I didn’t want to do it, I still don’t want to do it, but I’m gonna do it. God damnit. *Deep breath* I am going to join the take economy regarding super shoes.
Ok, here we go. The misplaced anxiety about super shoes is way worse for the sport of track and field than the super shoes that everyone is so worked up about.
So, before I directly explain this take, I’m gonna tell two stories.
The first story starts when the pandemic hit and live sports were halted, a void opened up in my life that Korean baseball or watching old Commonwealth Games races just couldn’t fill. Then the PGA Tour came back and, despite not previously being a golf fan, I thought, “Yeah, I’ll watch this, why not.” Well, almost a year later I love pro golf- can’t get enough of it. I watch every single week, I follow pro golfers and golf pundits on social media, I listen to multiple podcasts before every tournament. I gamble on it, and it’s a major part of my weekly TV schedule. But, if I had tuned into my first golf tournament broadcast or listened to one of my favorite golf podcasts for the first time and all I heard about was this inane debate about driver technology that I didn’t understand, which featured a strange metal that I didn’t know anything about, and they kept using weird words like, oh, I don’t know, let’s just throw a buzzword like stack height out there, I would have turned the tv right the fuck off and gone back to watching The Town for the 93rd time. I would have felt completely shut out of the sport and completely overwhelmed by the coverage, and I never would have watched again. The crazy thing is, there actually is a pretty dumb and inane debate in golf right now about the distance current players are capable of hitting the ball, and if technology needs to be rolled back or regulated. It’s actually shocking the parallels between that stupid debate and the stupid debate that we as a sport of track and field are having. Here’s the key difference though- golf isn’t cutting their product and track is. The product of golf that is widely being produced and consumed is pure. It’s athlete centric and competition centric- think about it like the Walter White of sports production. Track, on the other hand, is like season one Jessie Pinkman. Sure, he’s making meth, he’s selling a little bit, he’s got a little cash on hand, but he’s also a moron who is mixing chili pepper into his product, and as a result it’s not as good- I mean, it’s still meth so it still gets people hooked, but you get my point. The super shoe debate is our chili powder, and the sport of track and field isn’t as addictive as crystal meth. The shoe debate is scaring off potential fans and viewers and lovers of the sport before they even get a chance to experience the product.
The second story comes from the sport of swimming. Setting a world record in swimming is extremely technology dependent, even more than in running. We all remember the brief period where special full body suits that greatly reduced drag were legal, and as a result basically every single world record fell. Then the swimming governing body banned those suits and it got significantly harder to set world records. Or, equally likely, you don’t remember that because it happened in 2008 and our attention spans for hot button A1 news stories doesn’t really last that long. But, guess what? That wasn’t actually even in the top two most significant rule changes in terms of manufacturing world records in swimming. The greatest spike in world records came in 1956 when flip turns became legal, and the second biggest spike came in 1976 when guttered pools were introduced and swimmers no longer had to swim against water that was splashing up against the end of the pool as they approached the wall. Why do I bring these stories up? Because probably about 1.6% of sports fans, including myself 20 minutes ago, could tell you about these technological advancements, and yet watching swimming at the Olympics is still really fun. Track has its parallels here as well. Track used to be run on cinders- and while I imagine more people reading this piece know that than the fact that before 1956 flip turns were illegal in swimming, I bet that about the same amount of hand wringing was done about these two changes in the last 20 years. People want to talk about super shoes like this is some sort of inflexion point in the sport, and maybe it is, but this whole debate is also really short sighted. I feel very comfortable reporting that carbon plates and special foams and increased stack heights are not going to be banned by World Athletics, and as a result the super shoes will continue to be par for the course in professional running, and in 20 years this whole debate, and the many bad faith arguments it featured, will be forgotten.
The irony of this is that many of the people screaming the loudest about the shoes are the same ones who can’t stop saying that members of the track and field community have an obligation to share and grow the sport. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example:
I remember a time, not so long ago, when male American marathoners were getting ripped for not running under 2:10. Well, at The Marathon Project this past December, 7 guys did just that. But rather than appreciate the fact that American men had broken through this otherwise arbitrary benchmark rooted in people’s obsession with round numbers, the conversation was dominated by a debate about which scientific elements, produced by which company, were on which people’s feet. In years past that race would have been followed up by profiles of the successful athletes- like Ian Butler, who ran 2:09:45 and finished 5th after going out 1 minute faster than his previous half marathon PB. I know Ian, his story is great, he’s a blue-collar guy who has battled more than his fair share of challenges, including multiple traumatic brain injuries. He’s been grinding through disappointment after disappointment for years, and then he pops a massive PB. That’s worth at least 2 2000-word features in prominent outlets. Instead after googling him, I see a Letsrun message board post and a Reddit forum. You know what I saw no shortage of after the race? Think pieces with serious deus ex machina anxiety where the authors thumbed their nose at the PRs that had just been accomplished. Talk about diluting a perfectly good product while leaving the compelling, memorable stories on the cutting room floor!
Look, I am not arguing that we bury our heads in the sand about the effects of shoe technology? Of course not, we absolutely should not revert to pedaling a myth that these shoes are just as good as the previous generation of racing flats- higher stack heights and carbon plates do make a difference. But you can acknowledge innovation without lamenting its inevitable effects of improving athletes’ performances. Innovation in sports is natural and good. No sport is, nor should it be, entombed in amber like the mosquito from Jurassic Park. In fact, shoe technology is not the only place in which innovation is happening. Innovation is occurring in every domain of the sport- and if we apply the arguments being made about how the shoes to those other domains, they start sounding even dumber than they already sound.
You want some examples? Ok, here you go: Athletes hitting the weight room is making these races less fun to watch because Frank Shorter didn’t do deadlifts? These times we’re seeing don’t mean anything because Louie Zamperini didn’t have the same knowledge about or access to organic foods. Why should I care about these performances, athletes are getting physio treatment that is way better than what Joanie used to get? All these spoiled athletes should give back their salaries, move into a trailer, and bartend at nights because that’s what Pre did! Running seven days a week is cheating because Roger Bannister thought 4-5 days a week was optimal. It makes it so hard to support the sport when I know that people are getting blood work-ups- Bill Rodgers never knew his hematocrit! Innovation in every single one of these areas have led to improved performances- that is undeniable. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a similar misplaced anxiety about some unfairness to the previous generations of athletes nor are there any arguments being made about how these innovations have come at the expense of the sport- we should treat the shoe improvements similarly.
Alright, complaining time is over, suggesting time has begun. I’m gonna throw something out there that is 100% original, never been thought of, and could completely flip athletics on its head. You ready? Focus on the competition more than the times. Focus on the art of racing, who beat who, how, and what implications this race has for the biggest championships of year. You know how I know that this system works? Because that’s how basically every single other sport is covered- particularly by the main stream outlets that attract the most viewers. How often do you turn on ESPN and see a panicked baseball nerd complaining about juiced baseballs compared to highlights of walk-off home runs? How often do you see Rachel Nichols lament that Isiah Thomas’s legacy is being tarnished by the 3-point heavy barrage of the current game, compared to Kendrick Perkins breaking down how Kevin Durant went off for 43 against the 76ers? There is a very simple reason for this- in every other sport, people understand that the compelling aspect of that sport is the individuals at the center of it. Not the rabbit hole debates about ancillary aspects of the competition. As a consumer of sports and sports history, I feel real strongly that I don’t care what material Billie Jean King’s racket was, she was a winner. I don’t care that Arnold Palmer couldn’t hit the ball 350 yards because he was playing with woods made out of literal wood, he was a great competitor. I don’t give two shits about the technology on Greg Lemond’s bike, he won the Tour De France with bird shot in his lungs- he was a baller. Those are the Walter White, Blue Sky stories of sports. For once, let’s take a cue from the main stream sports world and tell those stories. Let’s cover this thing we all love like professionals. Let’s make it easier and more accessible to follow the sport by telling stories about athletes and competition- not by diving down convoluted and short sighted rabbit holes at every opportunity.
originally posted on ScottFauble.com
Photo Credit: Jody Bailey