Athletics: Nike Vaporfly Running Shoes Controversy

By Kris Lines, Aston University Business School, Birmingham, United Kingdom

On 31 January 2020, World Athletics (the Governing Body of Track and Field) issued an amendment to its technical regulations governing competition shoes.[1]

This document represents the latest salvo in the technological arms race between equipment manufacturers and governing bodies of sport.[2]

Essentially, the new regulations implement three key changes:

  • From 30 April 2020, any shoe used in competition must have been previously available on the open market for a period of at least four months.
  • The sole must be no thicker than 40mm.
  • The shoe must not contain more than one rigid embedded plate or blade

This is important because, in recent years, there have been suggestions that shoes, such as the Nike Vaporfly, may give a performance advantage of 4-5% by improving running economy.[3]

At its core, the question for regulators was whether the performance advantage was such that it changed the nature of the competition for athletes.

Also, whether athlete restrictions in accessing certain prototype shoes was contrary to the value of universality.

Of particular note, however, were World Athletics’ conclusions on how the loopholes affected the spirit of sport:

“If people want to run a marathon in Vaporflys or any other shoe, it’s not our job to stop them, but if you want a ratified record, then you are classified as elite and have to abide by the rules.”[4]

This is a pragmatic solution to balancing integrity with participation, that while it did run contrary to the UK Supreme Court Decision in Ivey v Genting Casinos (UK) Ltd t/a Crockfords [2017], which is the subject of an in depth article by the author of this Post in the forthcoming March 2020 issue of GSLTR, adopting a pragmatic approach to elite and recreational participation in sport is something that I would encourage more governing bodies in sport to do.

Kris Lines may be contacted by e-mail at ‘k.lines@aston.ac.uk’

[1] World Athletics, Technical Rules (Amended on 31 January 2020), Book C2.1: Shoes 5.2 https://www.worldathletics.org/news/press-releases/modified-rules-shoes accessed 02 February 2020.

[2] See also the ‘Lugano Charter’ (Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), 1996)), and the ‘Dubai Charter’ (FINA, 2009).

[3] Cathal Dennehy, ‘Nike Vaporfly Shoes Avoid Complete Ban by World Athletics’ Runner’s World (Jan 31 2020) <https://www.runnersworld.com/news/a30721631/nike-vaporfly-ban/> accessed 02 February 2020.

[4] Ibid.