Thunderclap a year ago at the Vienna Marathon. The Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge breaks the legendary two-hour mark by covering the 42.195 km of the event in 1 h 59 m 40 s 2. Same astonishment, Wednesday, October 7, on the athletics track in Valence. In quick succession, two world records fell. In 14.6s62, the Ethiopian Letesenbet Gidey blew up by more than four seconds that of the 5000m held since 2008 by her compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba. In 26.11.00, the Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei pulverized by more than six seconds that of the 10,000m owned since 2005 by racing legend Kenenisa Bekele.
Common points between these performances, one year apart: their exceptional conditions and the debates they arouse. In Vienna, Kipchoge was surrounded by an army of “hares”, a peloton preceded by a car projecting lasers on the ground representing the ideal pace, and wearing Nike Vaporfly with carbon blades, a controversial “super-shoe” (1 ). In Valencia, the challenge set up especially to panic the clock also included handpicked hares, “wavelight” technology displaying flashing lights on the perimeter of the infield showing the pace to stick to the record, and the two heroes of the evening benefited from Nike ZoomX Dragonfly, a spiked “super-shoe” which also questions.
The shoes of discord
Between the two events, the International Federation, World Athletics, tried to adapt to limit the controversies. She first set footwear rules in January 2020 “With the aim of preserving the integrity of sport”: champions must wear models accessible to all, sole thickness is limited and only one integrated carbon plate allowed. In July 2020, the regulations were amended to further review the thickness of spiked shoes dedicated to the track, from 30 mm to 20 mm for sprint shoes, to 25 mm for cross-country shoes (over 800 m) .
Except that. The debate on shoes is revived by the performances of the Valencia evening. Who are called to repeat themselves. The proof three days later with the Dutch Sifan Hassan who atomizes on October 10, in 29 m 36 s 67, the European record of 10,000 m established in 2002 by the British Paula Radcliffe. 25 seconds saved, and in the rain! With, again, Nike shoes. Magic?
“The gain is real but very difficult to measure, underlines the trainer Pierre-Jean Vazel. Manufacturers say 4% better on running economy, that is, the energy expended to have a stride at maximum efficiency. But it depends on the level of the athlete, his way of running, his specialty. “ World Athletics experts have been following the case for over a year, with no clear conclusion so far. After Nike, other manufacturers have gotten up to speed, at least for non-stadium races. But the problem is moving on the track. Should we review the rules again? Will sprint disciplines be the next to be turned upside down?
Tradition versus technology
Some, like the American biomechanist Geoff Burns of the University of Michigan, said they were recently convinced that the preparation for the Tokyo Games would be changed. Pierre-Jean Vazel is more skeptical: “It strikes me as really complicated to develop a shoe that is ideal for everyone, as the Nike model seems to be for cross-country races. “
However, voices are raised against the conditions of the records, others to demand a reset of the counters to zero, comparing the new shoes to swimming suits banned in 2010 after months of storm in the pools. “Faced with the bleeding of fans and the changes imposed by the Covid, it is simply a question of adapting and making our sport more interesting”, defended after Valence Jos Hermens, former long-distance runner and agent of Letesenbet Gidey and Joshua Chiptegei.
“Athletics finds itself at the forefront of current questions because it retains a certain romanticism of performance, a reflection of man alone in the face of his limits., points out for his part Pierre-Jean Vazel. The question of technological evolution has arisen regularly since the 1960s with incessant improvements. But records have long been viewed positively, synonymous with progress. They are no longer so today in an era that questions precisely this notion of progress. The pure image of athletics would be in danger, threatened by the technological dictatorship. Perhaps we should question this perception, think about and debate innovation in sport more broadly. “
Effervescence among equipment manufacturers
With its profitable choice of thick sole, Nike has taken a step ahead of its competitors. They are all pushing to catch up. On the road, emergency investments are starting to pay off. On September 5, the Kenyan Peres Jepchirchir erased in 1 h 5 m 34 s the world record for the half marathon exclusively female of the Ethiopian Netsanet Gudeta of more than 30 seconds. Secret weapon: the Adizero Adios Pro model from Adidas, replica to Nike super-shoes. The fight is inevitably severe in this market, the most lucrative. It is estimated at 500 million euros in France alone. On the track, Nike is still in the lead. But his rivals have not said their last word. Puma released its new model of pointe shoes for the sprint before the summer with a slogan in the form of a promise: “Faster than the wind”.