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December 17, 2020

World Athletics’ Shoe Rule and the Fight Against Fairness

I’m a fan of blue-collar runners. It’s the I-have-a-day-job, I-work-out-at-6am, three-kids-and-a-mortgage runners for me. But, it’s not just because I am one myself. Everyone who loves sports loves an underdog story and our modern version of the true “amateur” spirit that initially inspired the Olympic Games.

That’s not to say that our top elite athletes don’t work incredibly hard, don’t have incredible stories and aren’t equally deserving of our fandom. Some of my favorite athletes in the game are paid handsomely by our biggest brands – Noah Lyles, Shelby Houlihan, Sydney McLaughlin and Mondo Duplantis, to name a few. But our love for our blue-collar athletes runs deep, from the Keira D’Amatos of today to Sir Roger Bannister himself, who first broke four minutes in the mile while training to be a neurologist.

We also love the egalitarian nature of running. A huge part of the outcry against the carbon-plated racing shoes sweeping through running stores and starting lines around the world is the perception that they create an unfair advantage. For a while, it was an outcry that athletes in Nike’s Vaporfly line would have a predetermined edge over the competition that no amount of training could overcome. In recent years, virtually every major shoe company has released a carbon-plated shoe in an attempt to level the playing field. Recently, it appears to be paying off. Two of the first four men to break 58 minutes in the half marathon last week, including the new world record holder, wore Adidas shoes.

In an attempt to reign in, or at least control the path of, this foot-based arms race, World Athletics released a new set of rules governing competition shoes. Among the recommendations were limts to the shoe’s stack height, plate limits and a prohibition on using prototype shoes in competition. To receive World Athletics approval, shoes must be “made available to any athlete on the open retail market.” In short, any shoes that Galen Rupp runs in, you should have the chance to buy and wear too.

Last week, World Athletics dropped a significant modification of its new shoe rules into a weekend press release that received little coverage. This change allows athletes to wear approved “development shoes” in competition, so long as those shoes are approved to meet the technical specifications set by World Athletics and are only on the “development list” for a year before reaching the market.

Setting aside the practical concerns (How similar must prototypes and sale shoes be? Must the online list be published and updated before competition? Will an athlete’s results be invalidated if a shoe doesn’t make it to market within a year?), this completely undermines the spirit of fair competition that World Athletics sought to preserve in its initial rules. That’s not to say the rules are perfect, but at least they created a system where Nike had to offer free Alphaflys to everyone at the Olympic Marathon Trials to ensure its stars would be able to race in them. Not everyone may want to run in Nikes for any number of reasons, but everyone should have the chance to.

I’m not a shoe developer or exercise physiologist, and I don’t think I’m qualified to offer a nuanced or informed opinion on whether carbon shoes “should be” allowed (for what it’s worth, I have raced in them and will continue to do so). But I like to think you don’t have to be a scientist to agree that having access to a shoe that your competition doesn’t constitute an unfair advantage, particularly if your access is conditioned on your connections to a brand, rather than any sort of objective criteria.

Why does this nerdy, technical distinction matter? 

Because on Sunday, Sara Hall, an ASICS runner, is going to be lining up next to a number of unsponsored athletes in the Marathon Project wearing a pair of shoes none of her competitors had the chance to buy. And furthermore, there’s a chance she could take down the American Record. Until the recent rule change, that record would not be ratified were she to run it in prototype shoes not available to the public. In the last marathon Hall ran, her team was extremely cagey about what shoes she ran in and there was online speculation that she received a personal therapeutic use exemption to race in the shoes.

sara hall shoes london marathon 2020

Hall, for her part, supports the rule change. She believes “the goal is doing everything we can to get back to an even playing field.” But if ASICS shoes are a superior product, as any ASICS athlete would surely suggest, and only a special few sponsored athletes can run in them, is the playing field truly level?

You shouldn’t need a professional contract to level your personal playing field. Many athletes, for many reasons, choose to remain unsponsored even when their results could attract a lucrative endorsement deal, and they shouldn’t be unfairly penalized as a result. Protecting access to proprietary technology when your job is to facilitate equitable competition is gatekeeping of the worst kind, and World Athletics has failed in its service to the athletes it governs.

Sara Hall isn’t doing anything wrong. She’s following the rules. But when the rules have been structured to advantage a privileged few at the expense of the blue-collar runner, the rules need to be changed.

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