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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

I Guess We Should Talk About The Spikes


Let's talk about the spikes.

But first, a fairytale:

There once was a farmer who lived with his son. The two spent their days in the fields, working from sunrise until sunset, relying heavily on the help of a horse to do their work.

The horse was their most prized possession, allowing the farmer and his son to get around the farm with ease.

One evening, after a long day of work, the farmer's son left the gate open, and the horse escaped. Upon waking, the farmer's son realized his mistake.

"This is the worst thing that could've ever happened!" He cried.

But the farmer was unmoved. "How do you know?" He replied to his son.

The next morning, while the farmer and his son were out in the fields, the horse returned. To top it off, the horse had found a companion off in the woods. Now, the farmer and his son had not one, but two horses.

"This is the best thing that could've ever happened!" The farmer's son declared.

Again, the farmer remained calm. "How do you know?" He replied.

Later that day, the farmer's son was out riding the new horse in the fields. Without any training, the horse was unfamiliar with a human on his back, and threw the farmer's son on the ground, breaking his arm.

The farmer's son was devastated. Now, he was unable to work on the farm.

"This is the worst thing that could've ever happened!" He moaned.

"How do you know?" The farmer replied, as if on cue.

The next day, the emperor's army came through the town where the farmer and his son lived. They were rounding up all the young men to go off to war. When they arrived at the farmer's house, they noticed his son had a broken arm. Believing he wasn't fit for battle, the farmer's son was spared from joining the army.

Once again, the farmer's son exclaimed, "This is the best thing that could've ever happened!"

Steadfast in his approach, the farmer questioned his son's embellishment one final time.

"How do you know?"

As you've probably guessed, I share that story to make a point.

There's a lot of rhetoric about the spikes (for the uninitiated, we're talking about the Nike ZoomX Dragonfly/Air Zoom Victory, and related attempts by competing brands), particularly on social media, that sounds a lot like the farmer's son. The spikes are either the "best" or "worst thing that could've ever happened."

In what seems to be a trend, the spikes have become yet another issue where you have to take a side.

I don't think we should. Yet.

Right now, we have plenty of anecdotes that would suggest the spikes are enhancing performances. Just look at the collegiate or professional records that have been broken over the past year as evidence.

Now, alternative explanations for these breakthrough performances have been offered. One was that a lack of racing over the past year, coupled with the absence of cross country training, has allowed for long blocks of track-focused preparation. I think that has some merit. Another was that the scarcity of competitive opportunities has put athletes' backs against the wall, prompting them to be more motivated to make performances count. I think that's a bit of a stretch (I mean, hopefully you don't require a global pandemic to throw down).

Setting the validity of those explanations aside, I think it's clear that they're engineered by those who would prefer to believe that the spikes have a minimal, if any, impact on performance. It makes sense. We want to give all the credit to the athlete.

The trouble is, those who try to pin the performances entirely on the spikes are seen as naysayers, discounting an athlete for a heroic performance.

Trying to summon the farmer's wisdom here, I think the reality is somewhere in between. I just don't know exactly where in between. I think we need more time for that.

I'm going to jump around a bit here, but I think you'll see that there's multiple loose ends on this topic.

First, we need more time to see how other companies respond to Nike. Will it be a level playing field?

Next, will an athlete who has raced in the new spikes indulge us by running the same distance in an older model, so we can see if there's a difference?

On a different note, much has been made about how these spikes allow a runner to recover faster. In the long term, isn't that a good thing for the sport AND the athlete? That could be a plus.

Lastly, will it become apparent that we need a separate record book - one for the pre-Dragonfly/Air Zoom Vic era and a new one for now? Or, is this a point to have a moral discussion about record books? In other words, are records made to be expunged, not just by better athletes, but also by better equipment? To me, it seems excessive to ban the spikes in the name of preserving a record book (though swimming did do something similar with the LZR Racer suit about a decade ago). I feel like the greats are remembered for victories and medals far more than records anyways.

One thing is for sure: the goal posts have shifted. A 4:00 mile in 2021 is not what it was in 2019. By how much, no one can be sure.

Until we adjust to a new normal, fans will continue overreacting to fast times, their frame of reference not up to speed with the technology. And who's to blame them? They are incredible performances, and it feels a bit pedantic to caution them that we're still unsure just how incredible they are.

But that's my (nuanced) opinion:

The spikes help.

Don't know how much.

Let's see what else we can learn.

With more data, we can make a better judgment.

Until then, enjoy your PR's.

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