When does innovation become cheating?

It’s been quite a week for Nike.

Last Friday, they reacted to the four year doping ban of Alberto Salazar by swiftly shutting down the Oregon Project that the coach had led since its inception. It’s kind of admirable that they acted so quickly to shut the project down, but what choice did they really have?

Nike is standing by its man for now, but when a project becomes that tainted it really doesn’t matter if most of the people were innocent of any wrongdoing, or how successful it was, it has to go. Hanging on to it had the potential to drag the wider Nike brand down and infect everything it does with the whiff of cheating. Not a great look for a sports brand.

Clearly athlete doping is wrong, and sport’s appeal totally relies on people competing with integrity and on a level playing field. But where exactly do we draw the line when it comes to brands like Nike pushing the boundaries on technical innovation to improve performance?

By a quirk of fate, the day after Project Oregon was shut down, we saw Eliud Kipchoge smash the two hour mark for the marathon, wearing the snappily-named Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT% shoes (as an aside this is the first running shoe to be named specifically to fit neatly into the first line of Dub Be Good To Me).

Kipchoge’s performance was astounding, and breaking the 2hr barrier is a seminal moment, arguably on a par with the four minute mile and sub-10 seconds for the 100m. But there is no doubt that the Nike shoes played a massive part. Great for Nike, with a whole slew of articles analysing how the tech in the shoes – in particular the carbon plate – contributed to Kipchoge’s achievement. This does an amazing job in reinforcing Nike’s positioning as an innovator, dedicated to helping athletes to push the boundaries of performance.

The big sports brands will always push innovation as far as they can, but do we get to a point where it becomes almost on a par with doping? Would it be fair if Nike athletes had access to this technology in an actual race and the others didn’t? We’ve already got a bunch of athletes (funnily enough not sponsored by Nike) making exactly that point. And if it is fair, where do we draw the line (if at all) in how far tech innovation is allowed to enhance performance in a proper competition? It’s back to that point about sport only having any real value if we believe that it’s a fair competition. And it’s why a sport like F1 leaves me pretty cold.

We’ve seen this debate before with everything from Speedo swimsuits to Predator football boots. Quite often the guardians of the sport will eventually step in to ban or limit the use of certain technology in order to protect the integrity of the sport. Either that or everyone else rapidly catches up and makes it a level playing field once again. This particular Nike tech may well get banned, but that doesn’t matter one bit to the brand. The shoes have done their job and it’s not like they were ever going to sell more than a handful of this particular version.

So, one brand and two stories of enhancing performance. Through some fortuitous timing, the positive Kipchoge story came along to distract us all from what was (allegedly) going on at Project Oregon and Nike came out of it looking like an innovator, not a cheater.

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