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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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Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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