Nike's 2020 Future Sports Forum highlights sustainability and controversial tech ahead of 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Gabriel Fernandez

With all eyes focused on the world's greatest sporting stage at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo this summer, Nike's Chief Design Officer John Hoke would like to communicate two major messages to those watching athletes competing in Nike gear at the Games. The first is what one might almost expect a C-suite executive at any major sports apparel company to say about their products: Nike wants to provide high-performance products that are backed by science, and provide proven benefits to those who use them competitively. The second is a bit more noble: to protect the future of sports by focusing on sustainability because without a healthy planet there cannot be a healthy competitive sports environment.

"The Olympic stage is not a time to be timid," Hoke told a room of media members on Jan. 29. "It is a time to be bold. So we in the Nike brand, specifically innovation and design, we're dreaming big. We're taking daring, bold steps, and we're taking actions. It's also not a time to let words sit, it's time for action."

That action was made abundantly clear during a subsequent presentation that discussed some of the environmentally-friendly production methods of Nike's Olympic apparel. The upper portion of some of the new sneakers was 3D-printed on one sheet to reduce carbon waste; a brand of sneaker will be entirely made of recycled scrap material; the famous Flyknit material will now be made from fibers borrowed from plastic bottles; the Windrunner jacket athletes will wear on the medal podium is constructed from 100 percent recycled polyester. This even extended to a fashion show of upcoming Nike products held the following week, where the program was printed on 4.8 mil Stone Paper, a 100% Tree Free Substrate.

Sprinkled within the high-performance technology presentation is a controversy that has caused some sense of ambiguity with one product, a rare issue for a company that prides itself on being so meticulous about everything it does. Among the new releases was a sneaker designed to continue the streak of record-breaking for Nike's distance runners known as the Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%. The shoes are based on the ones that Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge wore when he became the first person to run a marathon in under two hours in an unofficial race in October

The controversy itself didn't actually start with these sneakers. It started with an older evolution stage of the running shoe known as the Vaporfly 4%. Those sneakers were also a favorite of Kipchoge, who wore a prototype version of them in 2016 to win gold in the Olympic marathon, and set a world record for the fastest official marathon. They have also been worn by a whole host of runners who have set a plethora of records since the sneaker's release in 2016. 

The accomplishments were one thing, but when combined with Nike-backed studies that show how those sneakers help running efficiency by four percent, then eyebrows began to rise. This boost happens as a result of a carbon plate in the sneaker and ultra-springy compressed foam placed in the bottom. Some considered that design to give runners an unfair advantage as the sneaker would theoretically operate like a spring, giving runners extra propulsion, allowing them to run faster with less effort.

Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor of sport and exercise science at Britain's Brighton University, told Reuters that the sneaker should be considered "technological doping."

World Athletics, the international governing body for track and field events, ruled on Jan. 31 that the Vaporfly NEXT% would be considered legal for the 2020 Olympics, adding a few caveats that would prevent the manufacturing and design of these kinds of sneakers from getting too out of hand. 

"We are pleased the Nike Zoom Vaporfly series and Nike Zoom Alphafly NEXT% remain legal," a Nike spokesperson said to The Guardian. "We will continue our dialogue with World Athletics and the industry on new standards."

Included and featured prominently in two separate showcases of Nike's Olympic apparel was the newest version of the AlphaFly, the Vaporfly's technological successor. The versions that Nike presented will be legal under the guidelines World Athletics suggested -- the stack height is under the 40 mm maximum (39.5mm) -- and it will be sold prior to the April 30 deadline set so it will be eligible for use in competition at the Tokyo Games.

Gabriel Fernandez

The technology from the Alphafly is also being brought to sneakers meant to be used for different sports:

  • The Air Zoom Tempo Next% is Nike's first training shoe with a full-length carbon plate. It also has the Alphafly system set up underneath the sole, with two air zoom pods, ZoomX foam and React foam in the heel that helps with durability.
  • The Air Zoom BB NXT, Nike's newest basketball sneaker, has React foam underneath the heel, the two Zoom Air pods, and an embedded thin plate -- it stands out from the rest as the Zoom Air Pods are encapsulated within the sole to allow for better lateral movement that basketball requires.
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    Gabriel Fernandez
  • The Air Zoom Mercurial, a soccer cleat, has a Flyprint upper that is similarly seen in the Alphaflys, and also has a full-length Zoom Air bag that, per Nike, provides "enhanced energy return."
  • Nike's track spikes, the Viperfly, were "developed alongside the Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%.

In the form that they're currently constructed, the Viperflys do not meet World Athletics' new regulations. While we won't get to see those spikes in competition, Sha'Carri Richardson -- who competes in the 100m dash, 200m dash and 4x100m relay for Team USA -- gave them a rave review.

"Honestly I feel, in my personal belief, that Nike definitely went to an entirely different level," she said. "Every piece of science that they try to incorporate into the shoe is definitely there, it's visible, you can feel it, especially me being an athlete I can tell the difference. Between the Vaporflys you would normally train in, to the prototypes, they're extremely different.

"In my start, I accelerate faster, I get up faster. It honestly feels like, even though I'm fast, the shoes make me even faster."

Gabriel Fernandez

Richardson still pointed to her dedication and training as the main reason she's been able to compete in Olympic trials, set the collegiate record for the 100-meter sprint, and became the first freshman to win The Bowerman -- an award given to the best student-athlete in American collegiate track and field -- in the span of just a few months.

"My hard work was put into the spikes," she told CBS Sports. "So even though the spikes are good, that fact that I'm out there actually working contributes more."

Individual work ethic and talent are hardly the focus, with all of this controversy around the shoes. The main concern stems from the results that these already-established elite athletes are getting while donning this gear. Hoke told reporters on Jan. 29 that Nike's goal is to help "individual athletes basically find their achievement." 

What's fortunate for Nike is that they have two things on their side which will help quiet the murmurs that the World Athletics investigation started. First, obviously, is the clearance of most of their products. Second, is the fact that the impetus of the controversy -- standout competition results from those using the particular Nike products -- are a bit of a ways away from truly entering the spotlight. Sure, there are Olympic trials still going, but the games themselves don't start until the end of July. That's when the entire world will be watching and forming their own opinions on how the technology impacts the results.

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