The stable door was wide open, and the shoe manufacturers (of whatever stripe) just drove the coach and horses, loaded with super-shoes, right out; and there’s no catching them. And closing the door now, as World Athletics is reportedly about to do is going to serve no useful purpose. Publicity and profit-driven enterprise has once again one-upped the sport’s authorities. Added to which, introducing a new super-shoe certainly deflects criticism from more unsavoury topics, such as funding an in-house training programme whose modus operandi if not strictly illegal was highly unethical.
If you think I’m writing in code here, you’d be right; even penurious bloggers can become targets for deep-pocketed litigants. But you know what I’m talking about.
However, those of us who have criticised the introduction of the game-changing super-shoes, of whatever make, are maybe looking in the wrong direction. Speaking of which, lack of direction from World Athletics has not helped matters. You can change your name, but changing bad habits is an entirely different matter.
The most famous example in athletics history until recently of shoe technology producing startling results was in 1968 when John Carlos won the 200 metres at the US Olympic Trials (also at altitude), in a world record time of 19.92sec. Carlos was wearing what were called ‘brush-spikes’. They were Puma shoes with 68 needle spikes, which propelled Carlos along the track at Echo Summit to what seemed an unthinkable mark at that time.
This was still the era of the adidas-Puma rivalry in the shoe industry, but the head of adidas, Horst Dassler was also a main man in the Olympic movement. The story goes that Dassler put pressure on the authorities to ban the Puma shoe, which they duly did; and for good measure, Carlos’ time was also expunged as a world record. Different times, different mores, as the saying goes. The rivalry nowadays is Nike-adidas, with Puma and the rest jogging along very nicely in the background.
A decade prior to Carlos and brush spikes, a Soviet high jumper named Yuri Stepanov set a world record of 2.16 metres at a meeting in Leningrad in 1957. A close-up photograph showed that Stepanov used shoes with thick lightweight soles that provided ‘lift’. Since this was also the height of the Cold War, criticism by western media, while not resulting in Stepanov losing his record, did lead to the IAAF not so much changing the rules, since like now, there probably weren’t any, and decreeing a 12mm maximum thickness of sole. Incidentally Stepanov allegedly reacted badly to doubts as to the validity of his results, fell into a depression and alcoholism, and committed suicide in 1963. (Feel free to add your own sentence here about the destiny of athletics authorities)
But maybe we shouldn’t be looking at shoes, even though they seem to have transformed the landscape of space and time, ie given highly trained athletes the opportunity to run over one and a half per cent faster; and here I quote my esteemed colleague Dr Helmut Winter, who knows far more than you or I about such things. For example, the Herr Doktor surprised Paula Radcliffe at the Dubai Marathon last week, informing her that she would have run 2.12 something, had she been using Vaporfly back in 2003 (2.15.25WR in London). It now looks as if Brigid Kosgei’s Chicago time of 2.14.04 is going to be ratified as the new women’s marathon world record. Radcliffe’s informed opinion incidentally is that what the shoes do, with their innovative foam support is eliminate stress in the legs; hence Kosgei’s capacity to keep going smoothly after what seemed like a suicidal start in Chicago.
But as I said above, maybe we’re looking in the wrong direction. Take the example of the Pole Vault. They started with wood and bamboo, moved to aluminium and steel, and then switched to fibreglass, with results far more startling than one and a half per cent improvement. Don Bragg, the 1960 Olympic vault champion was the end of an era. Bragg, who went on to play Tarzan in an unreleased (due to litigation) Hollywood film, set a WR of 4.80m when he won the US Trials that year using a steel pole. Within three years, using fibreglass, Brian Sternberg cleared five metres, and by midsummer of that year, 1963, John Pennel had vaulted 5.20m, an improvement on Bragg of over eight per cent. Bragg had been born in a New Jersey township with a population of around 5000. He responded to the onslaught by saying, ‘I used to be the best in the world; now I’m not even in the top ten in Penn’s Grove’.
Like Brexit, dear friends, the barbarians have won the fight. But, as ever, the battle ain’t over, yet!