Fairplay in Sports: Nike’s Vaporfly vs Tech Body-suits

The Nike Vaporfly Shoes controversy is reminiscent of the Fully-body suit controversy in swimming. Do such ‘innovations’ add to the sports, or bring it down?

The World Aquatics Championship held in Rome, Italy, in 2009, will be forever etched in the history of swimming. It would be a dubious reason why it will be remembered, though. It was the meet at which world records tumbled like there was no tomorrow. Forty-three world records were set at the tournament, out of 40 events. The shocking part was that in the women’s 50 fly event, the world record was broken twice in the space of 5 minutes. In the end, there was hardly anyone that was left. But this meet was not a congregation of swimming mutants. It was your everyday champions that were competing against each other. The difference wasn’t in the swimmers but what these champions were wearing. All the participants except three were wearing the superbuoyant polyurethane suits. The high-tech suits enabled the swimmers to bring their times down in an utterly unbelievable manner.

The best instance of this triumph of technology over talent was in the 200 Metre Freestyle men’s event. German Paul Biedermann not only defeated the reigning Olympian and champion Michael Phelps but also shattered his WR. Bidermann clocked 1.42.00 and shaved off almost a second from the earlier record of Phelps, which stood at 1.42.96. In this race, Phelps came in for silver at 1.43.22.

Guess what the difference was. Paul Biederman was wearing the Arena X-Glide, one of the polyurethane suits that turn the swimmers’ bodies into sleek kayaks. It enabled Biedermann to drop 4 seconds from his earlier best in Beijing Olympics. For comparison, it took Phelps four years to cut the same.

The World Championships were tarnished as a farce, so much so that the USA Swimming National Team Director Mark Schubert dubbed the event as a “plastic meet.”

The outcry forced the world-body for swimming, FINA, wake up and ban these plastic full-body suits.

It has been more than a decade since the Plastic Meet. But the debate over where the line lies between appropriate use of technology and misuse of it still rages on. The latest example is Nike Vaporfly shoes. These shoes have sent shock waves through the marathon circles, with competitors wearing these shoes dropping times, like never before. The shoes have a thick midsole and carbon-fiber plate and provide an extra spring to the runner.

The shoes debuted in the market in 2017, and have caused an upheaval of sorts. The five fastest official marathons ever have come in these shoes, all within the last two years. Two of the five fastest women’s marathons were also in Vaporfly. The Kenyan runner Kipchoge became the first person to run 26.2 miles in under two hour in 2019. The way the records have tumbled have caused an outcry, which forced the world body to review the shoes. As of now, the World Athletics has allowed the shoes to be used at the Tokyo Olympics and World Championships. But the ruling also carried a dissenting note. According to the body, there is “sufficient evidence to raise concerns that the integrity of the sport might be threatened by the recent developments in shoe technology.” The agency also issued a few restrictions on shoe construction and make.

The debate over the use of these super-light shoes is reminiscent of the debate over the use of hi-tech suits in swimming. While many hail these new products as innovation, others dub them as unethical and unfair.

The trouble with these innovations is that they make the games elitist and undemocratic; only the rich will be able to afford and win. Imagine an athlete that has spent 8-10 hours every day practicing hard for years. Only to be beaten by an individual who is not better or skilled, but is wearing a costly suit or a shoe. This is not only unfair to the sportsperson but also detrimental to the sports, as then athletes start taking their performance for granted.

What we need to adjudge in the Nike Vaporfly controversy is whether the shoe affords any advantage to the runner in terms of enhanced performance? According to Nike, it does almost 4.2%, which clear unevens the level-playing field. This compels the runners to go in for these shoes or risk losing races to other contestants wearing such footwear.

The sad part is not only the records such “innovations” engineers but that they stay on for generations. Take Paul Bidermann’s 200 Freestyle record; it still stands there mocking at all the swimmers who wish to attain greatness through merit and hard work.

And if you think that, one is being unfair to Bidermann. Well, post the ban on full-body suits, Bidermann was never able to achieve the heights again. In 2011, he finished 3rd, behind Phelps who was second. In the London Olympics in 2012, he finished 5th in the same event, and then in Rio 2016; he finished 6th. Obviously, without his suit, Bidermann was not the Super-hero. Meanwhile, the real super-hero Phelps won 4 Golds & 2 Silver in London 2012, and 5 Golds & 1 Silver in Rio 2016.

That should settle the debate. For good.