[Author: Sailesh Neelakantan, a student of Law at Jindal Global Law School, India]
If you watched the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, you would have noticed that athletes wearing Nike’s super shoes dominated athletic events. The runners wearing Nike Vaporfly super shoes won over 60% of the total medals at the Olympics. The athletes using these shoes were also involved in multiple records being broken in the 1,500-metre, 5,000-metre, and 10,000-metre events. The same was used by the Kenyan athlete Eliud Kipchoge to do what was believed to be impossible. He completed a marathon in under 2 hours for the first time in athletics history with a timing of 1.59.40. This marathon record was unofficially broken using Nike’s Alphaflys which is the prototype variant of the currently available Vaportfly. But this was later banned by the World Athletics and Nike released a new altered version called the Vaporfly which went on to be used by 31 out of 36 podium winners of major marathons in 2019. This raised a question of whether the shoes are a form of technological doping.
But what is technological doping? In simple terms, technological doping essentially is an illegal way of gaining advantage by unfair means. The World Anti-Doping Agency in the year 2006 consulted on technology doping and now is officially a form of doping and a threat to sport according to WADA.
Cases of Technology Doping
Similarly like the use of super shoes in athletics, during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, multiple swimming records were broken by the use of full body Speedo LZR swimsuit which was designed to improve the speed of the swimmers. Speedo said that the LZR racer swimsuits increased the swimmer’s speed by 4%. Some swimmers during the Olympics broke their sponsorship deals with other brands to use the Speedo LZR swimsuits. Out of the 25 records swimming records broken during the 2008 Olympics, 23 of them were by swimmers wearing these Speedo suits. These swimsuits were later banned by the swimming governing body FINA after the Olympics and the new regulations did not allow any swimsuit that extended beyond the knees or above the waist.
During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a South African athlete Oscar Pistorius participated in both the Olympics and Paralympic athletic events. He was amputated in both legs and used to participate using prosthetic legs. Since he used carbon fiber plates as prosthetics, the IAAF (currently known as WA) claimed that the prosthetic had unfair advantage against able bodied athletes in the Olympics because it used a mechanism and helped the carbon plates to work like a spring and had an advantage of 30%. But it was later overturned by CAS and was allowed to participate against athletes in the Olympics and other non-Paralympic events also.
The other form of technological doping is mechanical doping where a secret motor is used in cycles to boost the speed of the bicycle. It was found only once during the 2016 World Championships.
The most recent controversy around technological doping is the use of super shoes. WA banned only the prototypes of these model but allowed the presently available models and ruled out technological doping. The new rules allow a maximum sole thickness of 40mm and should be available in the open market post the development phase to be used in competitions.
Since Nike has patented the Vaporfly and the shape of the carbon plates used inside these shoes, the competitors cannot use this technology to make better shoes and there is an unfair advantage for the athletes using the Nike shoes against the ones using other brands. The sport can be made equal and fair only when these types of shoes are banned, or everyone is made to wear only the same type of shoes.
WA realized that the new technology behind the shoes was having an impact in the integrity of the sport but was not able to ban it just before the 2020 Olympics because it had been widely used in the sport. The question of integrity comes up every time a record is broken using these shoes or through the use of any new equipment which has an unfair advantage.
The World Anti-Doping Agency recognises technological doping as a threat but the responsibility to ban the equipments is left to the discretion of the sporting bodies of the respective sports. Technology has improved sports in multiple ways and has helped in the betterment of sports efficiency and safety of the athletes, but the issue of technological doping diminishes the human effort, athleticism and also the fairness in sport.
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PREFERRED CITATION: Sailesh Neelakantan, Super Shoes and the Controversy around Technological Doping, SLPRR,<https://sportslawandpolicyreviewreporter.com/?p=1662(opens in a new tab)> October 24, 2021.
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