When you think of Nike’s most hyped, models like the React Element 87, any Off-White silhouette or the upcoming Parra collab come to mind. But what won’t come to mind is Nike’s best running shoe, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%. When Nike launched their expensive runner last year, the Swoosh insisted the shoe improved one’s running efficiency by an average of 4%. While most in the industry were sceptical to say the least, this ambitious statement has recently been confirmed.
The New York Times and the Strava app, having analysed 495,000 marathon and half-marathon times since 2014, stated that those who wore Vaporflys did indeed run 3-4% quicker on average than similar runners wearing other shoes. They went on to state that the Vaporflys wearers were around 1% faster than those using the next-fastest shoe. These impressive statistics are due to the shoe’s controversial carbon-fibre plate. Unlike most running shoes, they have a carbon-fibre plate in the midsole, which stores and releases energy with each stride and is meant to act as a kind of slingshot, to propel runners forward.
So where does one draw the line when it comes to fairness with running equipment? You can’t blame Nike for striving to break new ground, with their competitors trying to outdo them every chance they get. But it also raises the question of fairness in sports, and how to determine which technological advances constitute an unfair competitive advantage.
As an example, Golf officials banned the use of certain balls that fly straighter, the NFL stopped the use of a sticky substance that helped players catch the ball and lastly, swimming officials banned the use of high-tech suits that were said to have enhanced buoyancy and speed. These swimsuits decreased lap times by as much as 2%, similar to the Vaporfly's advantages.
Another aspect of the Zoom Vaporfly’s fairness is that of availability. For the equipment to be approved, it “must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of the universality of athletics.” The expensive Vaporfly 4% sells out quickly, and fetches even higher prices on the resell market. The latest version, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite Flyprint, was only available to a limited amount of runners taking part in the London Marathon this year, with a retail price of about R8800.
While Nike’s Zoom Vaporfly and its fairness in professional sport is still up for debate, apps like Strava make further everyday comparisons possible. An ideal experiment might involve a series of marathons on a variety of courses, with runners randomly assigned different running shoes. That experiment does not yet exist, but something like it happens around the world almost every weekend, when tens of thousands of amateur runners compete in races and upload their race data, which is collected on smartphones or satellite watches, to the Strava app.
Yannis Nikolaou, a spokesman for the IAAF, said that while it’s accurate to say that the Vaporflys are legal, it’s actually more accurate to say there is no evidence they shouldn’t be. The Zoom Vaporfly’s professional legality is therefore still up for debate, and is an interesting one to watch.