As runners race around the streets of Sapporo this weekend, marathon enthusiasts are likely to check out the runners’ feet a few times during the 42.195-km Olympic races to see what shoes the athletes are sporting.
Interest in runners’ shoes is part of a trend that has grown over the last few years with the emergence of thick-soled sneakers with embedded carbon plates.
The shoes will surely be a factor in the Olympic marathons, which will be held in Sapporo on Saturday and Sunday mornings for the women and men, respectively.
But the high-tech shoes have a rare critic in two-time Olympic marathon competitor Mara Yamauchi, who has never been shy about her stance.
Speaking in an online interview with The Japan Times, Yamauchi insisted that although running should be “about human effort,” the event has become a showcase of what runners gain from their choice of footwear.
“Now it’s a sport that is a mixture of human endeavor and technology,” said Yamauchi, who competed for Great Britain at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Games. “And those two things determine the outcome of competition.”
The current era of the “shoe wars” began in 2017, when Nike introduced its carbon-soled shoe and and Rio Olympics marathon gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge clocked 2 hours and 25 seconds — eclipsing the world record at the time by over 2½ minutes — at an unofficial marathon event in Italy.
While he even ran under two hours (1:59:40) in a race in Austria in 2019 that was not officially recognized by World Athletics, the Kenyan legitimately notched a world record of 2:01:39 in ’18 wearing thick-soled sneakers.
Kipchoge’s times inspired many of the world’s elite runners to switch to the American manufacturer, with other footwear-makers such as Adidas, Asics and New Balance rushing to develop their own carbon-soled shoes.
Nike’s 2017 model, the “Vaporfly 4%,” purports to give athletes a 4% boost to their effectiveness. But to Yamauchi, the 4% is “an enormous amount” that could alter outcomes of a race.
“If you look at the elite level, the difference between athletes — let’s say between the gold and silver medals — will be tiny, much smaller than 4%,” the 47-year-old said. “So what that means is the shoe will determine the outcome of a race.
“For example, when I finished second in the 2009 London Marathon, I was about one minute behind the winner. One minute. These shoes could improve one’s time by something like three to four minutes in a women’s elite marathon. So if I had these carbon shoes, and the winner did not, I would have won by three minutes.”
Yamauchi believes that the impact of the sneakers could result in recent track achievements being devalued over time — especially with the frequent pace of new records.
“This year, we’ve seen many outstanding performances in athletics,” she said. “But we don’t know why they are outstanding anymore. Now everyone only wants to know what shoes they’re wearing, rather than who their coach is or how the athlete has improved.
“Is it true that current athletes are better than those legends of the past? We don’t know. It might be because they’re in those shoes.”
According to Yamauchi, running is becoming more about who responds best to the shoes rather than who excels purely from an athletic standpoint.
“If you are a coach and you want to train your athlete to win at the Olympics, previously you would just focus on training, nutrition and preparing your athletes as best you can,” she said.
“Now you have to work hard to make sure your athlete is in the best shoes that they respond best to, because this can have a massive effect on the result.
“For example, if I’m coaching an athlete hoping to go to a major championship, now he has to experiment with all these different shoes and see which is the best for him, because otherwise he is not going to be competitive if all the other athletes are also benefiting from those shoes.
“And if he is 1½ or two minutes behind, he’s never going to qualify.”
Yamauchi insists that her criticism is not directed toward athletes who chose to wear carbon soles, but rather against a system that has enabled the current status quo.
In January 2020, World Athletics, tracks global governing body, established rules that limit the height of soles to 40 millimeters and allow only one rigid carbon plate for road-race shoes.
“I suspect World Athletics had no choice because the brands, the manufacturers have a lot of power in the sport,” Yamauchi said. “The shoes were already out there. So I imagine legally World Athletics didn’t really have much choice. But it’s all about regulations and hypothetically, they could have set much tougher rules.”
Yamauchi also pointed out that those carbon-plate shoes for elite runners are prohibitively expensive, denying universal access to non-elite athletes. She says that it would not be fair if a talented athlete is unable to develop because they can’t afford to buy such shoes.
“Let’s say a 17-year-old is trying to get a sports scholarship and he is from a poor family and can’t afford (the shoes),” said Yamauchi, who lived in Japan for a combined nine years as both an athlete and an employee at the British Embassy. “(He is) not going to make it, whereas previously (he) could.”
With all that said, Yamauchi “accepts” running’s new landscape, if only reluctantly. Even though she thinks the shoes have “completely changed the sport,” she understands that a return to the previous era is simply impossible.
“Although I have concerns about it, I accept that this is the new reality, and we have to live with it,” said Yamauchi, who is serving as a color commentator for the marathon and walk races at the Tokyo Olympics for Eurosport.
“I think the effects are not positive for the sport in general because of all the reasons I’ve described.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.