In preparation for the upcoming Olympics, World Athletics — the international governing body for track and field — announced new guidelines surrounding legal footwear in the sport Friday, drawing an obvious comparison to FINA’s supersuit ban implemented a decade ago.
Supersuits, which were made out of combinations of fabric and increasingly-more-so rubber-like polyurethane, were used heavily in 2008 and 2009, when over 200 world records were broken in a two-year period at a rate faster than any other time in the sport’s history. The suits were eventually banned from competition, and while many of those records have been broken, others (like the women’s 200 fly and men’s 800 free) are expected to stand for a very long time.
While previously World Athletics’ regulations simply stated that “shoes must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage,” the new policies lay bare clear-cut rules that were informed by a technical committee established last year.
Under the new policies, shoes used in competition:
- Must have soles no thicker than 40mm (about 1.5 inches)
- Cannot contain more than one “rigid embedded plate or blade” (shoes with spikes are allowed one additional plate for attaching the spikes)
- Must have been available for purchase by any athlete on the open retail market (online or in store) for a period of four months (the cutoff is April 30 for shoes planning to be used in the Olympics).
“It is not our job to regulate the entire sports shoe market but it is our duty to preserve the integrity of elite competition by ensuring that the shoes worn by elite athletes in competition do not offer any unfair assistance or advantage,” World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said in a statement. “As we enter the Olympic year, we don’t believe we can rule out shoes that have been generally available for a considerable period of time, but we can draw a line by prohibiting the use of shoes that go further than what is currently on the market while we investigate further.”
The restrictions were effectively set in response to the popularity of Nike‘s controversial “Vaporfly” sneaker worn by many elite marathoners. While the latest “VaporflyNext%” model will not be banned going forward, a prototype dubbed the “Alphafly,” worn by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge when he clocked the world’s first sub-2:00 marathon last year, will be.
An earlier model of the Vaporfly was shown to improve athletes’ “running economy” by about 4%, according to Runners’ World. Kipchoge wore the earlier model when he won the Olympic marathon in 2016.
Nike is not the only manufacturer to innovate shoes considered by critics to be a form of “mechanical doping,” but has a long history of setting the industry standard in performance footwear. Asics, New Balance, Saucony, and the likes, are certainly in on the arms race, similar to the history in swimwear of Speedo vs. TYR, Arena, Blueseventy, etc. — and at one point, Nike.