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The world’s most profitable athletic brand has introduced breakthrough technologies in Tokyo at every distance from the 100-metres to the marathon

From left: South Africa's Akani Simbine, USA's Fred Kerley and Italy's Lamont Marcell Jacobs and compete in the men's 100m final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Aug. 1.ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP

For Nike – track and field’s most influential company – this weekend’s Olympic marathons in Sapporo, Japan, will bookend a five-year technological project that has either irrevocably elevated or ruined athletics, depending on who you ask.

The maverick brand’s controversial marathon shoes, which some contend provide an unfair advantage, will dominate each of the women’s and men’s start lines, just as they have since being surreptitiously introduced at the previous Summer Games in 2016.

Tokyo has also been the coming-out party for Nike’s full range of new track footwear – designed for events from the 100-metre to the 10,000-metre – with equally contentious new technologies. Some argue the company is transforming running into a sport akin to Formula 1, where the outcomes are more influenced by the shoes than the athletes who wear them, creating an uneven playing field for those not representing the Swoosh – essentially a form of mechanical doping.

Others say Nike is at the forefront of a long-overdue revolution in running that has injected new excitement into a historically conservative sport.

Either way, these Olympics are all about the shoes – mostly ones made by Nike.


A secret 4-per-cent advantage in Rio

Mr. Jacobs of Team Italy wins the Men's 100m Final on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.Cameron Spencer/Getty Images AsiaPac

In 2016, a select few of the company’s stable of top-flight marathoners were given a secret prototype shoe called the Vaporfly 4%. It was named as such because it eased the runner’s energy output by about that amount.

“We called it ‘The Magic’ in the lab,” says Shalaya Kipp, a PhD candidate in the University of British Columbia’s kinesiology department. Ms. Kipp worked on the first study of the Nike shoe while she was a graduate student at the University of Colorado. “Everyone who puts it on gets this huge jump in performance.”

None of Nike’s competitors had a clue the shoe even existed. Neither did World Athletics, the sport’s governing body. Its regulations stipulate that no shoe should give an athlete an “unfair assistance or advantage,” language that, for years, dissuaded footwear makers from experimenting with springs or plates. Instead, brands competed to make the thinnest, lightest racing kicks possible. But World Athletics’ shoe regulations were vague enough for Nike to exploit once it discovered that by using a radical new foam technology and a carbon plate, bigger could, in fact, be better.

Four per cent might not sound like much, but over the course of a marathon’s 42.195 kilometres, that could translate into a few minutes, which is insurmountable in most races. Kenyan long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge, who won gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016, beat the best non-Vaporfly-wearing finisher by more than two minutes. No other technology in the history of athletics has provided such an advantage, except perhaps performance-enhancing drugs.

In the past five years, runners wearing Nike’s super-shoes – defined by a curved carbon plate and chunky midsole made of a proprietary compound called Pebax – have demolished nearly every road-running record. Seventeen of the top 20 fastest marathon times in history (for both men and women) have been run since Rio.

Canadian runner Dayna Pidhoresky beat her career best by seven minutes to qualify for the marathon in Tokyo and believes the Vaporfly’s unusually thick, energy-producing foam keeps her legs from breaking down. “It’s possible that training for the marathon in this type of shoe kept me healthy,” she says. “It’s less jarring on my feet and legs.”

Ms. Pidhoresky and other top Canadian distance runners didn’t get any special treatment from Nike. They had to buy the shoes themselves, at a retail price of $330. But she says a competing brand would have to pay her “tens of thousands of dollars” a year to stop wearing them.

In the lead-up to the Tokyo Games, other runners started to get a taste of Nike’s record-setting footwear. The company’s designers ported over much of its marathon technology to its sprint and distance-running track spikes, and began secretively slipping prototypes onto its athletes’ feet as far back as 2017. Before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the 2020 Games ahead by a year, Nike’s plan was to take the same approach to the track as it had taken with the marathon: get the shoes into the Games first, then challenge World Athletics rules after the history books had already been rewritten.

Annatomy of the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT%

When Nike first began working on the original Vaporfly,

Canadian researcher Shalaya Kipp says they called it “The

Magic.” Since then, marathoners, long-distance runners

and sprinters have smashed world records wearing

iterations of the high-tech kicks.

Price:

About $300

Water-resistant

VaporWeave

upper wicks

moisture and

remains light-

weight

Weight:

187 g

Upper

A curved full-

length carbon

fibre plate

helps propel

the runner

forward

Insole

Plate

Special Nike

ZoomX foam

midsole alleg-

edly offers

substantial

energy savings

Midsole

Outsole

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: nike; solereview.com

Annatomy of the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT%

When Nike first began working on the original Vaporfly,

Canadian researcher Shalaya Kipp says they called it “The

Magic.” Since then, marathoners, long-distance runners and

sprinters have smashed world records wearing iterations of

the high-tech kicks.

Price:

About $300

Water-resistant

VaporWeave

upper wicks

moisture and

remains light-

weight

Weight:

187 g

Upper

A curved full-

length carbon

fibre plate helps

to propel the

runner forward

Insole

Plate

Special Nike

ZoomX foam

midsole alleg-

edly offers

substantial

energy savings

Midsole

Outsole

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: nike; solereview.com

Annatomy of the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT%

When Nike first began working on the original Vaporfly, Canadian researcher Shalaya Kipp

says they called it “The Magic.” Since then, marathoners, long-distance runners and sprinters

have smashed world records wearing iterations of the high-tech kicks.

Price:

About $300

Water-resistant

VaporWeave

upper wicks

moisture and

remains light-

weight

Weight:

187 g

Upper

A curved full-

length carbon

fibre plate helps

to propel the

runner forward

Insole

Plate

Special Nike

ZoomX foam

midsole alleg-

edly offers

substantial

energy savings

 

 

Midsole

Outsole

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: nike; solereview.com

Canada’s Mohammed Ahmed, who raced to a sixth-place finish in the 10,000m last Friday in Tokyo and who will compete for a medal in the 5,000m final on Friday, was one of the first Nike-sponsored athletes enlisted to test prototypes of the new track shoe. Roughly four years ago, he and select teammates at the company’s prestigious Bowerman Track Club in Nike’s home state of Oregon began running workouts and races wearing early iterations of what is now known as the Dragonfly – an unorthodox track shoe with a 25-millimetre wedge of foam.

“At first, I actually didn’t really like them,” Mr. Ahmed says. “It didn’t feel like I was running in spikes. I couldn’t feel the track under my feet.”

But Mr. Ahmed says he grew accustomed to the thick swath of highly responsive Pebax, which early lab results suggest could provide a significant advantage over a more traditionally thin and firm track shoe. In his first major international race in the new kicks, he won a bronze medal in the 5,000m at the 2019 World Athletics championship in Doha. Last July, on a high-school track in Portland, Ore., Mr. Ahmed ran a North American record for the 5,000m of 12 minutes and 47 seconds, then the 10th-fastest performance in history, wearing the newly revealed final version of the Dragonfly. Shortly after, other athletes in the new Nike shoe began aggressively demolishing track records across all sorts of events.

Elite athletes started voiding their contracts with other brands, paying to wear Nike’s breakthrough super-shoes. Brooks, On and Reebok even permitted their top American track runners to wear Nike footwear at the U.S. Olympic trials in June. Five of the six Canadians who qualified for the marathon in Tokyo wore Nike shoes in order to get to the Games, even though none of them are paid by the company.

In Tokyo’s 10,000m final on July 30, the five athletes ahead of Mr. Ahmed all had Nike Dragonflys on their feet.


A shoe arms race

Eliud Kipchoge, center, in his Nike Vaporfly 4% running shoes with fellow runners at the Tiergarten in Berlin in 2018.MUSTAFAH ABDULAZIZ/The New York Times News Service

Dave Korell is an executive at Nike’s rival New Balance who worked on the Boston-based footwear maker’s own carbon-plated marathon shoe. “At first, there was skepticism at New Balance about what Nike had developed in 2016-17,” Mr. Korell says. Executives were jealous about the amount of money Nike had spent and wondered if it was all just marketing hype. Initially, New Balance hesitated to spend the millions of dollars required to develop new technologies from scratch, losing valuable time – and eventually some of its stable of sponsored athletes. As Tokyo loomed, the promise of gaining a 4-per-cent advantage in the Nike shoe lured many to end their long relationships with smaller brands. (Those athletes include Canadian marathoner Trevor Hofbauer, who will be racing in Sapporo on Sunday.)

In 2019, Mr. Kipchoge – Nike’s top distance runner and the reigning Olympic champion – became the first athlete to break the two-hour barrier in the marathon, aided by an even more advanced version of Nike’s carbon-plated shoe. That’s when competing brands began desperately sinking money into research and development, creating a sort of arms race to create a “Vaporfly killer.”

The same thing happened when Nike turned its attention to the track, but the company’s stranglehold on special materials and the supply chain have significantly hampered other brands’ ability to compete, particularly during the pandemic.

“In a purely cutthroat way, they are doing all the right things, and they are dominating,” says Matt Hart, the author of Win at All Costs: Inside Nike Running and Its Culture of Deception. Mr. Hart says that with the Vaporfly in 2016, and then three years later with the Dragonfly, it was clear Nike executives knew they were breaking World Athletics’ shoe regulations, which stipulated that shoes couldn’t provide an unfair advantage.

But according to Mr. Hart, these new models did just that, and it’s telling that Nike had its designers paint the new models to make them look like other, more conventional shoes in order to disguise its strategy and avoid scrutiny. “Nike’s founder, Phil Knight, has stated there’s a thin line between being a bully and a rebel,” Mr. Hart says. “And Nike seems to keep falling on the wrong side of that line.”

Yet, because of its overwhelming financial influence on the track world, Nike doesn’t appear to fear any reprisals for breaking the rules, according to Mr. Hart, and its leadership seems confident it can force rule changes in its favour. “Nike is in total control of the sport – of large national federations and of so many top athletes,” he says. The company even hired World Athletics president Sebastian Coe as a paid ambassador – at least until the media found out about the deal a couple of years ago, he adds. “They never have to answer for what they do.”

Nike declined to comment for this story and has repeatedly said it hasn’t violated World Athletics’ rules.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Nike’s Big Bet: Alberto Salazar and the Fine Line of Sport’

In partnership with the Globe and Mail, the feature length documentary tells the story of American track coach Alberto Salazar and the fallout of Nike’s Oregon Project. Salazar received a four-year doping ban from all coaching activities in 2019, and has been banned by the U.S. Center for SafeSport for sexual and emotional misconduct.


Rewriting the rule book

Employees walk past banners depicting athletes at Nike headquarters in in Beaverton, Oreg., in 2018.Natalie Behring

In early 2020, Nike found the limit of what it could get away with. When the company attempted to introduce the Viperfly, a shoe designed specifically for the 100m, competing brands complained, saying it would allow even an average elite sprinter to threaten Usain Bolt’s world record and endanger the respectability of the 100m itself, the marquee event of the Olympics. Nike bowed to the pressure, modifying the design to better conform to existing rules – but it still employed many of its new technologies. Last Sunday, Lamont Marcell Jacobs, an American-born sprinter representing Italy, unexpectedly won the 100m final in Tokyo wearing the modified Nike spikes.

At the beginning of last year, World Athletics decided it was time to modify its rules for marathon shoes. Yet, when they were introduced on Jan. 31, 2020, they required that sole thickness not exceed 40 millimetres and only have a single plate per shoe – parameters that adhered precisely to the Vaporfly’s specs. (At the same time, the governing body also banned the use of prototypes in the Olympics.)

In the aftermath of the rule change, there was suspicion within the running industry that Nike had influenced the process. Less than a week after the rule modification, Nike rolled out its production version of the fully compliant Alphafly, an even more advanced version of the Vaporfly design. In February, 2020, at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in Atlanta, the company had hundreds of pairs available – free to any elite runner who wanted to race in them. Mr. Korell of New Balance says it would have been impossible for the company to produce hundreds of shoes in that timeframe without knowing well in advance what World Athletics’ new guidelines would look like.

Last summer, as Nike athletes demolished the 5,000m and 10,000m records on the track, the governing body added more new rules, this time for track spikes. And again, they conformed perfectly to Nike’s controversial kicks. A representative for World Athletics denied Nike had influenced any of the new rules, but it did admit “a number of shoe brands” contacted the organization as it deliberated.

A competitor at the Dubai Marathon in Jan. 2020 wears a version of Nike's Vaporfly shoes, which use radical foam technology and a carbon plate to give runners a boost.CHRISTOPHER PIKE/Reuters

Spencer White, who oversaw the development of Saucony’s own marathon super-shoe, the Endorphin Pro, believes putting limits on shoe innovation at this stage is pointless. The hallowed running brand rushed the Endorphin Pro to market in the spring of 2020 to compete with Nike and has since aggressively courted Olympic-bound marathoners, including Canadians Malindi Elmore and Mr. Hofbauer, even though each of them qualified in Nike shoes. Mr. White says Saucony actually started the research on Pebax foam several years ago, but abandoned it. Nike eventually picked it up and figured out how to use a carbon plate to maximize its performance effect. “The shoe is doing the work to lower you to the ground, so your muscles don’t have to,” he says.

But he figures the gains from these shoes are already nearly maxed out. “We’ve had the big breakthrough already,” he says. “Some are upset about world records getting broken in these shoes, but it doesn’t bother me. I like to see runners go faster. The history of sport is the history of the advancement of technology, and I’m fine with it as long as the technology is widely available.”

Mr. Hart disagrees. He fears that running is now all about the shoes. Watching Sifan Hassan lower the women’s 10,000m world record in June by an astonishing 10 seconds should have been exciting. Instead, he wonders how much of an advantage the Dutch athlete gained from her Nike Dragonflys. (Ms. Hassan won the 5,000m this week in Tokyo. On Friday, she’ll compete in the 1,500m final and run the 10,000m the next day – a total of eight races in just six days. Just two days later, Letesenbet Gidey, another Nike athlete who will represent Ethiopia in the 10,000m in Tokyo, lowered that time by a further two seconds, also wearing the Nike super-spikes.

“Understanding what these times mean is how we enjoy track and the marathon – comparing these Olympic performances to others in history, and to what you can do yourself,” Mr. Hart says. “To me, before this technology came along, watching these world-class races was more interesting and fun. Now, the progressions and benchmarks are just blown out of the water. It’s the dawn of a new age. Now, there is no true sense of what an athlete can do on their own.”

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