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Could Nike’s Vaporfly shoes be banned from triathlon racing?

According to the ITU, they will follow the IAAF's lead if they choose to ban Nike's high-end shoes that appear to have helped spur on a dramatic drop in marathon times over the last 18 months.

Of the top-15 men and women at last year’s Ironman World Championship, half were wearing some version of Nike’s revolutionary Vaporfly shoes. In fact, the top three women all wore the Vaporfly Next %. If World Athletics bans the shoes, triathlon will likely follow suit.

Anne Haug ran a 2:51:07 marathon split to win the women’s race at the Ironman World Championship. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

According to a story posted last week by our sister magazine Canadian Running, World Athletics is looking to ban the Nike shoes sometime soon. Athletes wearing the new Nike shoes have been decimating the marathon record books over the last 18 months. Last fall Brigid Kosgei set a new marathon world record in Chicago, while Eliud Kipchoge used a new version of the shoe the Alphafly to break the two-hour barrier in Vienna last fall.

The shoes use a thick layer of “highly responsive Nike-patented foam in the midsole as well as an embedded carbon-fibre plate” which appear to have helped marathon runners drop their times significantly.

Related: Is World Athletics about to ban the Vaporfly, Next% and Alphafly?

Cathal Dennehy, reporting in the Irish Independent, likened Nike’s shoes to “bringing a gun to a knife fight.”

“Almost half of the top 150 marathon times in history occurred since the shoe’s arrival in 2016, and that’s no accident,” Dennehy says in the Independent.

The effects don’t seem to have been lost on elite triathletes. All three women who made the podium in Kona (Anne Haug, Lucy Charles and Sarah Crowley) wore the Nike Vaporfly Next% according to data collected by media. Four other women who finished in the top 15 wore either the Next% or the 4%.

Ben Hoffman is all smiles as he finishes fourth at the Ironman World Championship – he was also wearing Nike shoes. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

In the men’s race none of the top-three were wearing Nike shoes – Ben Hoffman was the first man across the line wearing Nike’s – he used the Next%. (Jan Frodeno wore a prototype Asics Carbon plate shoe, Tim O’Donnell wore Hoka One One’s Carbon Rocket and Sebastian Kienle wore a New Balance prototype shoe.) Eight of the top-15 men in Kona wore some version of the Nike Vaporfly shoe, including fifth-place Cameron Wurf.

Related: Frodeno’s Fast Footwear

Triathlon’s international governing body, the International Triathlon Union (ITU), says that if the IAAF (World Athletics) were to ban the shoes, they would likely follow suit.

“At the moment, ITU  doesn’t have any rules about shoes,” we learned via email earlier today. “And, where we do not have specific rules (for running), IAAF rules applies. So, therefore, if IAAF takes such a measure, we would follow up.”

Ironman typically follows the ITU rulebook (there are a few exceptions), so it would likely follow suit if the shoes were to be banned.

It remains to be seen whether or not the changes will actually be made, and if they will happen before the Olympics in Tokyo.

“The current rules stipulate that shoes must not give an unfair advantage and must be freely available to all athletes,” Anne Francis reported in the Canadian Running story. “Experts have debated how much of an advantage Nike’s shoes offer, and with the technology protected by multiple patents, how available it is to non-Nike athletes.”

One would imagine that any rule changes wouldn’t be for a specific shoe, but rather for the technology. With so many companies embarking on an “arms race” to try and develop similar shoes, it will be interesting to see if World Athletics decides to try and limit the carbon plate techology, or the foam and energy return systems.

There doesn’t appear to have been a Kona shoe count done in 2019 as there was in years past, so there is no concrete data on whether the Nike domination of the top-15 in the pros extended to the age group racing. In 2018 Hoka One One led the way with 17.7% of the field, as it had done a year earlier. Nike, though, made a dramatic move up the shoe count standings in 2018, going from 5.7% in 2017 to 14.9% in 2018, leading some to believe that Nike would have led the standings last year if there had been a count.