Putting limits on the swoosh mob hinders wider change for the better | Ben Ryan
In 1964, the Tokyo Olympics were dubbed the “Technology Games”. Up in the skies, satellites were used to televise all the action live for the first time. Computers abounded and spectators and TV viewers had never had it so good.
Down at the events, we also saw changes. In the pool, there was now touchpad technology that meant we no longer relied on a judge’s eye to award a medal. It was still being fine-tuned but it was here to stay. In the pole vault we saw the introduction of fibreglass poles to replace the metal ones courtesy of some nifty work by Nasa engineers and, with that, the world record tumbled. On the track, it was the last Olympics to be run on cinder. Tartan tracks would follow and at Mexico 1968 Jim Hines won in 9.95 seconds – a world record that would last for 15 years.
While the Games organisers this time around had plans to upgrade quite a few areas – particularly for the spectators – much of this is not going to have the original impact it was dreamed up for. Those stands will stay largely empty, with facial recognition cameras used to speed up accreditation and security in and out of the venues for those few that can see the Games in person.
But it will be in athletics that advancements in technology will perhaps cause the most controversy and conversation. In particular, the blue riband, the 100m; and at the other, the event that was increased by more than 2km in the London games of 1908 to make sure everyone ran past the royal box – the marathon.
Why? Because of what’s on their feet. Nike launched the Vaporfly for the marathon and promptly broke records; and recently the Viperfly spike was launched for the sprints. Both of these will make you run faster and the competition hasn’t got anything to rival their potency. Nike loves to innovate and the new research facilities in its Oregon HQ are three times the size of its old ones. I have to mention a small amount of inside knowledge here as I have been involved in a very small way with Nike as a consultant since the Rio Games. I’ve seen some of the resource available for the research but unless you are in a very small group of people, you will never get to go into what’s dubbed “the kitchen” – where projects that might not hit the track or pitch (and probably podium) for 12 years-plus could take their first steps.
To perhaps give some perspective, take all the other top sports brands and in a typical year you will probably get combined new patent requests of around 50. A huge majority of those will be from Adidas. Nike will apply for more than 200. “Just do it.” That’s a mantra they live. But many will say they create an unfair advantage for their athletes.
Liz McColgan, the 1988 Olympic silver medallist and 1991 world champion in the 10,000m, has very forthright views on levelling the playing field, by either making sure everyone had access to that technology or using a shoe that is uniform across the field.
In cycling, for example, that would mean making any bike that is being raced available for other teams to also use. It’s a bit more complicated than that as time and cost will still stop some countries from making the most of that opportunity. There will be many different bikes on show in Tokyo. It has become as tech-driven as it is athlete-centred. There is a real argument that sports such as cycling and rowing are just thickening the glass ceiling for other smaller and poorer nations.
But back to the shoes. Cost isn’t the issue here for those competing at the top but access is. If you aren’t sponsored by Nike then you aren’t wearing what will give you a real advantage. Currently there is no patent-sharing or collaboration. Could the shoe manufacturers have an agreement for a kind of reverse engineering to allow – at elite level – some similarity in what’s on their feet? The marathon shoes are said to give the wearer an increase of around 4% in performance terms.
Many would argue that’s not fair. But the issue throws up so many corollary arguments. Everyone has different resources for where they train, who trains them, how professional they are able to be, what they can spend or can get their hands on for nutrition. How many coaches or specialists they have and the level those people are. There are moving parts everywhere.
OK, so my adversary might have the swoosh on his feet but I might have slept in a better bed for the last year, perhaps had a better nutritional plan. A mile to go in the marathon and I’m neck and neck with my rival who is wearing the supposedly superior shoes: will the mindset have shifted and that rival be feeling the pressure – that the footwear has not given them the daylight they yearned – feeling like the shoe is on the other foot?
It all adds up. Like it or not, it is not and never has been a level playing field. That’s part of the challenge. As long as those advantages stay within the guardrails of what’s allowed then why should someone, anyone, be penalised? I see both sides of the argument here but as far as gaining an edge is concerned, the issue of performance-enhancing drugs is where we still need to keep the focus and priority.
I also know innovation creates ripples. The technology improvements that are sought might improve other areas of society. I remember one project a decade or so ago that was about measuring stride length and speed with accelerometers. That tech is now used to measure the propensity of someone to fall over and to monitor patients remotely. Falling over is one of the major causes of death in the over-70s.
My point is that limiting technological advancements may also limit wider and deeper positive change. The odds are slightly favoured towards those Nike athletes as they gather at their start lines in Tokyo. But as we all know, and all love, once the gun goes – all bets are off.