Eliud Kipchoge, Nike Vaporfly running shoes and whether we can believe what we are seeing in athletics

Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge: Was helped to break barrier.
Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge: Was helped to break barrier.
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It is a sad indictment of society’s win-at-all-costs mentality that athletics – which should be sport in its purest form – is, in fact, the most corruptible and open to manipulation.

Ever since the dawn of competition, man and woman have been striving to go faster, stronger and higher; three ambitions that make up the Olympic motto.

Ben Johnson, Canada's dominant sprinter, got the better of his fierce rival Carl Lewis once again, romping to 100 metres gold at the 1988 Olympics. (Picture: John Stillwell/PA Wire)

Ben Johnson, Canada's dominant sprinter, got the better of his fierce rival Carl Lewis once again, romping to 100 metres gold at the 1988 Olympics. (Picture: John Stillwell/PA Wire)

Yet the pursuit of those goals has long since been poisoned by greed.

Drugs, money and now science have taken athletics to a level where it is hard to believe what we are seeing.

It has been for some time, in fairness.

Ever since Ben Johnson, all popping eyes and bulging veins, scorched the earth in Seoul to claim a gold medal in the 1988 100m Olympic final, there has been an element of doubt about every race the crowd and viewers witness.

More than three decades after Johnson shook the sport to its very core, athletics finds itself in yet another fight over morals and ethics.

Nick Westby

Johnson was caught two days later, bringing shame on the sport.

But how many more have not been caught, before then and since, bringing arguably even more shame on the blue riband event of the Olympic movement?

More than three decades after Johnson shook the sport to its very core, athletics finds itself in yet another fight over morals and ethics.

In the space of a month the sport has seen its most prominent coach, Alberto Salazar, banned for four years for doping violations, the closure of the Nike Oregon Project as the fallout from that ban gathered pace, and a world championship contested in front of an empty stadium in Doha.

Disgraced coach Alberto Salazar. (Picture: PA)

Disgraced coach Alberto Salazar. (Picture: PA)

In amongst it all, there were positives, the cementing of two British queens of sport in Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson, and an historic first marathon run inside two hours.

While the exploits of Asher-Smith and Johnson-Thompson – one that seemed inevitable for Britain’s greatest sprinter, the other that has taken time to come to the boil for Jessica Ennis-Hill’s heir apparent – the latter achievement also raises questions about the moral code of athletics, and what we should feel comfortable applauding.

Eliud Kipchoge’s run through a park in Vienna last Saturday morning was captivating.

He covered the marathon distance of 26.2 miles (42.2km) in one hour, 59 minutes, 40 seconds in the Ineos 1:59 Challenge in the Austrian capital.

In isolation, to witness a man run so freely and rhymically was a sight to behold.

For context, he ran the 100m 422 times in a row in a time of 17.08 seconds and at a speed of 21.1kph (13.1 mph).

Astonishing. This was marathon running’s ‘Roger Bannister Moment’, when the two-hour mark that had forever seemed beyond the limits of human capabilities, was beaten.

But, and there always seems to be a but in athletics, he was not alone. He was assisted by 
science.

Kipchoge had a team of 42 pacemakers, including the Olympic 1,500m champion, the 5,000m silver medallist and the Ingebrigtsen brothers of Norway Jakob, Filip and Henrik, running around him.

Not just randomly, they rotated in and out, seven men at a time, running in formation around the 34-year-old Kenyan.

Further to that, a pace car beamed green lasers on to the road to indicate the required pace that Kipchoge had to hit, two minutes 50 seconds per kilometre.

If that was not enough, the greatest of marginal scientific gains aiding Kipchoge’s effort were a bespoke pair of Nike running shoes.

Kipchoge wore Nike Vaporfly trainers – called AlphaFLY – which are a major innovation in the sport that has resulted in a drastic improvement in performance.

They do this because a curved carbon-fibre plate is embedded into the thick foam sole. According to Nike research, it is supposed to improve metabolic efficiency by four per cent.

The reducing of the world marathon record has been significant since they came onto the market, and made the Ineos 1:59 Challenge all the more achievable for Kipchoge.

Technological advancements are nothing new in sport, let alone athletics.

Golfers turn up on the range each year with a new driver that can hit the golf ball further.

Cyclists have been trying to find aerodynamic gains for years, with Britain at the very vanguard of that scientific movement.

But it is because of the Nike trainers, because of pacemakers, because of the laser beam, because it was not open competition and because his coaches ran to him to provide energy gels and water instead of him having to veer off course to collect from an aid table as in normal race conditions, that Kipchoge’s effort is not officially recognised as the world marathon record.

He still had to do it, of course he did. No-one has run faster over the famous distance.

They were his legs, his lungs.

But this was not sport in its purest form, as it should be.

This was not an official marathon. Let us see if Kipchoge can do it with regular running shoes, no beams in front of him, eratic pacemakers who might inadvertently trip him up, and some bloke dressed as a banana raising money for charity.

As notable as the achievement of breaking the two-hour mark is – Team Ineos likened it to man walking on the moon half-a-century ago – and as desperately as athletics needed a face-saver after a chastening period, it unfortunately raises too many questions about just how far man will go in pursuit of the next milestone, and how flexible the dividing line between ethically sound and morally corrupt really is.

Unfortunately, the answer in athletics, is that line is too frequently and too easily bent.

Which is a pity.

Because for all the negative headlines coming out of Doha – a place awarded the world championships because of money not heritage – there were still a few stories that lifted the spirits.

Johnson-Thompson’s coming of age. Asher-Smith’s arrival as a sprinting force to be reckoned with. Leeds-based Tom Bosworth continuing his rise up the race walking ranks.

They are athletes to get behind, to back, to believe in.

Johnson-Thompson and Asher-Smith can save the sport in this country.

But in America, home of the new 100m world champion Christian Coleman, faith is being eroded. Coleman missed three drugs tests in 18 months but escaped punishment.

The Salazar saga is far from finished. How dirty and unedifying will that become?

It all means that with an Olympic Games nine months away we are once again asked to believe what we are seeing.

Sadly, it is getting harder and harder to do so in athletics.