Technological doping!

The Tokyo Olympics later this year will see much discussion on Nike’s Vaporfly, a shoe not banned by World Athletics.

Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, the world record holder, crosses the finish line wearing Nike Vaporfly shoes to break the two-hour barrier in the marathon in October 2019.   -  Reuters

In competitive sport, improved technology often gives rise to moral arguments. Fibreglass poles, golf balls which minimised flight deviation, wheels and frames which gave cycles greater speed and many other innovations have raised suspicion. When swimmers wore the Speedo LZR Racer, a full-body compression suit that trapped air for buoyancy leading to new world records, the governing body banned it.

Build a better shoe, as Emerson didn’t say, and the sporting world will beat a path to your door. Nike have built a better shoe, the Vaporfly, and both professional athletes and weekend runners have been attracted to it despite the roughly 24,000 rupee price; that’s 12,000 per foot!

The Tokyo Olympics later this year will see much discussion on the Vaporfly, a shoe not banned by World Athletics. An earlier version was used by Eluid Kipchoge to break the two-hour barrier in the marathon; it enabled men and women to run eight of 12 fastest marathons ever run in the pace of the last 18 months.

So what’s the problem? It is technological doping, claim those who believe the shoes should be banned for it gives the athletes of one sponsor an unfair advantage. Marathons cannot be reduced to a shoe competition, they say. It also lasts only about 300 kilometres, thus enraging the environmentalists. Vaporfly advocates argue that sport ought not to discourage innovation, and there is nothing inherently wrong in the race between two humans being also a race between two sets of equipment.

What about innovations in Formula One for example, they ask. The better-sponsored, more-moneyed teams have the advantage; level playing fields do not exist in sport.

World Athletics has laid down new rules on what can and cannot be done. It involves cushions over 40mm thick, overlapping metal plates and a ban on using prototypes and shoes that have not been in the market for at least four months.

Interestingly, Nike haven’t done anything illegal at all. They have merely brought together existing technology and put it at our feet so to speak. Others will catch up, or even overtake soon, and then World Athletics will have a fresh set of issues to deal with. Just as doping manages to keep a step ahead of detection, technology has a way of getting around bans. You cannot push the toothpaste back into the tube. Years later, people will wonder what the fuss was all about.

Technology and sport have shared a special relationship. Scoring, marking, refereeing, calculating, tracking body rhythms, analysing, even nutrition have all undergone massive changes in recent years thanks to technology.

The relationship was articulated by philosopher Alun Hardman thus: “It is finding the correct balance or ‘sweet tension’ between the view of sport as an impromptu challenge faced spontaneously to examine our reservoir of skills and experiences, and a carefully crafted experiment that draws on all possible means to achieve the task with maximum efficiency.”

Sport loves to hark back to a pristine past that never existed.