology give an unfair advantage? incorrect. The technology isn’t even new. In 2007, when Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie set the then-running marathon world record at 2:04:26, he was wearing something called an Adidas ProPlate, a shoe with a carbon fiber plate in his midsole. After Nike introduced the Vaporfly shoe, every shoe manufacturer released a pair of long-distance running pairs with carbon panels. As for foam, the lightest and most flexible foam is the cornerstone of advancements in shoe technology and is freely available for all manufacturers to take advantage of.

New technology that helps break old records is the norm in sports. In the running itself, when cinder block tracks were replaced with new synthetic materials in the 1960s, records were dropped. The examples are countless – the racing bike for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and the one for 1964 have nothing in common except for the base frame. Astro Turfs changed the game of hockey forever. Or imagine Roger Federer playing with a wooden racket.

Perhaps the most relevant example comes from swimming. In 2008 and 2009, world swimming records were broken more than 130 times by athletes who wore a revolutionary new Speedo-developed full-body suit that reduced drag. The World Swimming Authority had no choice but to step in and ban the suit in 2010. It would then be reasonable to expect that these records still stand. One of 40 swimming records for men and women, there are only 12 left from that “super suit” period.

Which brings us to the runners themselves, and the third links the four new world records – in fact, connecting the name of every runner mentioned thus far in this piece. They are all from East Africa. In fact, they come from a small genetic group that belongs to a region called the Great Rift Valley (Hassan is from Ethiopia and was received by the Netherlands as a 15-year-old refugee). Dozens of studies have shown that people in the Great Rift Valley have certain innate traits that make them great endurance racers. This is nature. The next step is a running culture and a high-quality training environment – that’s nurture.

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Technology still can’t beat the combination of the two.

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