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Does Nike’s Vaporfly aid athletes?
Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%

Does Nike’s Vaporfly aid athletes?

It was a sight to behold. Mass spectators, watching in disbelief, a man running a 42k marathon race, barefoot. Ethiopian legend Abebe Bikila became the first African athlete to win a gold medal in 1960, at the summer Olympics in Rome, Italy and also won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

A pioneer in long distance races and a role model for many African athletes, Abebe, at that time, set a new world record of 2:12:11, breaking the barrier faced by many athletes.   

Now, fast-track half a century, several athletes, especially African, are recording scintillating performances, taking the continent to new sporting heights. Following in his footsteps, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge epitomizes pushing the boundaries of athletics and the human body.

Ones deemed to be impossible to break the two-hour barrier; Kipchoge ran the 42k course in 1:59.40 in Vienna, achieving what most thought was unachievable. Nevertheless, the record breaking performance was not recognized by the athletics federations since it was achieved outside an internationally recognized competition.

Accompanying Kipchoge in setting records, Kenyan Brigid Kosgei, broke the women’s marathon race set by Paula Radcliffe, setting a new world record of 2:14.04 at the Chicago marathon race, shaving off a minute and 21 seconds of the record.

Taking into consideration, the enormity of completing the race or putting in a record breaking performance; running has increasingly involved scientific innovations in order to deal with different hindrances. After the harrowing performance by Kipchoge, several sport experts, and sport science researchers are curious about his running shoes.

According to various researches, the new Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% - a bouncy, expensive shoe released to the public one year ago – raises these questions like no shoe has in a long-distance running history.

Measured by how much energy runners spend when running in them, Nike says that the shoes are about four percent better than some of its best racing shoes. Furthermore, the researchers also claimed an efficiency improvement of almost six minutes to a three-hour marathoner, or about eight minutes to a four-hour marathoner.

According to The New York Times, analysis of race data collected since 2014, suggests that in a race between two marathoners of the same ability, a runner wearing Vaporflys would have a real advantage over a competitor not wearing them.

In addition, the research pointed out that the advantages for runners wearing Vaporflys were consistent for slower racers and faster ones: for men and women.

The famous brand was released to the public last summer. It was learnt that, unlike most running shoes, they have a carbon-fiber plate in the midsole, which can store and release energy.

Elite athletes have attachments to different brand product provider companies for sponsorship agreements. The Vaporfly shoe was released at a cost of USD 250. However, the Vaporfly shoes were sponsored and sold to a limited number of runners in London, for the 2018 London marathon at a cost of USD 650.

Regarding this, the shoe sold out quickly on the secondary market with a pair costing USD 400 or more. Nonetheless, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) has rules about shoes.

“Shoes must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage. It does not specify what such an advantage might be,” reads the IAAF statement.

However, the issue has become controversial. Various experts argue that Vaporfly shoes must be considered as doping, considering it as a performance enhancer – enhancing drug.

The World Anti-Doping agency, WADA, has a specific list of what is considered unethical and prohibited by most international sports organizations. These mainly includes, the health risks of performance enhancing drugs, the equality of opportunity for athletes and exemplary effects of drug-free sport for the public.

The Vaporflys shoe is listed under mechanical doping cheating by using performance enhancing drugs. The WADA has an updated list of drugs prohibited, year on year.

The National Anti-Doping Office (ETH NADO) founded in 2014/15, has been conducting several examinations, and is working in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF). NADO has stated that WADA has sent the 2020 prohibition list, with the Office taking it under consideration from January to December 2020.

“WADA has already sent us the list which will be upheld by our Office in the coming months. The issue of Vaporfly shoe is not included,” Mekonen Yidersal, general director of National Anti-Doping office told The Reporter.

Mekonen explained that the issue concerning vaporflys is still pending.

 “The issue needs additional investigations to clarify, as well as to call it a performance enhancing drugs. We will let to you know after following WADA’s updates,” Mekonen said.

Sometimes referred to as ergogenic aids, enhancing substances are used to improve any activity or performances in humans.

Addis Ababa University Sport Science Enhancement Specialists, Zeru Bekele (MD) agrees that if the new Vaporflys Nike shoe has an unfair advantage for athletes, it will have a chance to be categorized under mechanical doping.

“It depends on the experiment to measure how much shoes matter for race performance. If it gives an unfair advantage for a single athlete, this will need to be reconsidered again,” Zeru said.

It is to be recalled that, FIFA banned the Cameron national team following a controversial one-piece kit worn by Cameron during the 2006 World qualifying campaign. FIFA banned and imposed a six-point sanction on Cameron. Later on, Puma filed a lawsuit against FIFA after the ban.

It is expected that the world athletics governing body, in coordination with WADA, will give its verdict after further investigations.