(11-Dec) -- On July 28 World Athletics announced amended regulations governing competition shoes. The much-anticipated rule change was "designed to give certainty to athletes preparing for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and to preserve the integrity of elite competition," the world governing body for athletics said in a statement. The rules, which were to take place immediately, limited the stack height (essentially the thickness of a shoe's sole and midsole) to 25mm for track events of 800m and above (and cross country), and 40mm for road events.
PHOTO: Women competing in the "B" section of The Track Meet 10,000m in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., on December 5. From left to right: Jessa Hanson, Jeralyn Poe, Maya Weigel, Ursula Sanchez, and section winner Maria Mettler (photo by Justin Britton for Race Results Weekly)
Thirteen days later, World Athletics issued a reminder to event organizers and national federations about the footwear rule, known as Rule 5, because more athletes were returning to competition after months of pandemic-driven lock-downs. Marks made in non-compliant footwear would not be accepted by World Athletics for area or world records, their ranking system, or Tokyo Olympic Games qualifying.
"World Athletics has issued a reminder to Area Associations and Member Federations today about the recently introduced Rule 5, governing competition shoes," read a press release. "The rule does not prevent a road running shoe from being worn on the track but a 30mm or 40mm road running shoe cannot be worn for track events because of the 25mm limit. As this is a transition period, all results currently in the World Athletics database will be processed, but any result of an individual athlete who has worn non-compliant shoes for the race will be marked 'Uncertified' ('TR5.5')."
Yet after these announcements were made, 40mm road shoes were commonly used in track competitions, especially in Japan where there is a robust schedule of distance-focused meetings in the fall. Most of the organizers of those events dutifully labeled the results where athletes wore the 40mm road shoes with "TR5" next to the marks, but some did not.
Since most of those events were time trials, intended to test fitness and prepare athletes for upcoming competitions, officials and event organizers didn't stop the use of the shoes because Olympic Games qualifying and the World Athletics ranking system would not reopen again until December 1.
Then after some additional feedback and analysis, World Athletics decided to take a more flexible approach on implementing Rule 5. They concluded that there could be circumstances where non-compliant shoes could be used on the track, and that member federations could make their own judgements in applying the rules.
"In October World Athletics sent explanatory text to all federations explaining that each federation is free to do what they feel is right at various levels of competitions, but also making clear that if an athlete wears non-compliant shoes in a track race, World Athletics would not recognize the performance," said World Athletics director of competition and events Jakob Larsen in an e-mail message to Race Results Weekly. "This was done because we had learned that the rule was applied at all levels in certain countries, including school events and grassroot in-stadium 'fun runs.'"
In the United States, the new shoe rules were not immediately adopted. However, at last weekend's USA Track & Field convention (held virtually) Adirondack Association President Bill Quinlisk introduced an amendment to Rule 143.3(e) governing competition footwear. The amendment, which was passed, brought USA Track & Field into compliance with World Athletics footwear rules beginning on January 1, 2021, including the 25mm limit on stack height for shoes worn on the track for distances from 800m and above (30mm for masters competition). An exception was made for ultra distance track races which are not World Athletics record events (like 50,000m) where 40mm road shoes are permitted. C.J. Albertson recently set a world best for 50,000m in such shoes.
In an interesting twist, last weekend's The Track Meet in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., was held *during* the USATF convention before Rule 143.3(e) had been amended, so there was no binding USATF rule preventing the use of 40mm road shoes. Athletes competing in the four sections of the 10,000m on Saturday night wore an assortment of World Athletics-compliant track spikes and non-compliant road shoes. Athletes, agents and coaches contacted by Race Results Weekly had varying opinions on this, and there was clearly some confusion about what was permitted. Most asked to communicate off the record.
"I wondered the same when I saw photos from the Cal meet," one veteran agent told Race Results Weekly via e-mail. "I know marks run in non-compliant shoes are not okay for Olympic/World Champs qualifying, but I think they've left it up to federations to set the rules for domestic competitions, although I'm not certain."
One coach had his athletes come to the race prepared to run in spikes, and was surprised to see competitors in road shoes which offer a clear and proven advantage.
"I'm not happy about this," said the coach. "USATF have not enforced it and have told athletes they can wear them to qualify for Trials but their time won't count towards Olympic qualification."
Indeed, the very best athletes competing on Saturday wore compliant shoes because their objective was to achieve Olympic Games qualifying marks. In the men's top section, Eric Jenkins (USA), Pat Tiernan (AUS), Edward Cheserek (KEN), and Sam Atkin (GBR) all wore compliant shoes and ran under the Tokyo Olympic standard of 27:28.00. Likewise, in the women's top section Rachel Schneider (USA), Weini Kelati (ERI), Alicia Monson (USA), Sharon Lokedi (KEN), Natosha Rogers (USA), Kellyn Taylor (USA), Dani Shanahan (USA), and Steph Bruce (USA) all wore compliant shoes and got under the Olympic standard of 31:25.00.
"We wore spikes," said Hoka Northern Arizona Elite coach Ben Rosario who coaches Taylor, Shanahan and Bruce. "Same model we've been wearing since 2016, the Speed EVO R."
But other athletes, who were focused on making the lower --but still difficult-- Olympic Trials standards of 28:00.00 for men and 32:25.00 for women, used 40mm road shoes. Athletes, coaches and agents contacted by Race Results Weekly said they got informal approval to use those shoes. One athlete showed Race Results Weekly an e-mail from a USATF official granting permission, but other athletes and coaches simply said that "they were told" that the shoes were OK to use.
"The short answer is that you may race in any legal road flat (so yes over 25mm limit) at this weekend's 10,000m, and the time will qualify for the US Olympic Track & Field Trials," read the e-mail the athlete shared with RRW. The message continued: "At the US Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field in June all participants will be required to compete in shoes that meet the current World Athletics requirements (e.g., in your case the 25mm stack height), so you should plan to do some racing in compliant shoes in advance of the Trials."
Carrie Verdon of T.E.A.M Boulder raced in spikes, and finished second in the "B" section of the 10,000m in a personal best 32:09.82 giving her a USA Olympic Trials qualifier. She was surprised that several other women in her section wore road shoes.
"I was a little surprised that some women chose to run in road shoes that are on the verge of legal/illegal," she said in an Instagram message to Race Results Weekly. "I was aware --after research, discussion with my coach, and triple checking-- that the AlphaFlys were 'legal' in USATF-sanctioned [track] races, but not at the Olympic level.
I don't think it's fair for athletes to be wearing shoes that are illegal in other competitions of the same nature, for example other track races."
The adoption of the amended USATF Rule 143.3(e) will be welcome news for World Athletics.
"We strongly advise all federations to have a policy on this, and having athletes achieve national qualification standards with non-compliant shoes are within their right," said Jakob Larsen prior to USA Track & Field changing their rules. "As long as they don't eliminate other athletes via using these shoes, I donīt see a problem - except for meet organizers, who definitely have been given a very difficult task."
For the sport's journalists and statisticians, sorting through the marks made this year in compliant and non-compliant shoes represents a challenge. Sieg Lindstrom, the managing editor of Track & Field News, said that he and his team were still discussing it.
"At T&FN we are still debating our response," Lindstrom said in an e-mail to Race Results Weekly. He added: "World Athletics' recent decision to allow prototype shoes in some competitions could muddy the verification waters even further."
When asked whether his publication would try to separate out marks made in World Athletics-compliant footwear and those which weren't, Lindstrom was realistic.
"Verifying footwear worn in dozens of races per season as self-appointed 'statistical shoe police' may not be practical," he wrote. "It certainly wouldn't be fun."