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Familiar Races, Newer Gear

Do revolutionary sports gear enhance performance or skew competition?
Familiar+Races%2C+Newer+Gear
Maya S.

When a tennis player wins Wimbledon, the racket they used in the tournament naturally comes into the spotlight. Similarly, when a marathon runner wins the Olympics, their shoes often receive as much—if not more—attention than the runner themselves. Today, sports equipment plays a crucial role in carrying out an athlete’s best performance. In fact, some argue that these technologies have developed to a point where they now wield more influence than the athlete’s natural skills. Here is a look into some specific technologies that sparked controversy within the sports community.

Nike Vaporfly Next 4%

Named after its ability to increase the efficiency of runners by four percent more than other popular marathon shoes at the time, this shoe has broken into the top five marathon records of all time since its introduction in 2016. In 2019, out of the 36 award-winning runners who ranked in the top six of major marathons, 31 of them were wearing the Vaporfly.

This record-breaking shoe contained several revolutionary technologies that helped it break these records. One of them is the use of polyether block amide (PEBA) material as the midsole of the shoe. Compared to other popular midsole materials at the time, PEBA had more than 15% greater energy return. On top of that, the material was extremely lightweight, which allowed Nike to provide maximum cushioning by stacking up the midsole extremely high. This reduced the impact from the ground and lessened fatigue on the runner’s legs. Another piece of technology used in the shoe was the carbon fiber plate. Commonly known for its jargon as “the material light as a feather and stronger than steel,” the carbon fiber plate inserted in between the midsole layer provided the shoe with increased stiffness and higher energy return everytime the runner pushed off the ground. This reduced the amount of energy required by the runner, even when running at extremely high speeds.

Some criticized the shoe for being “technological doping” due to its similar level of impact as the performance-enhancing drugs that allowed runners to run faster without feeling fatigued. These hormones were found to im- prove a runner’s marathon record by two to three percent. Just by wearing the Vaporflys, a runner could enhance their performance by even more than if they were doping. The growing voices of criticism made the International Association of Athletics Federations regulate the midsole thickness of shoes to be under 40mm, but did not ban the Vaporflys from future international competitions.

Speedo LZR Racer

Invented by Italian swimwear company Speedo, the LZR Racer is the world’s first swimming tech suit made from woven elastane-nylon and polyurethane. These special fibers were designed to minimize fluid resistance and skin friction drag
underwater, which allowed swimmers to swim much faster with less effort. Researchers found that just by wearing the LZR racer, athletes could improve their swimming records by 1.9 to 2.2 percent, depending on the strokes and distance of the event. In fact, 98% of the medalists were wearing this swimsuit during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and out of the 25 world records broken during the event, 23 were set by athletes wearing the LZR Racer. At the World Championships held the following year, 43 of 65 swimming world records were again broken by swimmers wearing this suit. Mark Schubert, the United States national team director at the time, told The Washington Post that the meet “will be remembered as the plastic meet.” Eventually, in 2010, the World Aquatics changed its rules by limiting the perimitted length of swimming suits and restricting the materials to exclusively fabric.

While there are numerous defini- tions and meanings of sports, a major aspect of it is about breaking the limits of being human. Develop- ment in equipment technology helps athletes go beyond these limits; yet, simultaneously and increasingly blurs the attribution between their capabilities and their equipment. One thing should be remembered: sports is the competition between human beings, not between their equipment.

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About the Contributors
Dowon H., Staff Writer
The monotony of black and white in newspapers made Dowon have a prejudice against journalism as stiff and boring writing. This was only until he first truly learned about journalism in his freshman year, that he discovered the joy of writing articles that were both organized and creative. This year, he has joined the Feedback team as a staff writer to continue the joy of journalism, sharing his writing with the whole JIS community. 
Maya S., Staff Writer
Initially skeptical of her choice to join a journalism class, Maya has now grown to love writing as a whole— fond of how it allows her to express her thoughts and creativity on paper. Currently in her first year of being a staff writer at Feedback, Maya aims to articulate her opinions and ideas for others to read.