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Japan athletes on edge amid reports of World Athletics ban on springy Nike runners

Sole components for Nike Inc.'s Zoom Vaporfly 4% running shoe. (Mainichi/Yuta Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- Japanese long-distance track athletes are wondering what their next step will be after multiple British news sources reported on Jan. 15 that the world track and field governing body was set to ban Nike Inc.'s Zoom Vaporfly 4% shoes and their successors -- the thick-soled footwear thought to be at least partly responsible for a recent wave of record-setting running feats.

An article in British news outlet The Telegraph stated that World Athletics was considering regulating running shoes' sole thickness after testing how the shoes functioned and whether they conferred a competitive advantage. A piece in The Guardian, meanwhile, reported that a complete ban on thick soles was unlikely, though the timing of any new regulations, what the standards would be and how they would be applied remained unclear.

Of the four long-distance runners who won places on Japan's 2020 Olympic track squad at a September 2019 trial, three were wearing thick-soled shoes, the lone exception being Honami Maeda.

Masahiko Takahashi, who coaches runner Ayuko Suzuki, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We've been testing the Nike shoes for 2 1/2 years, and are using them based on the data we've collected. For the shoes to be banned suddenly would be the worst possible outcome." Men's track team member Shogo Nakamura's coach Tadashi Fukushima commented, "All we can do is monitor the (shoe policy) shift. I'm worried about whether we'll be able to use them in the Tokyo Olympics."

Athletes competing for the last spot on Japan's Olympic marathon team are also concerned. Yuta Shitara, onetime holder of Japan's best men's marathon time, is hoping to punch his ticket to Tokyo 2020 with a good showing in the Tokyo Marathon in March. However, Shitara is lacing up for his runs in Nikes. His coach Satoshi Ogawa said, "It would be better to wear the shoes than not, but we will have to obey the rules."

Meanwhile, athletes are also losing patience with the lack of specifics about the possible new shoe rules. Suguru Osako, who set the men's Japanese marathon record of 2:05:50 in October 2018 while wearing the thick-soled Nikes, took to Twitter recently to say of potential restrictions on the shoes, "Either way is fine, but pleeeeaaase just decide! Us athletes will do our very best with whatever we're allowed to wear."

Until recently, it was common sense in the track world that light, thin-soled shoes were ideal for long-distance races. However, Nike turned convention upside-down with its thick-soled runners, built with a springy carbon fiber plate attached to a light cushion layer, resulting in a soft landing plus a strong bounce-back. It is this bounce that could get the shoes banned from world competition if the effect is judged to "give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage" forbidden under international track competition rules.

Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge set his men's world marathon record time -- the first under two hours -- wearing Nikes for the run in Vienna in October 2019. In Japan, more than 80% of the runners in the 2020 New Year Ekiden and the 2020 Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, including most and all of the members of the respective championship teams, were sporting the thick-soled shoes, drawing renewed attention to the issue.

(Japanese original by Yuta Kobayashi and Ryuichi Arai, Sports News Department)

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