Athletic Authorities Must Reckon With Racing Tech Again
As World Athletics debates whether to ban Nike's carbon-fiber running shoe, it should heed lessons from the case of “Bionic Olympian” Oscar Pistorius.
On October 12, 2019, Eliud Kipchoge crossed under a pink finishing arch emblazoned with the time 1:59:40. He had just become the first person to run a marathon in under two hours.
For a few hours, this achievement, long unthinkable, was celebrated across the world. Then came the question: What was the deal with his fancy looking sneakers? Kipchoge was wearing Nike Vaporfly Alphas, a shoe that had been designed specifically for him, as part of Nike’s long-standing attempt to break the two-hour barrier. This was the bespoke version of the Nike Vaporfly Next%, a shoe introduced in 2017 and chased by controversy, and fantastic sales numbers, ever since.
Francesca DeRosa is a PhD student in Princeton University’s History of Science program. She studies the history of medicine, and specializes in prosthetics.
Nike claims that Vaporflys make people run faster, longer. They have published a study to prove it. World Athletics, the governing body of track and field, will be the ultimate judge. Since the shoes’ release, they’ve been assessing whether the shoes provide an unfair advantage. They’ve promised a ruling—either banning the shoes from competition or not—by the end of this month.
The question is a difficult one for them, and one they’ve faced before. The last time World Athletics made a high-profile decision about a potentially performance-enhancing “technical aid,” they caused international outcry and were overruled by the Court of Sport Arbitrage. This was in 2008, when they attempted to ban Oscar Pistorius (who’s now in prison after being found guilty for killing his girlfriend) from running in the regular Olympics with his Flex-Foot Cheetah artificial legs. The “Bionic Olympian” caused a headache for World Athletics. The past tells us that the Nike Vaporfly is surely doing the same.
Calls to ban Vaporflys, from editorials in the British Journal of Sports Medicine to Instagram posts by record-holding athletes, claim that these soles, made of a proprietary foam surrounding a carbon-fiber plate, are springs. World Athletics has a rule specifically banning the use of technical devices that “incorporate springs” (rule number 144.2(c)). Or at least it did in 2008. Their rulebook’s latest addition, released in November 2019, has more general wording against technology that provides an advantage. This rule was raced through soon after Pistorius, who had then shattered Paralympic sprinting records, made his goal of running in the regular Olympics publicly known.
World Athletics (then called the IAAF) was acting on the certainty that “running blades,” engineered specifically for running fast, could perform better than regular legs. “We cannot accept something that provides advantages,” their director of development Elio Locatelli told the New York Times in 2007. “Next will be another device where people can fly with something on their back.” George Dvosrky, board member of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, proposed the idea that athletes could “do something as seemingly radical as having their healthy natural limbs replaced by artificial limbs … Is it self mutilation,” he asked, “when you’re getting a better limb?”
These ideas were based the science fiction that The Six Million Dollar Man may become real reality. In the 1970s hit, Lee Majors’ character had survived a plane crash that took three of his limbs and damaged his spine. As the opening credits boasted, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology. …Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.”
Pistorius seemed to be the embodiment of this dream. A lean, muscular torso pistoned along a racetrack by two minimalistic metal cheetah legs. Could he be anything other than a Cyborg? Next to him, how could a runner with two human legs stand a chance?
Later in 2007, the IAAF decided to prove this theory. They invited Pistorius to three days of testing in Germany. Months later, they declared their results. Flex Foot Cheetahs were, indeed, springs. They provided an advantage, and Pistorius could not use them to compete against athletes not using them. Pistorius could not compete in the Olympics.
In banning running blades, the IAAF believed they were setting a strong precedent for the future. After all, they told the Times in 2007, if they allowed these carbon-fiber “technical aids,” what would stop able-bodied athletes in the future from “wearing carbon-fiber plates or other unsuitably springy devices in their shoes." (This is exactly what Nike, placing both a carbon-fiber plate and particularly springy foam in its shoes, now has done.)
Pistorius and his team did not accept this response, claiming for one that the test’s focus on energy expenditure when running on Cheetahs, at speed, was arbitrary. They funded their own study, which considered metabolic factors like endurance and oxygen intake. It concluded that running on blades though mechanically different than running on legs, put the same kind of stress on the human body. The Court of Sport Arbitrage, presented with this evidence, agreed to overturn the IAAF’s ruling. Pistorius was allowed to run.
This highly public string of events was unfortunate for the IAAF. While awaiting test results, they told the London Times that they resented being portrayed as the villain (a mantle they have recently taken up again by enforcing gender testing of female athletes with high testosterone). With their upcoming decision about Nike Vaporflys, do they risk falling into the same traps? Yes, and no.
They are no longer groping blindly through the world of disability activism and Paralympic sport. Now, they’re contending with one of the largest sporting companies in the world, which raked in nearly $40 billion last year.
But, they are faced with the same questions of fair-play and accessibility. Only leg amputees can compete in Flex-Foot Cheetahs. And, even though versions of the Nike Vaporfly are available for sale to the public (at $250 a pop), only Nike-sponsored athletes can wear them in elite competition. An even smaller subset of these have access to Vaporflys custom designed for their gait in Nike’s NDA-protected Sports Research Laboratory.
This could be a threat to the level playing field that World Athletics so values. Their sport, after all, is one of the few that can be performed without the purchase of any equipment (remember barefoot running?). Pistorius in his bionic legs and Nike with their fancy shoes disrupt this paradigm. They have the potential of turning “pure athletics” into a race between cyborgs.
Once again, World Athletics has to decide where to draw a line, and determine how much the threat of the cyborg matters.
In 2007, IAAF attempted to ban a Paralympic runner from competing in the Olympics with the mentality that it very much did matter. They argued that, if he did, the dark future of running could specifically include shoes with carbon-fiber plates in them. It will be interesting to see if the organization sticks to its guns, or risks contradicting its carefully set precedent in exchange for the promise, rather than the fear of, technology.
WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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