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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Tokyo Olympics: Why ‘super shoes’ have revived debate on technological doping

At the Tokyo Olympics, athletes have delivered extreme performances that have been partly attributed to these advanced shoes, as well as a high-tech track that they ran on.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 11, 2021 10:40:25 am
Tokyo OlympicsElaine Thompson-Herah, second left, of Jamaica, celebrates as she wins the final of the women's 200 meters ahead of Christine Mboma, second right, of Namibia, at the Tokyo Olympics (AP)

Since the Rio Olympics of 2016, a slew of world, national and personal athletics records have been broken, thanks to what are described as “super shoes”. While these high-tech shoes have been praised for transforming track and field events, they have also been slammed by purists, who believe the new footwear has ruined athletics.

Even at the Tokyo Olympics 2020, athletes have delivered extreme performances that have been partly attributed to these advanced shoes, as well as a high-tech track that they ran on.

Critics, however, allege that using the super footwear, first developed by the American multinational Nike and now adopted by several competitors, amounts to ‘technological doping’.

What are some of the records broken at the Tokyo Olympics?

In men’s 400m hurdles, Norway’s Gold-winning Karsten Warholm beat the world record (which he himself set last month) by a remarkable 0.75 seconds. USA’s Sydney McLaughlin did the same in the women’s 400m hurdles. What is more, even the Silver Medal winners in the same men’s and women’s races broke the previous world record.

Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah, who won Gold in both 100m and 200m sprints, broke a 33-year-old Olympic record in the former and clocked the second-best time in history in the latter. In the triple jump, Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas — who won Gold — set a world record.

Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, the current world record holder in marathon running, became the third person in history to win two successive Olympic races, finishing the Sunday race in two hours eight minutes and 38 seconds.

The debate over technological doping was first triggered after the same athlete performed an astonishing feat at Vienna in 2019, running a marathon in under two hours. That timing, however, was not recognised as the official marathon world record.

What are ‘super shoes’?

In 2017, Kipchoge made his first attempt to break the two-hour barrier but fell short by 26 seconds. Back then, it was believed that the version of the shoe which he wore would have given him an advantage.

These shoes were called the Vaporfly Elite. The Vaporfly series of shoes by Nike, lab tests have shown subsequently, helps an athlete save four per cent more energy than a competitor who does not wear them.

Two weeks before Kipchoge’s feat in Vienna, Ethiopian great Kenesisa Bekele, another runner who used the Vaporfly, came within two seconds of the former’s world record. A day after the two-hour barrier fell, Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei broke the 16-year-old women’s record at the Chicago marathon.

Later, track spikes — shoes that have spikes underneath to give runners a grip — also became more technologically advanced as marathon shoes did before them, as per a report in New Scientist. As per the report, both super shoes and super spikes combine a unique foam with a rigid carbon-fibre plate.

Unlike traditional spikes, which have tried to lessen the amount of midsole foam in order to decrease weight and energy absorption, super spikes have a better foam that is able to return as much as 80 to 90 per cent of energy to the athlete– thus acting like a spring in every step. The carbon-fibre plate in super footwear is believed to allow athletes a more effective push-off.

World Athletics, the governing body for track and field sports, approves “super shoes”, but with regulations on foam thickness, as well as other parameters, as per an AFP report.

Along with “super shoes”, the track specifically engineered for Tokyo that the athletes ran on is also believed to have increased their speed. As per the New Scientist, the track, whose surface required three years to be completed, has been tuned to allow shock absorption and energy return– working like the foam in super spikes.

So, what explains the ‘technological doping’ complaint?

While the technological advancements in shoes have been welcomed by many for the transformative effect they have had on track and field events, there are others who have been less enthusiastic.

Some athletics purists insist that running should only involve human effort, not a combination of human effort and technology. Essentially, they assert that athletes should be rewarded for their endeavour, and not for their choice of footwear.

The debate is especially charged when it comes to elite sports, when even a small difference in technology can be the deciding factor in tight races. Critics ask how it would be possible to accurately assess an athlete’s individual effort in a race by separating it from the boost received from high technology shoes.

There also remain concerns about the high cost of super shoes — which could effectively erase chances of poorer athletes excelling in track and field.

An earlier version of the article said Eliud Kipchoge is from Ethiopia. The error is regretted

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