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Foot race or arms race? New York City Marathon runners enter high-tech shoe debate

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NEW YORK — Among the otherwise typical New York City Marathon storylines — like course records and prep for the U.S. Olympic Trials on Feb. 29 — is the debate over shoe technology that escalated after recent historic performances.

Sunday’s race is the first major marathon since the breakthrough weekend of Oct. 12-13.

Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run a sub-two-hour marathon (not in a race, but in a non-record-eligible event where he was the only contestant, with pacers). The next day, countrywoman Brigid Kosgei won the Chicago Marathon in 2:14:04, shattering the 16-year-old women’s world record by 81 seconds.

Both Kipchoge, regarded as the greatest marathoner in history before his 1:59, and Kosgei, arguably the world’s greatest active female road runner before the 2:14, ran in versions of the Nike Vaporfly — uniquely tall shoes on the outside with a carbon fiber plate on the inside. Kipchoge has been running on versions of them for years, including when he lowered the world record by 78 seconds to 2:01:39 in 2018.

In the last 13 months, four men combined to run the five fastest marathons in history, all reportedly in versions of the Vaporfly. Other shoe companies have been tasked to catch up to Nike’s technology since the Vaporfly debuted in 2016.

“It is an arms race, and it should be a foot race,” said Des Linden, a two-time Olympian and 2018 Boston Marathon champion who is sponsored by and runs in Brooks shoes. “We should find out who the best athlete is and who can cover 26.2 [miles] better than the other person. Not who has the newest, greatest technology.”

Linden said she will race Sunday in the latest version of a shoe that Brooks has been working on for two years but didn’t say how close its technology was to the Nike Vaporfly.

“I’m not sure how much I can say about the Brooks shoe,” she said. “I’ve had conversations with them where it was like, is this OK to wear? What’s your guys standing on this? They’re like, yeah, it’s absolutely widely available to the public. There’s plenty of Brooks athletes out there in that shoe. The technology isn’t something that isn’t available to the public. It seems like we’re in a good spot.”

The IAAF, track and field’s international governing body, does have rules regulating shoes.

“Any type of shoe used must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of the universality of athletics,” it reads. “Shoes must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage.”

Days after Kipchoge and Kosgei’s breakthroughs, the IAAF said it commissioned a group to review shoe technologies and possibly recommend rule changes by the end of the year.

“It is clear that some forms of technology would provide an athlete with assistance that runs contrary to the values of the sport,” the IAAF said. “The challenge for the IAAF is to find the right balance in the technical rules between encouraging the development and use of new technologies in athletics and the preservation of the fundamental characteristics of the sport: accessibility, universality and fairness.”

Versions of the Vaporfly have been made available to the public, but Kipchoge ran his 1:59 (again, not in a race) in a prototype. Linden said she doesn’t think the playing field is level between athletes in Nike shoes and those who are not.

“Every company has a different pace that they’re working at,” she said. “So we’re all obviously behind [Nike] to begin with.

“Now that it’s available, it’s everyone playing catch-up. I think that we can get there, but also, are they going to put a hard stop against how far this can go?”

Another top American in the New York City field, Sara Hall, just chopped four minutes off her marathon PR last month wearing her Asics.

“I haven’t run in carbon-plated shoes at all,” she said. “But I think the upside of that is, I really feel like I have ownership over my PRs and stuff. I know I worked really hard to get that PR, and I didn’t just have springs and things like that.”

Jared Ward, who finished sixth at the Rio Olympics (not in Vaporflies), said he’s running Sunday in the latest version of a Saucony shoe that will be released in the spring. Ward, also a statistics professor at BYU, said he hasn’t put a lot of thought into the Nike shoes, but that the shoe industry “is on its side a little bit.”

“At some point, there’s diminishing returns because if you get taller and taller shoes, you have to build wider and wider shoes, and then they start getting heavy,” he said. “In a year or two, things are going to stabilize, and then we’ll be back to running.

“I’m looking more at what the athletes are doing. I think Kipchoge and Kosgei are some of the best, probably the best marathoners ever. And so we put them in good shoes, and they run well, but they’re going to run well in whatever they’re running in.”

The Vaporflies were created in part because athletes did not find the lightweight, minimalist shoe movement to their liking. Take Shalane Flanagan, the four-time Olympian, longtime Nike athlete and 2017 New York City Marathon winner who recently retired.

Flanagan said she and other marathoners told Nike around 2014 and 2015 that they wanted more cushioning. Eventually, Flanagan and Amy Cragg debuted a version of the Vaporfly at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.

“Even within my training, I felt I was able to recover quicker because there wasn’t as much muscle breakdown, fiber breakdown, because the load of the landing was softened,” she said. “I was able to get through the training and not feel so sore all the time.”

Those first Vaporflies had a carbon fiber plate, but not nearly as technical as the newer versions, said Flanagan, now coaching a Nike group of runners in Oregon.

“At the time it was more focused on the foam than the shank that was within it,” she said.

Flanagan, before answering questions on the subject, admitted she has bias as a Nike athlete/coach.

“If you look at all different sports, there’s always been kind of a pivotal point in which the sport has decided we’re going to this direction or we’re not going to go a direction in terms of innovation,” she said, noting high-tech swimsuits (banned in 2010), tennis rackets, speed skating suits and baseball bats. “It’s up to our sport to decide which direction we want to go — innovate or stay the same?”

One of the high-profile Nike athletes running on Sunday is Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor, the half marathon world-record holder, 2017 New York City champion and a training partner of Kipchoge. He will race in Vaporflies, but not the same version that Kipchoge had three weeks ago. Kamworor was asked what he would say to those who want them regulated or even banned.

“Vaporfly shoe is not only for the elite athletes, but it’s also for the average runners,” he said, referring to the IAAF’s mandate of universality. “It’s not limited to some people. It’s for everyone.”

MORE: Tokyo governor to IOC: Keep Olympic marathon in Tokyo

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Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

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Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the Tennis.com podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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