Within Wellington Scottish we are lucky to have several hard-working, knowledgeable, and highly qualified officials. Two of them are Alan Stevens and David Lonsdale. In this regular column, Alan and David put their heads together and answer our questions about the rules of running and walking. For our latest instalment, David ponders the new Nike Zoom Vaporfly racing flats and the history of running shoe technology.

What are the rules about what shoes runners can wear for road races, and for cross-country? Have you ever had to disqualify anyone for incorrect footwear? In your opinion, is it likely that the new Nike Vaporfly racing flats are illegal?

Have I ever disqualified an athlete for wearing incorrect shoes? The answer to that is simple. Yes, track spikes, even after all these years of synthetic track surfaces, sometimes turn up too long and of the wrong shape. “Take them off and you are good to go” is the decision I have made. The IAAF Competition Rules are clear on that issue but they are “imprecise” on the question of shoe construction, and on the question of how are shoes approved within the IAAF. But the world-wide debate on the Nike shoes made me think of the developments I have seen since I started running over 60 years ago.

Since coachmen started to run alongside coaches and their Lordships started to wager bets on who was the fastest there have been debates about shoes and their design. The Greeks and Romans had barefoot or sandal wearing runners in their stadia races. I wonder if they debated the topic of what was best or allowable!

When I started running at Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool in the early 1950’s, all that was available were sand shoes with canvas uppers and plain rubber soles. As the deprivations of the Second World War faded it became accepted that Puma- and Adidas-made shoes – which were German and on the surface supposed to be “hated” – were so superior that we youngsters just tried to find the money to buy them.

At that time my English-made leather soled track spikes, which were also worn for cross-country races, quickly lost rigidity in the sole, and the individually set long spikes inevitably made their way into the most uncomfortable places on the soles of my feet. When Adidas introduced their 10.0 shoes (named for the 10 second 100m record) I bought a pair. The shoe had all of the spikes set in a half sole of white plastic. They were instantly comfortable and I floated along. I ran my first sub-two minute 880 yards in my next race. I loved them! Technology was on my side!

Athletics shoes have come a long way in the last 60 or so years. It is scene of constant development. Race walking has since the 1990’s been trying to find a way to solve the problem of the fastest walkers “floating” mid-stride. An Englishman obtained two patents for his monitor shoes but they were not reliable enough. The IAAF has made money available to develop an Electronic Detection System to create a definitive race walk judging system. It is planned to have trials completed before the IAAF 2019 World championships. If these high-tech shoes are successfully developed, it will change race walking at the highest level. Will there be a call to ban them? Probably, but only until everyone has the ability to make new shoes and all walkers have them. The necessary ancillary monitoring equipment will initially mean they are only used at high-level meets.

The shoes developed for the attack on the two-hour marathon are the latest and possibly the most complicated shoes yet made. Should they be banned? I don’t think so. Why stifle progress? If there is a call to ban them is it because those making the calls do not yet have the best equipment? Probably, but as with my youthful supposed “hatred” of German shoes, as soon as these shoes are widely available they will be adopted.

For some more information about the new Nike shoes and the two-hour marathon, read the New York Times article on the Sub2 attempt

The question being debated is: if the claimed advantage for the wearers is really there, do the IAAF Competition Rules allow athletes to compete in the shoes? Rules 143.2 to 143.6 cover shoes. The sole and heel and inserts to the shoe for high jumpers are in 143.5 and 6. A note to 143.5 which relates to high jumpers shoes is:- The thickness of the sole and heel shall be measured as the distance between the inside and the outside under side, including the above mentioned features and including any kind of form of loose inner sole.

But other shoes are not dealt with so clearly, and Rule 143.2 is often noted to be “imprecise.” It reads:

Athletes may compete barefoot or with footwear on one or both feet. The purpose of shoes for competition is to give protection and stability to the feet and a firm grip on the ground. Such shoes however must not be constructed so as to give an athlete any unfair additional assistance, including by incorporation of any technology which will give the wearer any unfair advantage. A shoe strap over the instep is permitted. All types of competition shoes must be approved by the IAAF.

The IAAF Council will meet around the World Championships in London in August 2017, and without doubt the question of this rule will be raised by the Technical Rules Committee. My educated guess is their report will be received and the Committee will be told to find an answer. So we will have to watch out for developments – but don’t hold your breath waiting for a definitive statement! At least they may specify whom manufacturers or others can ask, when they seek approval of new shoes.

I hope the new Nike shoes are not banned but welcomed. I’m waiting for the first two-hour marathon with as much interest as I had as when as a child I waited to see who would break four minutes for the mile. Would John Landy of Australia be the first? When Roger Bannister, aided by Brasher and Chattaway, ran the first sub-four minute mile the excitement in Great Britain was just like it was when Team New Zealand and its highly technical boat won the Americas Cup! It will be a historic day!

Do you have a question for Alan and David? Can you stump the experts? Send your questions to stkeller30@gmail.com.


Interview by Simon Keller