24 Oct

Kipchoge Killjoys?

Eliud Kipchoge 1:59:40 marathon in Vienna

No one wants to be a Kipchoge killjoy. But, just days on from the Kenyan hero’s unprecedented sub two-hour marathon, the asterisks are starting to be etched alongside the feat. Fairly or not?

Let’s not pretend otherwise, the INEOS Challenge in Vienna was as much a triumph of engineering as it was endurance.

Everything from wind-shielding pacemakers to road surface to footwear to a laser beam leading the shortest possible route - this was anything but a pure race.  It was a contrived corporate creation entirely fixed on the sole purpose of breaking the previously unpenetrated two-hour barrier.

These were not conventional race conditions. But the organisers never pretended it was anything but an unashamed assault on two hours, ignoring normal race conditions and therefore foregoing official world record ratification by the global authority, the IAAF.

Does it matter?

This was still just a man covering 26.2 miles on foot in less than 120 minutes. Something no other man had ever achieved.

The most widespread questioning of the achievement has focused on the shoes worn. The Nike Vaporfly used by Kipchoge and just a day later by fellow Kenyan Brigid Kosgei to break the women’s world record are being assessed by the IAAF for their legality.

The shoes contain carbon fibre plates and foam cushioning are said to provide a spring effect, helping propel the runner forward.

It is what cycling performance guru David Brailsford, a consultant on the INEOS Challenge, would label 'marginal gains'. The more cynical might describe this as operating in the 'grey areas'.

But this is the zone that elite performance has always lived, trying to strike the balance of technological progress with sporting purity. Even Roger Bannister’s sub four-minute mile 65 years ago was made possible by pacemakers and – crude they might be by today’s standards – the best in running spikes of the time.

There is a line to be drawn somewhere, but where exactly?

For swimming, it was shark skins suits, now banned from international events. What if high jumpers and long jumpers began to obliterate world records with spring loaded shoes in a cartoon-like way? It might be a great spectacle, but it would be barely credible.

Kipchoge’s trailblazing run should be savoured. But if sports science continues to develop unchecked, there is a danger of the achievement being cheapened by lesser athletes matching or beating his performance based on technology not on talent.