AS I SAY WHEN I WAS A KID we used to sing a little ditty that went, “Shoo, fly, don’t bother me.” My modern version would go, “Fly-shoe, you bother me.”
To clarify, it’s not just Nike’s Vaporfly and Alphafly that have me concerned, it’s any and all shoe companies who are embracing the combination of foam and carbon-plate technology—or down the road something else we haven’t seen yet—to create footwear that is turning running on its head. But the Fly family has certainly stolen a march on its rivals and has become the poster child for creating the running shoe that just about everybody wants to be in.
It’s undeniable that new shoes have played a huge role in the significant rewriting of World Records on the road in the last few months. Will this massive improvement transfer over to the track? There are certainly some huge hints that it will, based on this winter’s indoor campaign. But indoors is a bit of a different animal than outdoors, where track size/banking can make all kinds of difference. It’s also important to remember that this is an Olympic year, and there is always a notable rise in performance at regular 4-year Games intervals.
I have to admit I was surprised in January when WA opened the door rather wide for a quantum leap in what’s acceptable (see A Mixed Ruling On Super Shoes). “It is not our job to regulate the entire sports shoe market,” explained WA chief Seb Coe, “but it is our duty to preserve the integrity of elite competition by ensuring that the shoes worn by elite athletes in competition do not offer any unfair assistance or advantage.”
Seems undeniable to me that the new shoes—again, all companies, not just Nike—do offer just that: unfair assistance and advantage.
Don’t get me wrong. I live in the heart of Silicon Valley, where technological advancement is the way of life, and I like it. But while technological revolution certainly has its place, when it comes to track & field I’d much prefer evolution.
Coe said WA has a “duty to preserve the integrity of elite competition.” It also has a duty to preserve the integrity of the history of the sport and these new shoes (Chicken Little alert?) threaten to negate too much history in the course of little more than a season.
The damn-the-torpedoes crowd would have you believe that this is just the latest chapter in the sport’s progress through modernity. Once again, it’s a matter of degree.
Take synthetic tracks, often cited as a comparable change to the new shoes. Well, not really. The first AAU meet on a synthetic oval was St. Louis ’63, yet as late as Bakersfield ’70 “dirt” was still in play. The first Olympics on synthetic wasn’t until ’68.
How about pole vaulting: was the fiberglass pole an overnight revolution? Decidedly not. The first glass poles appeared in the mid-’50s; the first WR on one didn’t come until ’61. There was a learning curve, both for vaulters and their coaches and for the manufacturers.
The flop? Dick Fosbury backed over the bar to win the ’68 NCAA, but Warren Shanklin straddled his way to the ’75 title 7 years later on a wet night not conducive to a speedy approach.
I think that WA goofed up by not simply declaring the new foam/carbon shoes non-compliant. It wouldn’t have been the first time that shoes have been banned. In ’57, Soviet Yuriy Stepanov broke the high jump WR using a takeoff shoe with a built-up sole. To its credit, the IAAF banned the shoe the next year, although it dropped the ball by leaving Stepanov as holder of the WR. Then, in ’68, came the infamous brush spikes controversy. I think the IAAF was wrong in banning those, but to its credit at least it didn’t create a dichotomy by allowing marks made wearing them to have WR status.
Records (and all-time lists) should be treated with more respect than what we seem to be seeing today. And it may not stop with the distance crowd. Also waiting in the wings is the Viperfly, a shoe designed for sprinters. Wait’ll Usain Bolt-wannabes get their feet on those.
Talk about a fly in the ointment. ◻︎