Alexia Lowe questions whether ‘technological doping’ is causing unfair disparities to emerge between athletes, from athletics to F1.
12/10/2019. Vienna, Austria.
Kipchoge prepares to undertake an ambitious feat, never achieved despite numerous attempts by the very best athletes in the field, including himself. This time, though, Kipchoge has an advantage, characterised by the iconic fluorescent footwear of his team. Sponsored by Nike, the team donned the most revolutionary running shoe to date: Nike’s Alphafly version of the Vaporflys. In spite of unfavourable conditions, one hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds later, Kipchoge does what no human has done before: broken the 2-hour barrier in a marathon.
The “two-hour barrier” is in many ways equivalent Sir Roger Bannister’s first sub-four-minute mile, broken on our very own Rodger Banister Running Track, at the Iffley Road sports center in 1954. Except that almost 70 years later, the world of sport (and Kipchoge’s unofficial record) is clouded by new and growing concerns of doping; not the traditional kind, characterised by steroids and blood tests, which Bannister actively condemned, but rather the unfair advantages brought about through the very equipment that allows athletes to participate in competitive sport.
Of course, breaking the two hour barrier was a testament to the increased competition and rigour of the sporting world, but shattering his own world record by two minutes could not have been achieved without the efficiency Kipchoge gained from the high-tech Alphaflys. Nike claims the Carbon Fiber Plates (CFPs) in the shoe save 4% of the energy needed to run at a given speed compared to another of its most popular racing shoes.
Kipchoge set out to prove that “no human is limited”; but perhaps he more accurately proved that no technology is limited.
Although the most widely reported of records broken in recent years, Kipchoge’s feat is far from an exception. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, all 6 marathon medals (female and male) were won by athletes wearing the same Nike Vaporfly shoes. There is no doubt that the introduction of this technology has transformed the running world: in fact, every world record related to road running from 5km to the marathon has been broken since the introduction of shoes containing CFPs in 2016. Improvements in race performances brought about by CFPs are 4-6%, comparable to expected gains achieved from blood doping substances and methods prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
This raises one of the biggest questions facing the sporting world today: when athletes benefitting from these technologies cross finish lines and shatter records, are they simultaneously crossing the line between technological advancement and technological doping?
At the time when Kipchoge ran his sub 2 hour marathon, World Athletics regulations stated that any shoe “must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of universality of athletics and must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage”. Clearly, these rules are extremely vague: there is no clarity as to what constitutes an “unfair advantage”. This renders the sport susceptible to major problems like corruption, but also to minor problems such as a “technological arms race”. Yannis Pitssiladis, professor of sport and exercise science at Brighton University, claimed that if World Athletics did nothing to halt such advances, “the consequence is going to be a race between the manufacturers rather than a race between athletes”.
In January 2020, World Athletics responded to such concerns by adapting the rules to be less ambiguous and more measurable. Changes were both related to the technology itself (setting a maximum sole thickness at 40mm, legislating no more than one embedded plate) and to the accessibility to such technology (prototypes could only be worn for 12 months in competition after which they must be available for purchase or discontinued).
Critics have argued not only that such rules did not do enough to combat the growing inequity in the world of athletics. There are loopholes: companies could discontinue the shoe after 12 months, or make it available at extortionate and inaccessible prices. More worryingly, such rules could lead to an extreme footwear “arms race” as firms seek to develop patented CFP inserts. Something contrary to the integrity, fairness and universality of the sport and creating a world in which technology could make a bigger difference in performance outcome than the true physiological difference between the best athletes.
But aren’t all shoes designed to enhance performance? At what point is the line of an inequitable advantage crossed? The problem lies in the advantage the shoe gives to the individual runner: for some runners, the stability, energy efficiency and comfort the shoe provides is more beneficial than for others. According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the infamous fluorescent Vaporflys, responsible for a huge proportion of recent records and characteristic of every running race start line, can cause improvements in run times ranging from 6 per cent to absolutely nothing. If the difference between the ability of two athletes is 1% and how they respond to the shoe (assuming they wear the same shoe) is greater than 1%, we can’t predict the outcome, as it’s determined by luck rather than the talent of the competitors. This undermines the integrity of the sport.
The world of athletics is facing a dilemma: what do we want our sport to be? On one hand, it can be a low-tech, athlete-centric sport. One example of such a sport is swimming: the only technology involved are the swimsuits, which are highly regulated. In July 2009, the swimming regulatory body voted almost unanimously to ban streamlined, full body “super-suits” which had broken almost 200 world records in the two years they were authorised for. The high level of regulation in swimming means outcomes are very much determined by the talent of the individual athletes.
On the other extreme, we have high-tech, engineering-centric sports, such as F1, where the outcome is more determined by the technology of the equipment than by the athletes themselves. There is a strong case to be made against rendering athletics an engineering-centric sport. The difference between many of these sports (such as F1 and cycling) is that the latter are, understandably, reliant on equipment, where athletics is not. Cycling wouldn’t be possible without a bike, whereas running would be possible without shoes. Yet current rules mean that athletics is leaning more and more towards privileging technological over human achievement. Recent improvements in marathon world records since 2016 are not physiological but largely technological.
These rule changes are not sufficient to safeguard the integrity of the sport. In the words of World Athletics, “the ban on mechanical aids exists in order to protect the integrity of sport, by ensuring that the outcome of competitive athletics is determine by natural talent and effort, rather than technology”. Currently, the rules are not sufficient to prevent this.
So where do we draw the line? What is technological advancement and what is technological doping? The answer, like for many controversial questions, is: it’s complicated.
There’s no black and white distinction and, to add to the complexity, the line is in different places in different sports. Obviously, in F1 and cycling, sports which are fundamentally reliant on technology, the burden to prove technological doping will be higher. For athletics, however, if we want to maintain the integrity and the spirit of the sport, we need to end the arms race which is dictating the outcome, rather than individual talent.
As long as we continue to condemn blood doping, we must change the rules relating to technology, and hold technological doping to the same standard, in the world of athletics. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case in spite of the new 2020 rules. Certain substances and therapeutic methods are banned solely on the basis of their potential to enhance performance, yet shoes providing a 3-4% advantage, comparable to the improvement brought about by such banned substances, are still permitted.
Since Bannister achieved the unthinkable at Iffley that day in 1954, expectations have been shattered and records have been broken. There’s no doubt that the world of athletics will continue to achieve the unthinkable. But to maintain the integrity of the sport, more action needs to be taken to contain the rise in the new era of doping. One day, in the not-too-distant future, the two-hour barrier will be broken, in a way that genuinely realises Kipchoge’s dream of proving that “no human is limited”. We just need to get there by ourselves, without the crutch of inequitable technology.
Illustration Credits: Ben Beechener