Shoes with carbon fiberboard: innovative or cheating?

In Nike’s 60-year history, technology that shook the shoe industry has appeared 3 times. They are waffle trainers, air pockets, and the carbon plate midsole. Since its debut in 2016, the Vapefly series, which embraces carbon fiberboards in its midsole, has been a helper in breaking all five men’s marathon records and breaking down the two-hour wall by Kipchoge. Nike has achieved an irresistible innovation, with 31 out of 36 winners of the six major tournaments in 2019 insisting on Vaporfly. However, there were voices criticizing Nike for its excessive intervention in science and technology and destroying the dignity of sports. In the end, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has even come up with new shoe regulations. Let’s look at the numerous controversies behind the Nike Vaporfly, the most innovative shoe in marathon history. 

Vaporfly is a lineup of Nike marathons. The first model, Vaporfly 4%, was named after its energy efficiency improved by about 4% compared to Adidas Adizero Adios Boost 2.0, a shoe used in the men’s marathon record when it was released in 2016. Behind that steep innovation were two key technologies. The first technology is a carbon fiberboard. A carbon fiberboard, which is stronger than steel and lighter than cotton, was planted in the midsole. When pushing the ground with your toes, the carbon fiberboard acts as a support and fixes your toes straight, reducing energy loss and gaining greater momentum. The second technology is Pebax foam. The new material, filled with midsole, is said to be 20% more resistant than “EVA,” which is most commonly used in making marathon cushions, and 10% more resistant than Adidas’ “Mega Boost,” which is called the cushion revolution. In addition, it’s light, so you can stack it up without any burden. This is the background of the birth of Vaporfly’s signature design, a thick midsole. A players player wearing the Vaporfly said, “It’s like running downhill.” Some officials were concerned that the nature of the marathon was encroaching on cuttingedge technology, saying that Vaporfly has begun to have a greater impact on the athlete’s shoes than on the athlete’s physical ability. Some criticized Vaporfly by calling it “technology doping.” That’s because wearing a Vaporfly alone could have an effect comparable to doping. 

In 2012, the International Athletics Federation introduced a strong anti-doping measure called “athlete’s biometrics” to crack down on blood doping. Starting from this, the Russian women’s marathon record has deteriorated by 2-3%. Considering that Vaporfly can improve the record of elite marathoners by 2.5%, the criticism of “technology doping” is understandable. However, the arrow of criticism should be directed toward the International Athletics Federation rather than Nike. They did not tolerate Nike’s innovation, but they failed to create fair competition. They allowed the use of undisclosed prototypes in international competitions. Until 4% of Vaporfly was distributed on the market in 2017, only Nike sponsors benefited from Vaporfly technology. In January 2020, the Federation of Nations announced new shoe regulations to correct all these divisions. The main content was to limit the thickness of the midsole by 40mm and prohibit the use of prototypes. On the day of the announcement, officials questioned the federation’s announcement of a midsole thickness limit of 4mm not matching the thickness of Vaporfly II and Next%. After the federation’s announcement, Nike released the Alpha Fly Next%. The thickness of the midsole of the new product was 39.5mm. Is it likely that Nike was produced the Alpha Fly without prior knowledge of the new limitation on midsole thickness? Nike is either lucky in avoiding the regulation by 0.5mm, or Nike influenced the association’s decision, as New Balance’s CEO claimed. 

Fortunately, due to the postponement of the 2020 Olympics, competitors had the time to develop new products. However, because Nike has applied for a large number of patents related to carbon fiberboards and cushions, it is predicted that it will not be easy to produce shoes comparable to the Vaporfly. Similarly, 98% of athletes who won medals in swimming at the 2008 Beijing Olympics were wearing speedo’s LZR racer swimsuits. The full-body swimsuit, made based on shark skin, broke as many as 25 world records at the Beijing Olympics alone but will be kicked out of the international stage in just a year. The measure was taken under the judgment that advanced technology undermines the purity of sports. Modern sports are on a tightrope at the border between technological innovation and technology doping.

By Mattew Sunghun Park

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