This weekend, with technological help, three runners will try to break the two-hour marathon barrier. This is a good time to ask who technology is for
This weekend in Italy three elite athletes sponsored by Nike, the athletics company, will, conditions permitting, attempt to break two hours for running a marathon, 26.2 miles. The current world record is 2:02:57, set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya in Berlin in 2014. Shaving three minutes from the marathon record would be an incredible accomplishment. The previous drop of three minutes has taken about 16 years.
Nikes Breaking2 project is more than just a slick marketing exercise for a new running shoe. The effort will tell us something important about how fast elite human athletic performance might be improved. But the project should also force us to ask some challenging questions about human enhancement and who it is for.
Nikes formula for breaking the two hour marathon starts with three of the worlds fastest runners: Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea. Kipchoge won Gold in the marathon in Rio last year, Desisa won the Boston Marathon in 2013 and 2015 and Tadese is the world record holder for the half marathon.
But fast runners arent enough. Nike explains that they have consulted experts in: biomechanics, coaching, design, engineering, materials development, nutrition and sports psychology and physiology. But at the core of the project is technology: After years of extensive research and development, Breaking2 will debut a system of groundbreaking innovation that has the potential to elevate every runner.
That system is a high tech new shoe, the Nike VaporFly Elite specially designed for the three runners in the project. The consumer version will be called Zoom VaporFly 4%. The 4% is in the name because the shoe is supposed to reduce the energy required to run by 4% by using a curved carbon-fiber plate embedded in the sole. Thats a big number, given that breaking two hours implies beating the current record by about 3%.
But as long as Nike is looking to technology to help elite runners run faster, why not just have the athletes strap on rollerblades and shatter the world record?
The International Association of Athletics Federations, which sets the rules for athletics events of the Olympics and other elite competitions forbids the use of mechanical aids. The IAAF also has rules governing shoe technology, and this is where the new Nike shoe leads to some interesting questions.
The IAAF explains that athletes may compete barefoot or with footwear. The purpose of shoes is to give protection and stability to the feet and a firm grip on the ground. Such shoes are not allowed to provide any unfair additional assistance beyond running barefoot.
Those of you of my generation will remember South African runner Zola Budd, who ran barefoot in the 1984 Olympic Games. Long before Budd, Abebe Bikila won Olympic Gold in the marathon in 1960 running barefoot.
A general consensus of the scientific community is that while shoes provide additional cushioning for the runner their additional mass requires more effort from the runner, thus the two factors appeared to counteract each other. In other words, running with shoes doesnt provide any advantage over running barefoot.
But the new Nike shoe was specifically designed to provide an additional assistance. If the IAAF rules simply prohibited additional assistance then the shoe would clearly be illegal in IAAF competitions. But the rule says unfair additional assistance So is the shoe unfair?
The IAAF rulebook doesnt define unfair. But the rules do allow us to define what that means. This is where things get really interesting.
The IAAF does have specific rules in place governing the use of prosthetics of the sort used by Oscar Pistorius, the so-called Blade Runner who participated in the 2012 London Olympics as well as the 2012 Paralympic Games. Prosthetics are to the Paralympian what the running shoe is to the Olympian. As Richard Hirons, one of the world experts on prosthetics for elite athletes explains: At the end of the day, its a big shoe.
When Pistorius first applied to run in the Olympics, IAAF rules said that runners using prosthetics would be allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes unless the IAAF could show that the athlete received an unfair advantage over other athletes not using prosthetics.
The IAAF had initially banned Pistorius from competing in the Olympics, but Pistorius appealed the decision and the Court of Arbitration for Sport concluded that because scientific research on Pistorius indicated that there was no evidence that the biomechanical effects of using this particular prosthetic device gives the athlete an advantage over other athletes not using the device, the disabled athlete cannot be banned to compete in international IAAF-sanctioned events alongside able-bodied Athlete.
The Court further concluded that at least some IAAF officials had determined that they did not want Mr Pistorius to be acknowledged as eligible to compete in international IAAF-sanctioned events, regardless of the results that properly conducted scientific studies might demonstrate. They didnt want an athlete running on prosthetics in the Olympics. One IAAF official explained that including Pistorius affects the purity of sport.
More recently, when another Paralympian who competes on blades sought entry into the Olympic Games, Markus Rehm, a long jumper, the IAAF decided to quietly change its rules. In 2015 the IAAF quitly changed the requirement that the it had to show an advantage provided by technology in order to ban an athlete. The rule change meant that the burden of proof was now on the athlete to show that the use of technology would not provide him with an overall competitive advantage over an athlete not using such an aid.
As with Pistorius, there was also no conclusive evidence in the case of Markus Rehm that the use of the prosthetic provided an advantage. However, because the burden of proof had shifted, requiring the athlete to prove a negative (a virtually impossible task), he was not allowed to compete in the Rio Olympics.
Thus, if we apply the same standards to Nikes fancy new shoes that the IAAF applies to prosthetic limbs, then the shoes clearly are illegal under IAAF rules. They provide an overall competitive advantage over athletes not using the shoes. That is both what they were designed to do and also what is indicated by testing by my colleagues here at the University of Colorado. Not all athletes can use the shoes, because not all are sponsored by Nike. For the shoes to be allowed, proof would have to be provided that they do not provide an advantage.
So the IAAF finds itself in an interesting situation. If the new Nike shoes are to be allowed, then the same application of the rules would suggest that athletes running on blades should also be allowed to compete. Otherwise the message being sent is that human athletic performance can be enhanced using technology worn on the ends on ones legs only if those legs have not been amputated.
Similarly, if athletes who run on blades are in fact to be excluded, then the same application of the rules would suggest that the new Nike shoes should also be banned. The issue here immediately becomes one of discrimination and treatment under the rules that depends on the length of ones legs, not the technology that one affixes to their ends.
Athletes and their sponsors are always looking to eke out every bit of additional performance that they can. Technology offers one important route to performance enhancement, sometimes so much so that it must be regulated, as occurs with many performance enhancing drugs. The new Nike shoe is just the latest innovation in trying to achieve a bit more, and Nike hopes, to sell a lot more shoes.
The new shoe also provides us an opportunity to ask some difficult questions about who technology is for and what it means to use technology fairly in sport. Certainly, applying technology to breaking the threshold of a 2 hour marathon would be quite a notable achievement. So too would be applying technology to allow amputees to compete fairly in the Olympic games. But only one of these applications represents a more humane use of technology.