Immediately after finishing 4th in the February, 2016 United States Olympic marathon trials, and just one spot short of qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics, a tearful Kara Goucher said, “I kept asking myself if I was doing all I could, and I was, [the top 3 finishers] are just better.”
With hindsight, and the advantage of research conducted in the past few years, it is possible to conclude with some certainty that Goucher missed a spot in the 2016 Rio Olympics not because her competitors were necessarily better runners, but because they had better shoes.
I discussed this with Goucher over the weekend, and she told me that in 2016 at the trials she was completely unaware of the importance of the new shoe technology: “I had talked to people “on the inside” in late 2016 who said the shoes were a performance enhancer on par with EPO but I didn’t know that they truly worked until Nike released their data in March of 2017.” Erythropoietin or EPO is a banned substance, favored by distance athletes and cyclists for its performance-enhancing effects.
The shoes that work like doping are of course the Nike Vaporfly running shoes, which have evolved through several generations, and now face the prospect of being banned or regulated by World Athletics (formerly IAAF) for helping runners to run too fast. World Athletics has recently acknowledged that, “It is clear that some forms of technology would provide an athlete with assistance that runs contrary to the values of the sport.”
Let’s take a look at the numbers behind Goucher’s 4th place finish in 2016 U.S. marathon Olympic qualifying. Goucher finished in 2:30:24, which was 65 seconds behind the last qualifier, Shalane Flanagan (2:29:19), who in turn was 61 seconds behind the winner, Amy Cragg (2:28:20). Finishing second was Desiree Linden (2:28:54).
Goucher was running in Skechers shoes, while Cragg and Flanagan were in the Nike shoes with early versions of the Vaporfly technology. Linden was running in Brooks. After the race, Flanagan posted on Instagram, “I’m not getting any younger but I can honestly say that these flats are helping me run faster… This shoe is a game changer.”
Flanagan’s views have now been backed up by a wide array of research and evidence. Last month the New York Times published data and analysis on more than a million marathons and >500,000 half marathons finding that “the advantage these shoes bestow is real — and larger than previously estimated.” Scientific research (conducted by some of my colleagues here at the University of Colorado Boulder and sponsored by Nike) confirms that the Nike shoes do indeed help runners to run faster.
Goucher’s 2016 qualifying time was 1.4% slower than Cragg’s and just 0.7% off Flanagan’s final qualifying time, both of whom benefitted from the Nike shoes. What if Goucher had been in the VaporFly shoes like her competitors?
It is impossible to know for sure, but we can make some estimates. Ross Tucker, a sport scientist who has called it “the shoe that broke running,” suggests that if the shoe provides a 4% benefit to running economy, then it might offer a 2.7% performance benefit to an elite athlete. A 2% improvement in Goucher’s 2016 qualifying time would have had her finish in 2:27:27, good enough for first place. Even a 1% improvement would have brought her to Rio.
I asked Goucher how she looks back on possibly being the first athlete documented to have missed the Olympics for wearing the wrong shoes: “There is no way to know that the shoes kept me out of the Olympics, but I do feel like it wasn’t a level playing field- I mean the research proves that. Honestly I felt devastated. I felt like something I had worked so hard for had been stolen from me, similar to how I felt when I learned people ahead of me were doping. I could handle not being good enough to make our team, but learning that a propulsion device in a shoe might had kept me out was just devastating.”
I asked Goucher how elite athletes talked about the shoes when their effects became more widely known, “People were very frustrated but afraid to say anything. They saw how I was attacked on social media when I raised concern and they didn’t want to have to suffer those same attacks. There were many athletes from non-Nike brands asking me to stay on it but they were too afraid to voice their concerns themselves. They felt helpless.”
Goucher reflected on the limited power of athletes, “I think Des Linden said it best when she said “adapt or die.” Not all athletes like the idea of a propulsion device on their foot, but they can’t seed 3-6 minutes in a marathon in elite competition.” She recommends tight regulation of shoe technology, “It’s tough but in an ideal world I’d like to see a ban on curved plates of any material and a stack hight limit similar to the traditional marathon flats that were being used prior to 2016. That way we would be seeing the best athlete win rather than have results muddled by who has the latest technology, propulsion, or spring device in their shoe.”
Goucher has never run in the Nike shoes.
That’s understandable. She was a Nike athlete who turned key whistleblower who helped to expose Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project. In part based on Goucher’s testimony, Salazar was recently suspended for doping violations and has been accused of “terrorizing” female athletes.
Had Goucher not blown the whistle and just stayed silent about Salazar, she probably would have remained with Nike and then been kitted out in the Vaporflys for the February 2016 Olympic qualifying. Instead, she did the right thing and missed Rio because of it.
Athlete does the right thing and suffers severe negative consequences — It is too common a story in elite sport, and one I’ll be exploring in depth in this column.