FROM THE EDITOR — High-Tech Shoes: Evolution Or Revolution?

TRACK-SHOE TECHNOLOGY has come impossibly far since I joined the sport. I got my first pair of spikes in 1963. They were a Canadian brand named Daoust (better known for ice skates). While the weight of today’s shoes is measured in ounces, I swear those thick-cowhide babies were closer to a pound. Each! But compared to previously having to use a pair of old basketball shoes on our loose-cinder track I felt like I had wings on my feet.

You can only imagine how unfettered my feet felt a few months later when I convinced my parents that I needed a pair of “real” spikes and they sprang for the expense of a pair of kangaroo-leather adidas (Melbournes, if I remember correctly).

Fast forward many decades — and many iterations of upgrades — to today, and I don’t doubt for an instant that modern runners lacing up high-tech shoes are feeling the same kind of joy I did when I jumped from one level of technology to another. And they have every right to move up.

But the $64,000 question for me is, Have We Suddenly Jumped More Than A Single Level?

Anecdotal evidence to this point is certainly pointing towards a quantum-leap upwards in performance, and that’s before we even get into the full-on outdoor portion of the Olympic year.

I fully expect eyes to bug out when we see what kind of performances the newest footwear — no matter which brand — will make possible. Particularly in the spiked world, where hints of technological breakthroughs became evident late in the year at the ’19 WC.

As noted in “Last Lap,” Nike has at least temporarily set aside its spiked hyper-shoe, the Viperfly (see photo: if that doesn’t look like alien technology I don’t know what does), but surely won’t lose a march to its rivals.

The “spiked world” may well slop over and mean that vaulters, long jumpers and triple jumpers are going to see rises in performance if their peak takeoff speed has been upped.

British halfmiler Jamie Webb wears adidas, and he noted in a commentary for the London Times that last fall he quit wearing a high-end road shoe in training “because it made it difficult for me to measure myself against previous training sessions.” He went on to say, however, that when the latest spikes become available he’ll wear them because, “I will be putting myself at a disadvantage against others if I don’t wear them.”

The list of technological upgrades that have been shaping our sport since the beginning is endless. Imagine sprinters not having starting blocks, not wearing spikes at all (or the opposite, shot putters wearing spikes in a dirt circle), no synthetic tracks, fiberglass poles, aerodynamic javelins or foam landing pits.

All have contributed mightily to the Citius-Altius-Fortius ethos that makes our sport both so much fun to watch in person and to follow from afar.

But I have to admit to having a bit of a concern, wondering if we’re entering an era of too-much-too-soon. Are we witnessing a revolution rather than an evolution? Is the potential for rewriting of nearly all the all-time lists at one fell swoop a good thing? Color me as leaning towards the negative side.

It’s a matter of short-term gains vs. long-term ones. I fear that the traditional pecking away at records (at all levels, not just World) is going to be replaced by massive improvements all at once. Everything will bump up a level and then be stuck there until the “natural progression” catches up.

I’m also concerned that many hardworking athletes who start putting up fast times, thinking that they’ve climbed into a new place in the hierarchy discover that the hierarchy has climbed along with them.

As noted track commentator Tim Hutchings — himself a 5000 Olympian — so eloquently put it on his Twitter feed, “It’s obviously fine to wear them & there’s nothing wrong with embracing technological developments. But if folk think their setting massive PBs in the shoes is purely coincidental, that they’re not being assisted, they need to look in the mirror. No shame in raising a hand.”

But based on online samplings, a strong majority of fans seem to be in favor of the new shoes. A question I frequently get asked by those who think we should be in damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead mode is, “If you’re opposed to the new shoes, did you feel the same about fiberglass poles and synthetic tracks?”

The answer to both questions is “no,” because in each case the change came over an extended period of time.

Bob Mathias won the ’52 Olympic decathlon using a glass pole, and in ’56 Geórgios Roubánis won vault bronze on glass.

Yet the first World Record set on a pole that wasn’t wood or metal didn’t come until ’61. And you couldn’t just pick up a glass pole and suddenly start vaulting way higher. A whole new technique needed to be learned. The new shoes? Seems to be pretty much the case that you merely lace on a pair and you’re good to go as a new-and-improved you.

Similarly, synthetic tracks were eased in, simply because of the sheer cost of installation. The first time the AAU Championships was run on a synthetic oval was in ’63 (St. Louis). Yet it wasn’t until Bakersfield ’73 that the meet had its final staging on dirt.

(Historical note: “dirt” here is used as a catchall phrase for non-synthetic tracks, whether they were actual dirt or clay, or cinders, or crushed brick or some combination thereof.)

In the early days of non-dirt tracks such installations weren’t necessarily faster than some of their old-fashioned counterparts. What synthetics did confer was protection from the elements, aka no mud. But a well-maintained dirt track in an arid zone like California’s Central Valley may well have been as fast as synthetics of the ’60s and early ’70s (think Sacramento’s famous Night Of Speed).

There was no overnight revolution with tracks or poles, just evolution. ◻︎

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