Feb 26, 2020 - Sports

The race to catch Nike's Vaporfly shoe before the 2020 Olympics

Illustration of a Nike race flag
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Four months ago, on the very same weekend, Eliud Kipchoge became the first human to run a marathon in under two hours, and fellow Kenyan Brigid Kosgei shattered the women's marathon record.

Why it matters: Kipchoge and Kosgei were both wearing Nike's controversial Vaporfly sneakers, which many believed would be banned because of the performance boost provided by a carbon-fiber plate in the midsole that acted as a spring and saved the runner energy.

  • Instead, World Athletics, track and field's governing body, published new rules last month regarding sole thickness and carbon-fiber plates that effectively rendered the Vaporfly legal.

Driving the news: Competing brands are now scrambling to build their own shoes to compete with the Vaporfly, and the clock is ticking.

  • The U.S. Olympic marathon trials are this weekend in Atlanta, and shoe companies are still playing catch-up as they adjust to the new norm.
  • The Tokyo Olympic marathons are in August, and any prototype that a runner wants to wear must be available at retail by April 30 — a deadline that has grown increasingly difficult to meet as Chinese manufacturers combat the coronavirus.

What they're saying: While rival companies are confident that their carbon-fiber plate designs will eventually be on par with the Vaporfly, Nike's formidable lead has forced them to acknowledge the gap that currently exists.

  • The head of Saucony even went as far as to say she would be open to allowing one of her sponsored runners to wear a competitor's shoes if he felt he'd be at a disadvantage without them.
  • "We would have to consider that," said Saucony president Anne Cavassa, per the Wall Street Journal.

The big picture: Running, the most elemental of sports, now faces the same "human ability vs. technological innovation" challenge that other sports like tennis (rackets) and swimming (full-body suits) have encountered.

The bottom line: The running industry is in the midst of a high-tech shoe revolution, and the outcome will affect everything from shoe sales and stock prices to who wins Olympic gold.

Go deeper: Ethiopian runner smashes half-marathon record in Nike Vaporfly shoes

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