Posted on Wednesday, January 29th, 2020 at 5:05 pm and is filed under Archive | 3


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!


3 responses to “UP, UP AND AWAY!”

  1. Tim Johnston says:

    Dear Pat,

    Back in the 60s, some of us in the Cambridge U. Hare and Hounds noted that, at the end of a long run, switching from asphalt road to flagstoned pavement appeared to produce an easing of the sensation of fatigue in the legs.

    We attributed this to the fact that, being hollowed-laid, the flagstones had a certain amount of ‘give’ in them, as opposed to the road, which simply felt ‘dead’ The same applied when rubberised tracks came in. There was a noticeable difference between tracks that were laid directly on concrete, which produced slow times in distance races (Parly Hill used to be notorious in the respect) and those with more give in them, tho sprinters hated them.

    It struck me that the same principle could be applied to running shoes. I even approached a materials specialist about developing an appropriate sole. But I guess neither of us had the businessman’s self-belief or resources to make anything of it. Then, around 1980, Nike (run by runners for runners), presumably working from empirical findings similar to ours at Cambridge, came up with the Terra, which seemed particularly kind to the legs, and, above all, the air sole, which was, literally like running on air.

    To me, the proof of the pudding came in 1983, when I ran 150 km in 2 days in the Philippines, wearing Air soles, and didn’t have a blister or cramp to show for it.

    All credit to Nike to listening to their runners.

  2. Christine Evans says:

    This subject has just been on Radio 4 News at1

  3. tim johnston says:

    Pat – more on shoes.

    The controversy has largely been about road shoes, in particular those which supposedly give an advantage to marathon runners. On the track, apart from the brush-sole issue, there has been little development/innovation since Adidas produced the blue-suede Tokyo in the early 60s. It was ultra-light and fitted the foot like a glove. Its only drawback was the susceptibility of the blue dye to human sweat. Michel Jazy is reported to have described his record-breaking spree in summer 1965 as his ‘blue period’

    On the road, in the 50s, when I first started racing, the emphasis was on lightness and flexibility, with little attention being paid to cushioning. Many people raced in Woolworth Gym shoes – a simple lightweight black canvas upper with brown crepe soles, price 6/6d (62.5 pence). You can see old pictures of Jack Holden and Jim Peters breaking records in them. I had a fancy pair of Kingwells specially made. I think they cost around 30 shillings (1.50p). They were even lighter than the Woollies model, made on a track-shoe last for a snug fit, and had a soft white rubber sole, with a slightly raised heel, which provided a modicum of cushioning. But I never ran more than 10 miles in them.

    Lightness was everything; Ron Hill won a 7-mile road race in bare feet. I experimented by having a cobbler remove the plastic plate from the forefoot of a pair of
    Tokyo track spikes and replace it with a thin strip of rubber. The experiment was not a success. A single lap on the grass of Richmond Park (7.5 miles) left me with blistered feet and stiff calves. On the other hand, Martin Hyman and Bill Adcocks had a pair of Puma track spikes similarly adapted. I believe Bill was the first to run (and win) a full marathon in them. Abebe Bikila wore Pumas when he won in Tokyo.

    From the mid-60s, everyone was wearing Tiger Cubs, including for marathons, and despite the fact that they had minimum cushioning. I don’t think I ever finished a marathon without cramps in the calves, and, as far as i can recall, the same can be said of my fellow-competitors. You could expect to spend the week after the race hobbling around on stiff calves; it went with the territory, as they say.

    Nobody appeared to give any serious thought to protecting the calves by adding cushioning to the soles. Lightness was still everything.

    All credit then to Nike, especially Bill Bowerman, who had been working with runners through the running boom of the 1970s to tackle the problem of combining lightness with cushioning. At the end of the 70s they came up with the Terra and the Air Mariah.

    The Terra combined lightness and a unique sense of ‘bounce’, even over long distances. The Air Mariah contained, built into the rubber sole, a plastic, airfilled tube. Almost a century before, John Dunlop had fitted his son’s tricycle with pneumatic tyres, revolutionising the world of cycling.

    Will we now see road-running being similarly revolutionised (4%? 7%?) through the initiative of the Nike Shoe Co.?

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