In the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, Michael Phelps and other swimmers wore full-body swimsuits by brands such as Arena, Speedo, and Jaked. The new technology in these suits allowed the athletes to ride higher in the water, reducing drag and thereby reducing fatigue at the end of races. By the 2009 World Championships in Rome, nearly every swimmer who lined up to race was wearing one of these full-body suits, and the record books were re-written. Notably, Paul Biedermann of Germany demolished the world records in both the 200 and 400 meter freestyle events, marks that were previously thought to be untouchable. However, by 2010, these “supersuits” had been banned by FINA, the world governing body for swimming, for providing an unfair competitive advantage. Records from the supersuit era of 2008-09 are only now being approached, while some, like Biedermann’s, haven’t come close to being broken. Biedermann himself provided one of the most extreme examples of the difference the technology in these suits made for the athletes, as he failed to even make the final in the 400 freestyle at the London Olympics without the aid of a “supersuit”.
Fast forward to 2020, and the same issue is happening again, only this time in marathoning. Eliud Kipchoge broke the 2-hour barrier for the marathon wearing Nike prototypes of the Alphafly, marketed (and proven) to provide a 4 percent increase in running efficiency and time. These shoes contain carbon-fiber plates and other technology that significantly reduce the pounding a runner’s legs take when racing 26.2 miles. While Kipchoge’s record-setting run was completed in a controlled environment and he wasn’t racing anything other than the clock, these shoes soon made appearances in races where there were real stakes on the line. According to the New York Times, as of February 1, 2020, the 5 fastest men’s marathon times in history have been run by athletes wearing some form of the Nike Vaporfly/Alphafly technology. Bridget Kosgei of Kenya smashed the women’s marathon world record wearing in October 2019 while wearing the same shoes. World Athletics decided in January of 2020 that these shoes , like the swimsuits mentioned above, provided an unfair competitive advantage and, in a lead up to Tokyo, voted to ban any shoes that had not been on the market for 4 months beginning April 30. While the shoes Kipchoge and Kosgei wore during their record-setting runs are still eligible to be worn, this ban limits the amount of technology that companies such as Nike are able to provide for their athletes.
While many sports have rules regarding what tech is allowed to be used in competition, some people believe that these bans stifle the creativity and ingenuity that brings better and more advanced technology to athletes of all skill levels. The biggest issue I have with technology like the Arena X-Glide swimsuit or the Nike Alphafly is that, in professional sports, athletes are beholden to their sponsors and thus may not have access to the same technology as their competitors. For example, if a Saucony-sponsored runner lines up next to a Nike-sponsored runner in a marathon where real prize money is on the line, and that Nike-sponsored athlete is wearing a shoe that provides a 4-5% advantage, that Saucony athlete has to face the reality that they may lose money in the race. At the same time, do we want to punish companies for being the first to design new and better technology for athletes? Where do we draw the line with technology allowed in sports?