Sports Technology Has Taken Flight Like A Pair Of Nike Alpha Fly . . . And No-One Knows The Destination

You don’t have to be a ranting Premier League football manager, raging against VAR, to understand how technology is changing every aspect of sport. From parkrun to Eliud Kipchoge, sport is being dramatically altered. Graham Thomas speaks to some of those at the sharp end of the transformation.

In Wales – as in so many other countries around the world – runners watched in awe and open-mouthed disbelief as Eliud Kipchoge became the first athlete to run the marathon in under two hours back in October.

Not everyone, though, was concentrating on the Keynan superstar’s grimace as he bounded along the road in Vienna. Many top class runners were looking at what Kipchoge had on his feet and wondering if the technology of the Nike Alpha Fly might give them wings, too.

The Kipchoge event was a masterclass in the use of sporting technology, but its controversial aftermath sums up neatly the debate over how – and if – the advances of science in sport should be limited.

Every time each of us steps on a 3G training pitch instead of a mud heap, picks up a carbon fibre golf club, or a tennis racket that is no longer made out of wood, we are benefitting from technological advancement in sport.

Today, we can measure our parkrun achievements on smart watches, our spin class fantasies on mini-computers, or Tour De France stages on screens in our living room, and even book netball, squash or tennis courts on a smartphone before we even get out of bed.

But what are the limits? Who gets to ensure a level playing field? And if the tech is expensive and limited to only a few, how does that square with the notion of sport for all?

In golf, the debate over technology has reached what appears to be a crossroads as sophisticated manufacture of clubs and balls now enable the top stars to regularly drive the ball over 300 yards.

The recent Distance Insight Projects Report by golf’s authorities appears to have convinced them it’s time to act. The suggestion is that skill is now being undermined by the pure power of the technology.

James Thie is Wales’ top middle and long-distance running coach. Among his stable of elite runners, a number are already using the Nike Vaporfly – which remains legal – and was the forerunner to the Alpha Fly, which has been banned.

Both running shoes include a carbon plate inside the sole, plus high-tech foam that provides a bounding effect of springing the runner forwards into his or her next stride.

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The Kipchoge Alpha Fly has been banned as it has a sole thicker than 40mm. Only members of Seventies glam rock tribute bands, it seems, can get away with higher platforms than that.

Thie admits he has some concerns about the way tech is shaping running, and possibly distorting current records compared with the past, but is also wary of heavy-handed rules at a time when cool-looking brands have driven a running boom.

He also notes that shoe development plays a big part in athlete welfare through preventing training injuries.

“It’s hard to look at it and say, ‘This is terrible. Let’s go back to the old shoes,’” says Thie, a lecturer in sports coaching and performance at Cardiff Met and former world class 1500m specialist.

“Where do you draw the line on any technology? I worked for a shoe manufacturer for a number of years. Any shoe we wear has some kind of technology in it.

“We have had shoe technology to correct running style for years – people who over-pronate, for instance, wear a structured shoe.

“But the question is how far does the technology develop so that it then becomes unmanageable? There need to be guidelines, as with every sport. What’s the top limit and what’s unfair? We need some sensible boundaries.”

Anyone in any doubt over the benefits of the Nike shoes, should consider the fact that runners using the Vaporfly have taken 31 of 36 top-three finishes in major marathons in the last year.

Other manufacturers are busying themselves working on their own versions in time for the Olympics, but some athletes can’t wait and are known to have worn Nike shoes with their own’ sponsors logo stuck on top of that famous tick.

Thie cautions against any kneejerk reaction to this scramble and adds: “Of course, the thing about athletics is that it should be about someone’s physical nature and the training they do.

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“But there is also the side of making running cool and getting people interested in running. Shoe technology has actually done that in the last couple of years and people are talking about it.

“On the one side, performances are improved that wouldn’t be otherwise. On the other, more people are out running. There is a buzz about running and no-one runs to get slower.

“Running in something that makes you run at your optimum is going to be attractive.

“What we have found with our own runners is that it doesn’t necessarily make you super-fast overnight, but they promote the kind of running you want – bouncy and on your toes, and falling into the next foot strike, which is how the shoe has been designed.

“The cushioning element reduces fatigue and means you can maintain your form for longer. Runners can therefore get the optimum performance they are capable of. People are training more and there are more people involved in bigger races.

“The extra cushioning also seems to be helping with injuries, too, so there is another benefit. In the old days, you were so in touch with the concrete that knees and ankles took a real pounding.”

Where running is now in the foothills of the tech races, cycling has been in the computer-controlled mountains for years.

Not only has bike technology been revolutionised, but tech is no longer just about preparation around diet, riding biomechanics, and the medical applications in rider recovery – it is actually there, bang in the middle of the race with the use of sophisticated power meters.

Riders like Geraint Thomas don’t just feel tired any more. They see the exact measure of their exhaustion on a flashing screen in real time during a race.

Inevitably, the backlash has begun and recently Luca Scinto, team manager of Vini Zabù-KTM, declared he was banning power meters from his riders’ bikes.

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“The riders are obsessed with watts. They allow themselves to be influenced too much by it. During training it’s good to use a power meter but not in a race. I want my riders to think freely again,” Scinto said.

Thie has his misgivings about real-time analysis as a step too far.

“I wouldn’t want our sport to go that way. There is still a purity to athletics that it’s about faster, stronger, higher, but then our sport does need to be in the 21st century.

“Technology is a positive thing, but you have to be in control with regulation. Our sport is crying out to get away from doping because we are one of the sports that has been hurt the most.”

It’s not just at the elite end of sport, though, that technology is having a deep impact. Nor does the tech story have to start at the elite and then filter down to the masses.

Welsh tennis is benefitting from a development that could lead to better maintained courts and simpler access for those wanting to play – thanks to an online booking network.

The ClubSpark system is being trialed in certain parts of Wales to enable people to book a game of tennis on their phone through an app.  You turn up, enter through a secure gate thanks to a code, and even control the floodlights – should they be there.

Developed by Sportslab Technology, some tennis clubs have been using the system for a while, but now Tennis Wales have applied it to public courts, often those in parks where access has been a problem.

Simon Johnson, chief executive of Tennis Wales, says: “We are trying to modernize our whole network.

“In Heath Park, in Cardiff in the last year, we have seen about 1,600 people download the app and use it to book courts from their phone. So, we are using technology in a positive way to extend opportunities to play.

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“We have now identified about 17 other parks across Wales, where we are chatting to other local authorities about providing this easy experience for people who want to play.

“These are courts where the gates used to be left swinging open, dog walkers were in there, and they weren’t really being used.

“It means you can pay three or four quid, book your court on your phone, the gate will open and shut behind you and you can then play your game. It can keep the court in good condition and makes tennis accessible.

“We’ve tried to flip the normal complaint that kids are only interested in being on their phones, to seeing that positively. In the same way that cinema tickets are booked by phone, or hotels, or flights, we are trying to make playing tennis that simple.”

Other recent tennis tech innovations have also seen smart net posts that can measure and assess a player’s performance or the speed of a serve, and interactive hitting walls that can be used to give people a new entry into the sport.

There are other recent advances in technology that are aimed less at performance or accessibility, but are more concerned with athlete welfare.

Wales rugby wing George North went through a period of his career a few years ago when he suffered a number of concussions – an area that has perhaps become the biggest issue the sport is trying to grapple with.

North was with English club Northampton at the time, but since he returned to Wales to play for the Ospreys he has been involved with a pioneering programme that uses a special gumshield to monitor a player’s vulnerability to head injuries.

Developed by a research team at Swansea University, the PROTECHT system users sensors inside the mouth protector to measure the severity of an impact on the field.

It means the size of a big hit on North – or any other Ospreys player – can be seen immediately by analysts using a laptop on the sidelines. It’s down to the medics to still diagnose a possible concussion, but the data means big impacts can be measured and action taken accordingly – particularly where a player may have had a history of concussive injuries.

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North says: “ It’s fantastic development, the gumshield feels just like any other, and yet it’s providing all this really valuable information.

“Everyone in the game is obviously aware of the importance of safety around head injuries and the more information the medial staff have, the better.

“I think had this been around when I had a few problems a few years back, then it would definitely have helped in analyzing what was going on.

“I think it’s brilliant. Eventually it’s going out to grassroots rugby and that instant feedback is going to be huge.”

The possibility of technology that filters into all areas of a sport – and isn’t just restricted to a few – would appear to be crucial. That goes as much for advances in safety as it does for improving performance.

As Thie says: “Nothing stays the same forever – especially in sport.

“But the key is that the tech is accessible to everyone, it’s managed, and there are regulations.”


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