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The Olympic battle for shoe tech supremacy

Track records are falling like ninepins at the Tokyo Olympics as athletes get faster with better shoe technology

Elaine Thompson-Herah on her way to setting a new women's 100m Olympic record. (REUTERS)

By Shrenik Avlani

LAST UPDATED 03.08.2021  |  04:28 PM IST

For the first time in more than a dozen years, the Olympics track and field events don’t have a clear hero. Since Beijing 2008 till his retirement in 2017, the Jamaican sprinter and the fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt, had attracted all the attention in the build-up to and at the summer games. However, leading up to Tokyo 2020, the Bolt-sized buzz had been missing. What filled in was plenty of discussion around a new shoe technology that uses carbon plates in the soles. This innovation helps the athlete wearing them improve their performance by about 4 per cent. That may seem like a small number, but at the very top of elite running, this can easily make the difference between a medal and no medal, between a new record and none, between qualifying for the final and crashing out.

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The first brand to successfully use the carbon plate technology in its shoes was Nike. The company first developed road running shoes, and using one of the earlier avatars of Nike’s carbon technology shoes, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, the current marathon world record holder and defending Olympic champion, became the first man to run a full marathon in under two hours, albeit in a controlled environment in Vienna, Austria, in 2019. After successfully incorporating and refining the carbon plate technology shoes used by marathoners, Nike successfully transferred the technology to the running spikes that are used by sprinters who compete in the track events.

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Other brands, including rivals Adidas, Puma and Asics, have successfully incorporated carbon technology in their shoes as well and all are on display at the Olympics where the competition is top class and margins of victory slim. However, it seems that despite the best efforts of rival brands, an emerging theme of Tokyo 2020 is Nike’s supremacy.

The new technology inserts a stiff carbon plate between layers of cushioning foam in the sole. The carbon plate acts as a spring, returning more energy to the runner than regular shoes, thereby helping the runner go faster. World Athletics president Sebastian Coe earlier this year said that the new shoe design with carbon plates would play a part in any world records broken in Tokyo 2020.

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Apart from more technically advanced shoes, another new innovation is the track that’s used in Tokyo’s Olympic stadium for the track and field events. This extremely fast track was developed by the Italian company Mondo. The company’s website says that the track transformed the “specific needs of athletes into new technologies and applied them to the MONDOTRACK WS, which was used for the 2016 Rio Olympics, to optimize it for the Tokyo 2020 Games.” The company adds that the new track optimises energy response, which is just another way of saying it is very fast.

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There is already plenty of evidence of what is likely to transpire over the next few days in Tokyo 2020 as the new shoe tech and, to a lesser extent, new track technology works in tandem. On 3 August, Norway’s Karsten Warholm blew his own 400m hurdles world record to smithereens as he powered home in 45.94 seconds. Even the second-placed Rai Benjamin (46.17 seconds) ran the race in under the old world record time of 46.70 seconds. Simultaneously, six of the first seven finishers set national or continental records for the race.

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In the women’s 100m finals, Jamaican sprinter and Rio gold medalist Elaine Thompson-Herah smashed Florence Griffith Joyner’s 33-year-old Olympic record (10.62 seconds) as she blazed to a gold medal in 10.61 seconds. Puerto Rican Jasmine Camacho-Quinn set a new Olympic record on her way to picking up gold in the women’s 100-meter hurdles. In the men’s 100m finals, Italy’s Lamont Marcell Jacobs became the new champion with a time of 9.80 seconds, which is the new European record. Apart from the gold medals and new records, what united Thompson-Herah, Camacho-Quinn and Jacobs was the Nike superspikes that they raced in. Earlier, in the men’s 100m semi-finals, China’s Su Bingtian had set his personal best of 9.83 seconds in a pair of Nike spikes, and was the fastest finalist on the starting blocks in the 100m.

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Ethiopian-born Dutch runner Sifan Hassan, who took gold on 2 August in the women’s 5,000m race, will be racing the 1,500m and 10,000m in Tokyo and she has already set a world record for the latter in June this year. She did all of it in her Nike racing spikes. Soufiane El Bakkali, who created history by winning the first gold for Morocco and also ending the Kenyan dominance in the 3,000m men’s steeplechase on Monday, also had Nike spikes on. The men’s 10,000m race was won by the Ethiopian Selemon Barega, again, in a pair of Nikes.

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It’s too soon to call a winner, but Nike has an early lead over its rivals. The shoe technology wars are likely to come to a head over the weekend—the final two days of the Tokyo Olympics—when the women’s and men’s marathons take place in Sapporo on Saturday and Sunday respectively. When the world’s fastest marathoner and the only one to have broken the 2-hour barrier, Kenya’s Kipchoge turns out in his carbon plate-powered Nike shoes to defend his Olympics title, it won’t just be a race between the world’s finest long distance runners, but also a contest among the shoe brands for tech supremacy.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.