Sports Opinion

Breaking barriers

October 16 - 22, 2019

Gulf Weekly Breaking barriers

On May 5th 1954, much of the world was in agreement that running a mile in under four minutes was impossible for a human to achieve. On May 6th 1954, Roger Bannister wrote himself into sporting history for eternity by running the mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds, easily one of the most iconic sporting feats of the 20th century and a barrier in human performance broken.

A similar achievement happened last Saturday as Eliud Kipchoge etched his name into the history books as the first man to break the two hour marathon barrier. The Kenyan, whose run was held on a closed course in Vienna, ran the 26.2 mile course in 1 hour 59 minutes and 40 seconds breaking a barrier long thought to be impossible for a human to achieve. Another incredible testament to human endurance will ensure that Kipchoge will be universally recognised for the rest of his life.

Despite this, not everyone was completely onboard with the celebration of the achievement. People are pointing towards the fact it will not be recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) because it wasn’t completed at an open event. There were also numerous top class pacemakers who surrounded Kipchoge at all times, switching in and out during the race to keep him at the required pace, whilst shielding him from the elements.

Then there’s the case of Kipchoge’s trainers, a pair of enhanced Nike Vaporflys that many believe is the real difference maker in breaking the two hour barrier. The standard Vaporfly was used in the top five best marathon times, all recorded in the last 18 months. Essentially, the trainer uses technology which allows for the toes to roll instead of bend and according to numerous scientists this reduces energy loss by four or five per cent. Kipchoge’s enhanced prototype - the AlphaFLY - may have improved his running economy by up to eight per cent.  

Personally, I do not understand why we wouldn’t accept an enhancement in technology or any help as an addition to aiding human performance. I get that the IAAF itself has certain rules as to what can be accepted as a record. They want records to be set in competition but they’re a sporting federation not a record collection agency. As people, however, surely we would all embrace this. Bannister in ‘54 had four pacemakers, runners universally have spikes and cyclists wear aerodynamic helmets. In fact, everywhere you look people have involved science to modify their equipment. Where do we draw the line for this “help” as no longer acceptable? Do we just confine this to equipment or are any unfair advantages fair game for not celebrating achievement.

In truth, we would have nothing like the competition we currently get to enjoy without technology. At his fastest phase in his world record 100m run, Usain Bolt was covering 12.4m every second, a distance that is pretty incomprehensible but what if we truly stripped back what was available. It seems pretty unlikely that Bolt would have reached such speeds barefoot in dense woodland with a guy tracking his time on a sundial. It is also unlikely that he would have reached this speed without science based training and nutrition. In fact, it would have been impossible for Bolt to reach that speed had he been just a few inches shorter due to the reductions in his stride length.

It brings another interesting factor into what is and is not acceptable as a means of improving human performance.

Eero Mantyranta is a name that you may not be completely familiar with but the Finnish cross country skier won seven Olympic medals between 1960 and 1972, winning in 1964 by more than 40 seconds to his nearest competitor. Mantyranta did not look particularly athletic, especially in comparison to his counterparts but his body created an unusually high number of red blood cells which enabled him to carry significantly more oxygen around his body. Should he be stripped of his medals due to his genetic variation? That would be absurd to me.

Furthermore, you can very quickly find a list online of Michael Phelps’ genetic variations that help him be a better swimmer, including producing 50 per cent less lactic acid than a standard person. If your genetics make you “built” for a sport, is that not an unfair advantage like having the best shoes, for example?

I would recommend that anyone who can’t comprehend quite what Kipchoge did to get themselves to a treadmill, set it to 21km/h and see how far into the 1 hour 59 minutes of running they can go. I would also recommend giving it another go with the Vaporflys to ensure it’s a fair test. I think I would draw the line at skates or maybe some form of rocket boosters but trainers and pacemakers? I don’t see the problem. Kipchoge broke a barrier nobody thought was possible. Celebrate the man instead of worrying about how flashy his shoes are.

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