By: Efraim Wiener  | 

Nike Vaporfly: Marathon Innovation or Unfair Advantage

On October 12, 2019, Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to finish a marathon in under two hours. This amazing feat deemed impossible by many seemed to push the limits on human athletics and performance. However, because of the controlled setting of the race, Kipchoge’s time of 1:59.40 is not considered the official marathon record. (His 2018 Berlin finishing of 2:01:39 stands as the official record.) A factor that might have also unfairly contributed to his success was his choice of shoes: the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%.

​There are a number of factors that give this shoe the optimum speed. It contains a carbon fiber plate that pushes the runner in a forward motion, a lightweight material, and a special foam midsole. All of these factors give the runner an increased advantage of moving faster. This is not to say that Kipchoge wouldn’t have broken two hours in a different pair of shoes. In fact, in his first attempt at breaking two hours, as part of Nike’s “Breaking Two” project aimed at marketing the new VaporFlys, Kipchoge missed the mark by over twenty seconds.

However,​ many specialists are concerned that this shoe may fall under the category of “technological doping,” a term used to describe the use of certain sports supplies or equipment to gain an unfair athletic advantage. For example, swimmers in the 2008 Olympics were racing with the Speedo LZR Racer that allowed for extra speed and agility which the Olympic committee later banned from competitive racing. Similarly, Kipchoge may have had an unfair advantage with his state of the art shoes. 

Currently, the Vaporfly can go in one of two directions. Either marathon and Olympic committees will deem it suitable, or rule it out for future use. If the latter is true, and the shoes are deemed “too fast,” Nike will have to alter the Vaporflys to comply with racing standards. If Nike is allowed to continue giving its athletes the Varpoflys for competition, runners who are not signed with Nike are either going to leave when their contracts are up or push their producers to innovate and create a similar — if not better — shoe. In the next coming months, it wouldn’t be surprising to see similar shoes modeled after the Vaporfly. 

Consider the Nike “Be Like Mike” slogan, which inspired people to be like Michael Jordan. When kids lace up their Kobes, take turnaround jumpers and shout “Kobe!”, they feel empowered; they have the opportunity to step into the shoes of a successful athlete. Similarly, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% will give runners the opportunity to run like Kipchoge and defy what they thought was previously possible. ​

The shoes of the future are upon us, with each innovation causing an increase in speed and success on the course. Nike, as always, has a plan in place to put it ahead of its competitors. The question now becomes which company will be the next to take a step towards defying the impossible.

Photo Caption: Racing officials are considering banning the Nike Zoom Varporfly 4% from competitive competition. 
Photo Credit: Pixabay