By Robert Johnson
July 22, 2019
Track and field’s shoe rule needs a rewrite.
The sport of athletics is known for being a stickler about making sure no athletes get an unfair advantage.
If in the midst of a nearly two-mile race, if you inadvertently graze the white line on a turn — even if the cones aren’t set up in the right place and you cut off a fraction of an inch — you are disqualified.
Drug testing is also intense. It used to be that if you took a common cold medicine like Sudafed, you’d get banned for doping. While that rule has been lifted, the Athletics Integrity Unit will still ban you for incredibly minor things.
If you go out to a restaurant and eat some meat that, like most beef in the US, has been treated with steroids and later test positive for having .65 ng/mL of trenbolone in your system (.65 ng is 1/90,000th the weight of a grain of salt), you can get a four-year ban.
Yet if you show up at race wearing a secret pair of shoes that are later scientifically proven to improve a runner’s efficiency by 2.4% and you sweep the medals at the Olympic marathon, you don’t get disqualified, let alone banned?
That’s exactly what happened in 2016 when all three of the men’s marathon medals were swept by Nike-sponsored athletes wearing a secret shoe that would be later known as the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%.
Perhaps realizing that doesn’t make any sense, last year the IAAF rewrote their rule on what type of footwear is or isn’t allowed. Here is the new rule (bold added by LetsRun.com):
Note (i): Adapting a shoe to suit the characteristic of a particular athlete’s foot is permitted if made in accordance with the general principles of these Rules.
Note (ii): Where evidence is provided to the IAAF that a type of shoe being used in competition does not comply with the Rules or the spirit of them, it may refer the shoe for study and if there is non-compliance may prohibit such shoes from being used in competition.
The sentence in bold was a totally new addition.
Yet here we are nearly three years removed from Vaporfly sweep of the Olympic marathon medals in 2016 and we are dealing with more potential Vaporfly-related controversy.
On July 12 in Monaco, the Netherlands’ Sifan Hassan broke the women’s world record in the mile, running 4:12.33. One small potential problem. She was wearing a prototype of a new Nike spike that isn’t yet out on the market.
Was Hassan — or Laura Muir when she set the British indoor mile record in February — wearing a spiked version of the Zoom Vaporfly 4% that swept the podium in the marathon in 2016?
I reached out to the IAAF for clarification. Was Hassan allowed to race in a “type of shoe” not available to all? Would her mark potentially be invalidated during the world record ratification process?
The response I got back from the IAAF made no sense.
They started by telling me that the words “type of shoe” are purposely broad. Okay, fair enough, but what shocked me was they said they would not start any type of investigation unless they have “conclusive evidence” that a running shoe “gives an athlete unfair assistance or advantage.”
What? If Hassan and/or Muir are wearing shoes that aren’t on the market, and only a handful exist in the world, how in the world is anyone supposed to have “conclusive evidence” that the shoe is providing them “unfair assistance or advantage”? No one except the designers even know what they truly are, and it’s impossible for an outside entity to test an experimental pair of shoes that aren’t for sale.
It would be like saying, “We need to be provided proof someone took illegal drugs before we agree to drug test them.” I asked the IAAF for clarification on the issue and was told, again, that the IAAF would only start an investigation after being provided evidence that someone had broken the rules.
We can’t afford to see a repeat in 2020 of what happened in 2016 and see the fairness of races as prestigious as the Olympic marathon jeopardized once again (well, any more than they already have been). The shoe rule needs to be updated ASAP.
It’s just not realistic for an official at the start line of an Olympic race to be a shoe expert and know which “type of shoes” are “reasonably available” to all, let alone which ones provide an unfair advantage or not. So it’s easier to just ban all shoes that haven’t been commercially available for a set period of time. I’d also recommend collecting the shoes of any world record setters or Olympic gold medallists so they can be tested if there is any doubt.
But looking backwards, if Muir and Hassan set records in a “type of shoe” not available to others, those marks need to be invalidated.
Note 1: For transparency, here is the full initial response that I got from the IAAF regarding the shoe rule (bold added by LRC):
“The interpretation of ‘type of shoe’ is necessarily broad as the technical officials at the competition must be able to make a judgment on the shoe by visual inspection at the time, given that there is no facility for testing shoes during competition.
“Under Note (ii) to the rule, if evidence is provided to the IAAF that a specific shoe does not comply with the rules, it may be referred for evaluation. At this stage, the IAAF has not received conclusive evidence that any running shoe currently in use in IAAF competition gives an athlete unfair assistance or advantage.
“The IAAF is committed to continually reviewing and, where necessary, revising the technical rules of athletics to ensure that they are clear, fit for purpose, and reflect the principles and values of the sport.
“Recent advances in technology mean that the concept of ‘assistance’ to athletes, whether from shoes, prostheses, or technologies with a similar effect, has been the subject of much debate in the athletics world. It is clear that some forms of technology would provide an athlete with assistance that runs contrary to the values of the sport. The challenge for the IAAF is to find the right balance in the technical rules between encouraging the development and use of new technologies in athletics and the preservation of the fundamental characteristics of the sport: accessibility, universality and fairness.
“To that end, the IAAF Technical Committee has established a working group to consider the issues and, if necessary, recommend changes to the technical rules. The working group includes a former athlete alongside experts in science, ethics, footwear, biomechanics and law.”
After getting that statement, I emailed the IAAF back. The way I read the rule, if a type of shoe isn’t reasonably available to all, it should be banned, regardless of whether it had been proven to provide unfair assistance or not (as after all, that’s impossible to prove if the shoe was just invented). I asked the IAAF if my interpretation was correct, and they did not answer my question specifically, referring me back to their initial statement and reiterating that they need to be provided with evidence that a shoe breaks the rules before they begin an investigation.
So does a shoe like Hassan’s break the rules since it’s not reasonably available to all? Isn’t the evidence that it is not reasonably available to all the fact that it is not for sale anywhere? Will the IAAF launch an investigation now that this has been brought to their attention?
I don’t know the answer to any of those questions.
Note 2: From reading through a detailed discussion of Hassan’s shoes on the messageboard, I’m inclined to believe, as explained by this post, that the spikes Hassan wore in her mile world record were not a spiked version of the Zoom Vaporfly 4%. Regardless, the main point of this article is it’s absurd that rules are so ambiguous that we are having to try to dissect on the internet what her shoes look like and whether they represent a new type. Ten years ago, FINA, the international swimming federation, correctly realized it didn’t want the sport to be about who has the best swimsuit — the same thing should be true for shoes in track and field.