Column: NIKE Shoe Much Ado About NothingMarch 16, 2017

Column: NIKE Shoe Much Ado About NothingSports are about human participation but there’s no denying that technology has an impact on performance. Is there a point where technology gives some performers an unfair advantage and creates artificial outcomes? That’s an endless debate, one that is currently underway in running circles.

In the past nine months, runners using the latest shoe designs from Nike have produced impressive results in international races. Nike shoes were worn by all three medalists in the men’s marathon at last summer’s Olympics. In the fall, Nikes were worn by the winners of major marathons around the globe, including Berlin, Chicago and New York. Recently, Nike unveiled a customized version of those shoes as part of the company’s goal to see a sub two-hour marathon, a campaign dubbed the “Breaking2” project.

Not to be undone, Adidas shoes have been worn by the last four men to set the world marathon record. And like Nike, Adidas has vowed to produce a shoe that will allow a runner to reduce the marathon record from the current 2 hours, 2 minutes, 57 seconds to 1:59:59 or faster. The “race” between the two sporting goods giants may be a gimmick, but it has certainly grabbed the attention of the international running community.

Not surprisingly, track’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (I.A.A.F.), has received a number of inquiries about new shoe designs, specifically whether they conform to the Federations’ standards. I.A.A.F. Rule 143 says that shoes “…must not be constructed so as to give an athlete any unfair additional assistance, including by the incorporation of any technology which will give the wearer any unfair advantage.” What constitutes an unfair advantage? The rule doesn’t elaborate.

However, the rule goes on to say that “All types of competition shoes must be approved by the I.A.A.F.” But a spokesperson for Nike told the New York Times that the company was unaware of any formal approval process and that shoe companies do not routinely submit their shoes for inspection. The I.A.A.F. plans to meet soon to determine if it needs to review or change its “approval process.”

So what’s magical about the new shoes? According to Nike, the shoe used by medalists in the Rio Olympics featured a thick but lightweight midsole that returns 13 percent more energy than more conventional foam midsoles. Embedded in the length of the midsole is a thin, stiff, carbon-fiber plate. The plate is designed to reduce the amount of oxygen needed to run at a fast pace. It stores and releases energy with each stride and is meant to act as a kind of slingshot, or catapult, to propel runners forward. The shoe to be used in the Breaking2 project is a customized version of the model that was used in Rio.

Technological advances in sport have always been controversial. Such was the case in track and field when tracks upgraded from cinder to synthetic rubber and when pole vaulters switched from bamboo to fiberglass poles. Other sports have dealt with similar issues. Swimmers wore full-body suits until they were banned after record-setting performances in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, allegedly because they provided an unfair advantage in buoyancy and speed. When tennis rackets went from wood to metal they grew larger and lighter. And in golf, shafts went from wood to graphite.

To promote fairness we could require identical footwear for all runners, but imagine the nightmare if race organizers had to check the feet of tens-of-thousands of runners prior to a race. Or maybe we should set different classes in running as is done in boxing, weightlifting and wrestling, even mandating similar heights and weights in each class. As you can see, fairness is an ephemeral concept.

Later this year Nike will begin retailing its new shoes, which guarantees at least one thing: Even as the debate about fairness continues, the sportswear giant’s profits are certain to increase as weekend runners looking for an edge trip over themselves to purchase the new footwear.