This autumn, Ethiopia’s Tigst Assefa broke the woman’s world marathon record. She took just 2 hours 11 minutes and 53 seconds – which is 2 minutes and 11 seconds less than the record set previously 4 years ago. That is a whopping amount of time she was able to shave off. Not surprisingly, it raised eyebrows. How was it possible to run so fast? Some commentators put it down to the trainers she was wearing that gave her the advantage – the Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1. Not long after, the Kenyan long-distance runner Kelvin Kiptum broke the man’s world record time, wearing the latest Nike Alphafly 3 trainers (see left). So, what is it about these new kinds of super shoe that literally make an athlete run like the wind?
A big step change is the way they are made up and the materials used for this. This has enabled a new thick but lightweight structure to be built in the sole of the shoe. The way the layers of material are engineered seems to give the runners that extra spring. They also have added a stiff rod in the midsole that is made of carbon, which helps the shoe keep its shape. The Alphaflys also have a curved geometry in the sole that has been designed to propel runners forward. Taken together, they are truly a step up from previous running shoes. A marathon runner who was interviewed in an article in the Guardian on the super shoes said “on average I reckon that they are worth four minutes for a top male in a marathon.” And the proof is in the tumbling records this year.
But is it fair?
Technology has been developed for years to improve all manner of artefacts, clothing and equipment that are used in sport – including tennis racquets, cricket bats, racing cars and racing bikes. It is par of the course in sport innovation. But some ruling bodies see it as unfair and needs to be stopped in its tracks. For example, back in 2009 a new kind of high-tech super swimsuit developed by Speedo was banned by the swimming’s governing body on the grounds that it gave certain swimmers an advantage, and in so doing, was ruining the sport. The full body swimsuit was made from polyurethane which can trap air in the suit and increase buoyancy to the swimmer making it faster to swim.
Another concern is its impact on the past. Many world records from years gone by are being broken, especially those that were made by great sportsmen and women, who have since become legends. They did not have the same kind of high-tech super shoes, etc., then, so it is considered unfair to take away their crowning glories by those who have the super shoes, swimsuits, etc..
But records are there to be broken. And speed and innovation go hand in hand.
Another line of argument is that giving sportspeople these new kind of superpowers is equivalent to doping which entail taking certain kinds of drugs to improve fitness. But the big difference between doping and super tech is that the former is an internal enhancer while the later is an external aid. While both can improve speed, doping goes one step further by invisibly enhancing an athlete’s stamina which is especially important in endurance and long distance sports. The various substances, like EPO, used in doping increase the taker’s red blood cell count, enabling more oxygen to be transported around the body and to the muscles, thereby increasing stamina. No-one questions whether this should be banned because not only can they give certain athletes an unfair advantage, they can be dangerous, causing health issues. It is also difficult to see how much someone has taken and for how long so it is a very unfair playing ground.
Super shoes, on the other hand can be checked to see if they fit certain regulations. The same could potentially be true for full body swimsuits (they still remain banned from the ruling of 2009).
Ten years ago Google developed a concept shoe that could talk to the wearer to motivate them to get up and go. It was long before chatGPT had arrived. In the near future it might be the case that the super shoe could be embedded with a GenAI app so that it could talk to the runner like in the video – helping them keep going in the way trainers and spectators currently do from the sidelines. Now that would be truly super.