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Neil Featherby: Where do we draw the line on technology in sport?

PUBLISHED: 06:00 09 August 2019

Neil Featherby at the 1987 Hong Kong Marathon - normal shoes, no high-tech Picture: Neil Featherby

Neil Featherby at the 1987 Hong Kong Marathon - normal shoes, no high-tech Picture: Neil Featherby

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Sports people are always looking to be fitter, faster and stronger than before, which is why records will always continue to improve.

However, being the very best we can be, whether you are an elite athlete or just a club runner looking for personal bests, it is likely to be for only a short period of our sporting careers, which usually means when at the peak of our physical powers.

I think I only bettered one PB during the last six years of my running career. My first marathon was in 1982 with my last being 10 years later in 1992. After 1986, and despite running lots more marathons, I never ran as fast as I did during that two-year period between 1985 and 1986. It didn't mean that I stopped trying, it just meant that I was either declining through age or in my search to keep improving I was doing something wrong, ie, over training perhaps.

Apart from training as hard as I possibly could, I looked into everything, be it through my diet, supplements to boost energy pre-training with other products to help aid recovery post workout, and I am sure I also heavily overdosed on vitamin tablets. I read everything I could on physiology, took part in scientific fitness testing, and as for footwear, I became a real geek whilst looking for what was going to keep me on the road longer and be the best for racing.

That was over a quarter of a century ago. Nowadays, though, there is equipment available which is far more sophisticated and available to everyone whereby it is possible to monitor every level of our body's functionality during each hour of the day and night, which, of course, includes when we are asleep.

As for running shoe technology. which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, at the very sharp end, manufacturers really are looking to design footwear which helps us move more efficiently and indeed run even faster.

During the late 1980s, a certain manufacturer fitted their shoes with energy return tubes, which allegedly were going to give an advantage to those who wore them. Having had a couple of pairs myself, they definitely did not give me an advantage and in my opinion, the so-called tubes were totally ineffective.

However, having recently looked at half a dozen shoes currently on the market which have reactionary plates and speed boards built into the midsoles, it is quite clear that the top brands of today really are now looking to develop a shoe which does exactly what the marketing around it says it does.

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One particular company which is determined to become the first manufacturer to help power an athlete to the first sub-two-hour marathon, is allegedly under investigation by the IAAF, with its latest shoe being fitted with a carbon fibre spring plate. With that in mind, and here is my point, where do you draw the line?

How far can you go before it borders on cheating? Because if a shoe really does help you move forward more quickly than you would if you didn't have them on your feet, then it is most certainly not natural nor indeed a true reflection of someone's ability?

On the cynical side, of course, it has also been suggested in some quarters that these manufacturers employ athletes who are more than capable of achieving such feats irrespective of wearing these shoes or not, and it is just a way to increase sales of their footwear.

What I do know is that such claims will entice many motivated athletes of all levels to purchase such a product, which goes back to what I said at the start: we are always looking to be the very best we can be and, like myself all those years ago, will look beyond just training.

Whilst it is accepted that other sports where mechanical equipment is involved will always look to evolve for improved performance, this has certainly caused debate within sections of the running fraternity.

One of the Olympic Ideals quotes that everyone is equal, irrespective of their background, etc, etc. While that sounds great, we all know that this is not the case what with athletes in some countries receiving far more support by way of funding, medical and scientific back-up and, of course, training facilities.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the use of equipment which artificially improves physical performance, I don't see where that fits in with the Olympic ethos. I know there are rules around those who compete in the paralympcs, so should it not be the same across the board if it was to ever get to that level?

Drug-taking should carry a lifetime ban, 100pc, but I just wonder if there will come a time when using equipment which, if proved to have greatly enhanced performance, will also carry a suspension or even a ban. Just a thought!

Abebe Bikila won the 1960 Rome Olympic Marathon in what was then a world best time. He ran the race barefooted. I wonder what he would think if he was still around today?

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