Ethics can be a minefield at the best of times, its tendency to lack definitive answers is often what repels people from it. Add in professional sport with its passionate, die-hard fans with cast-iron opinions to the mix, and you have a recipe for a never ending argument. From the debates surrounding the virtues and vices of the newly standardized VAR in football, to the age old issues of doping – it seems like everyone has an opinion and that making everyone happy is impossible. Over the past year, one particular topic has been thrust into the limelight last year courtesy of Nike – technology in sport.
On the 12th of October 2019, Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in 1 hour 59 mins and 40 seconds. Forgetting about the 43 world-class pacers (left) drafting Kipchoge and the pace car even in front of them, most of the controversy around this run has been focused on what all of these runners had on their feet – the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite. Putting Kipchoge and his team of pacers aside for a second, the proclamation that these shoes can improve a runner’s performance by up to 4% is undeniably more than a marketing strap-line, at the 6 top marathons in 2019, 31 out of the 36 podium spots for both men and women were occupied by athletes wearing these Vaporflys. They are so good, in fact, that the term ‘mechanical doping’ has become a very popular phrase coined to describe the benefits the shoes offer. The effectiveness of the technology is not at all in dispute, in fact it’s the opposite, they might be too good – but does this leap in running technology pose a genuine ethical issue to athletics? Or is it just a necessary progression?
Kipchoge’s marathon record won’t count – not officially, at least. The run acted as more of an exhibition as to what is possible from an athlete under perfect conditions than as a genuine attempt to set a new world record (which is held officially by Kipchoge). Tapping into the full potential of athletes has been a slow process over many hundreds of years, from training techniques, to nutrition, to equipment – many factors have been slowly developing our understanding of how to get the most out of athletes. As David Epstein made very clear in his TedEx talk on sport technology: “We haven’t evolved into a new species in a century”, ultimately, the implication is that most of the improvements we see athletes’ performances over time can almost always be attributed to some form of technology.
Of course, some athletes do come along that are undeniably and objectively better than those who proceeded them, truly once in a generation athletes – yet they might not be as significantly better as the data appears to indicate. This is probably why we see records in other sports that are less susceptible to technological change stand for much longer – take Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the NBA as an example. Abdul-Jabbar’s professional career started in the 1960s, and his grand total of 38,387 points is still the highest career total of any NBA player ever. Unlike athletic sports, basketball hasn’t really seen any major technological changes in the entirety of its’ existence, and by the nature of the sport and others like it, there isn’t really any room for such changes. Ultimately, this allows for more accurate comparisons between generations of players.
When you begin to look a little closer, athletic records are often skewed and accurate comparisons between decades becomes a little tricky – the effects of technology are unbelievably pronounced and impossible to dismiss. Take the hour record in cycling as an example; in 1972, Eddy Mercx – one of the greatest cyclist to ever live – rode 30 miles and 3774 feet around a velodrome in one hour (left). Year after year from 72’, professional cyclists were consistently riding further in one hour than Mercx – a rider who is regarded as one of the greatest of all time. In 1996, the record stood at over 5 miles further than Mercx’s 1972 distance. That is until 2000, when the UCI – who govern all things international cycling – declared that to truly beat the Mercx record, you must do so on a bike available to the man himself in 1972. With these new regulations in place, 48 years after the original record, Mercx’s distance has only been beaten by 883 feet.
The improvements made prior to these regulations can now be seen for what they really are, entirely reliant on the technological improvements available to the athletes. Examples such as this can be seen throughout the athletic sporting world, take sprinting as an example; in 1936, the 100m world record was set by Jesse Owens (right), who ran the distance in 10.2 seconds – meaning he would be 14 feet behind Usain Bolt at the end of the race. But it is estimated that he would be within 1 stride of Bolt had he been given the opportunity to run on a modern day track, not lose cinders, and been given contemporary starting blocks, not had to dig out slots for his feet with a garden trowel. Running on cinders alone is thought to reduce running efficiency by 1.5%. This analysis is not meant to discredit the achievements of today’s athletes, merely put them into perspective – something very hard to do when technological advances often happen very slowly.
This brings us full circle to Nike’s Zoom Vaporfly Elites; why is the outrage and controversy around these shoes so pronounced when all we have ever known is technological progress in sport? The answer, I believe, seems to lie in the speed in which the changes happened. The official marathon record is 2hrs 1min 39 seconds, and for Kipchoge to bound in and blow his own world record out of the water by 2 minutes, not chip it away by incremental gains as we normally see, has made many people quite uncomfortable – it almost seems too good. The advantage given by these shoes really does represent a quantam leap. Not only has Kipchoge smashed one of the longest standing and almost mythical barriers of athletics, but he did so in one confident and unfaltering swoop. Of course his pacers played a major role, but the astonishing jump in performance that these shoes have provided have left many fans, athletes and pundits with a puzzling array of moral dilemmas. Yet, this has always been the way sport has operated, we have always moved forward in every aspect of our quest to be faster, higher, stronger.
I question anyone who claims that these shoes equate to ‘mechanical doping’, as Nike have rightly pointed out, they do not return any more energy than the athlete expends and they do not increase the natural capacity of the athlete – there merely allow them to utilize more efficiently what they already have. Dragging doping into the argument strikes me as rather lazy, the athlete is not being artificially enhanced, rather they are able to come closer to their natural potential. As long as this technology is made available for all, there is no unfair advantage and no correlation to doping in the slightest, the only issue that remains is how we compare contemporary athletes’ performances with those of the past.