The Current

Nike's Vaporfly high-tech shoe fuelling an athletic arms race, Olympian says

World Athletics, track’s governing body, is soon expected to announce its decision on whether it will ban Nike Vaporfly shoes from top competitions. The shoe, and others like it, reportedly create an advantage some runners call unfair.

World Athletics is expected to announce whether it will ban Vaporfly shoes from top competitions this week

The new Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite Flyprint running shoe at the launch of the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite Flyprint in London in London at The Institute of Contemporary Arts on April 17, 2018 in London, England. (Patrik Lundin/Getty Images for Nike)

Read Story Transcript

Jan. 31, 2020 update: World Athletics cleared distance runners to wear the Nike Vaporfly but acknowledged that shoe technology poses a risk to the sport.

High-tech shoes, like the heavily scrutinized Nike Vaporfly, contribute to an athletic arms race that forces runners to get the right gear or risk becoming uncompetitive, according to two-time Olympian Reid Coolsaet, one of Canada's top marathon runners. 

"I'm going to wear them for sure. As I'm getting older, I need everything," he told The Current. "I'll run one marathon in the spring and it's gonna have to be fast enough to get to the Olympics. And if not, that's it for the Olympics."

On Friday, World Athletics is expected to announce whether it will ban Vaporfly shoes from top competitions. 

The track governing body says it's had a team investigating for months to determine if the shoe, which hit the market in 2017, is reasonably available to all runners and if it creates an unfair advantage for those who wear it. The swanky shoes, which cost around $330, have been shown by tests to make runners four per cent faster than the average shoe

The advantage is attributed to a combination of responsive foam and a carbon fibre plate in the shoe. Those components create a bounce by cushioning an athlete's foot when they step down, then propelling it back up and forwards.

The reported four-per-cent increase in speed may sound minimal, but Coolsaet says that can translate to two minutes in a marathon, which is "a big deal."

'I don't really respect that performance'

In October, Kenyan marathoners Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei both broke records wearing advanced models of the Vaporfly.

Kosgei beat the last world record by over a minute. And while it wasn't an official world record, Kipchoge became the first person to run a marathon in under two hours, completing the 42.2-kilometre race nearly two minutes faster than his previous record.

Marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge from Kenya, white vest, and his first pacemaking team leave the start line on Reichsbrucke during his attempt to run a sub two-hour marathon in Vienna, Austria on Oct. 12, 2019. (Ronald Zak/AP Photo)

"I don't really respect that performance," Deena Kastor, an American marathon record-holder and Olympic medallist told The Current. She says she considered Kipchoge to be cheating on account of the shoes he wore.

Kipchoge has said the shoes are fair and urged runners to embrace new technology. 

"He is undoubtedly the best marathoner in the world — hands down. But I would love to see that two-hour barrier being broken by someone that is wearing traditional shoes and not spring-loaded shoes," Kastor said.

Globe and Mail sports science columnist Alex Hutchinson disagrees with Kastor's characterization of the shoes as being spring loaded, but says many in the running community would agree that running in such shoes is cheating.

Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge stands after his attempt to bust the mythical two-hour barrier for the marathon on October 12 2019 in Vienna, - With a time of 1hr 59min 40.2sec, the Olympic champion became the first ever to run a marathon in under two hours. (Alex Halada/AFP)

"Do we think that there is a certain element in the shoe that's cheating or is it just if one shoe is way better than everyone else's — no matter what the cause — we have to find some way of levelling the playing field," he asked. 

Hutchinson says the swimming community faced a similar situation when it banned special swimsuits in 2010. New models that offered swimmers more buoyancy and less water resistance became popular and soon swimmers started wiping out world records. 

"When they realized every year the swimsuits were gonna get better, every six months, there was a new model, they said: 'We have to stop it.' And so I think that's kind of the sensation people are getting with running," he said.

Level the playing field

Some early reports say World Athletics will tighten its running shoe rules, but that the Vaporfly will not be banned. 

"I would like to see World Athletics put a limit on the stack height. That would allow all the shoe companies to get to a level playing field quicker than one-upping each other time and time again," Coolsaet said.

Two-time Olympian Reid Coolsaet, pictured here winning 2018's Edmonton 10K. (Todd Fraser/Canada Running Series/File)

But he says banning Vaporfly shoes would be unfair, since many runners using them have already qualified for the Olympics. 

For Coolsaet, the decision to run in Vaporfly shoes was significant. In order to do so, he had to end a contract he'd held with Nike rival New Balance for 11 years. 

He says New Balance plans to release a Vaporfly competitor, but not until September, which is after the Olympics and too late for him to gain the advantage he feels he needs. 

"It's not as simple as it used to be, but it's still fun to run fast. And you get to run a bit faster in these Nike Vaporflys," Coolsaet said. 

Written by Justin Chandler. Produced by Idella Sturino and Ben Jamieson.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?