NEW YORK -- Across the footwear and apparel industry, there is simply no grander stage than the Olympic Games, where every four years the world's greatest athletes gather and make their mark in sport. For brands these athletes endorse, each Olympics also has become a showcase to unveil and launch their newest product innovations.
On Wednesday, Nike announced its full lineup of footwear and apparel for this summer's Tokyo Olympics, a three-week slate beginning in late July that will feature 33 sports and is expected to garner more than 200 million viewers around the globe.
In addition to new sustainable uniforms and medal-stand apparel made from recycled materials, the statement piece for the company is the brand's Nike Air Zoom AlphaFly Next%.
The boundary-pushing distance running shoe is an extension of its Vaporfly series that already has led to a shattering of world records across competitions. The shoe's responsive carbon fiber plate, in tandem with a springy, more resilient lightweight foam that Nike calls "ZoomX," has shaken up the industry since the series was first launched in 2016.
The brand is dubbing its newest shoe "the ultimate expression of Nike's ambition to engineer footwear with measurable performance benefit."
The original iteration, the VaporFly 4%, was boldly said to make runners 4% faster and more efficient. After several records had been broken in the shoes in 2018, The New York Times analyzed half a million marathon and half-marathon times over the prior three years and found that people wearing the VaporFly were indeed 3% to 4% faster. A more recent study found that advantage might be closer to 4% to 5%.
"The groundbreaking research that led to the original Vaporfly unlocked an entirely new way of thinking about marathon shoes," said Carrie Dimoff, part of Nike's advanced innovation team and an elite marathoner.
Now, the technology behind the Next% model will be utilized across all of Nike's upcoming products, informing the design and inspiring the performance of its running, basketball and track and field spike.
"Once we understood the plate and foam as a system, we started thinking about ways to make the system even more effective," Dimoff said. "That's when we struck upon the idea of adding Nike Air to store and return even more of a runner's energy and provide even more cushioning."
The spring plate found in each shoe is now stacked atop a visible forefoot Zoom Air unit, Nike's most responsive cushioning technology, for even more propulsion and rebound. The original 4% name is now dubbed "Next%," alluding to its near-5% faster benefits.
The very concept of a "marathon" was birthed through the Olympics, and Spyridon Louis won the first Olympic marathon in 1896 with a time of 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds. He was the only runner to finish the race in under three hours. Over the course of the next century, athletes have only continued to test the limits of run times, looking to chop down the clock, minute by minute and, eventually, break the next hour mark.
Last fall, Nike-sponsored runner Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya broke the elusive two-hour mark, albeit in a controlled race setting in Vienna, by clocking in at 1:59:40 in a prototype of the AlphaFly Next% shoe. (His best official time of 2:01:39 at the 2018 Berlin Marathon topped the prior world record by 78 seconds.)
"For runners, records like the four-minute mile and two-hour marathon are barometers of progress," said Tony Bignell, Nike vice president of footwear innovation. "These are barriers that have tested human potential. When someone like Eliud breaks them, our collective belief about what's possible changes."
Throughout the 2019 calendar year, 31 of the 36 podium slots across the six men's and women's world marathon majors were held by runners who laced up Nike Vaporfly sneakers. Last year, the women's world record that stood for 16 years was beaten by 81 seconds when Kenyan Brigid Kosgei sprinted through the Chicago Marathon in a vivid pink pair of the Vaporfly.
In the running community, the shoes have continued to spark debate, as Nike appears to be achieving its more broad mission of making athletes better through products. In the past 16 months, five of the fastest men's marathon times ever were ran in the shoes.
It is a quest the company has often championed, with brand spokespeople proudly declaring their leading product intent for the Tokyo Olympics is to "claim measurable benefits."
In the lead-up to the Summer Games, the Vaporfly series has even prompted an investigation by the World Athletics organization, after runners wearing other shoes likened them to "technological doping." Just last week, the organization opted to approve the shoes, while outlining a series of new constraints on future footwear.
"It is not our job to regulate the entire sports shoe market," said Sebastian Coe, World Athletics president. "But it is our duty to preserve the integrity of elite competition by ensuring the shoes worn by elite athletes in competition do not offer any unfair assistance or advantage."
The organization's new rules, announced Jan. 31, state that products worn in the Olympics must be available for purchase on or before April 30 -- meaning no prototypes or specialized footwear that consumers wouldn't have access to. Shoes also can't "contain more than one rigid embedded plate" or be thicker than 40 millimeters in midsole height. All of Nike's footwear meets those requirements and are thus approved and allowed to be worn in Japan.
"As we enter the Olympic year, we don't believe we can rule out shoes that have been generally available for a considerable period of time, but we can draw a line by prohibiting the use of shoes that go further than what is currently on the market while we investigate further," Coe said.
Across all sports, a handful of Next%-touting footwear is expected to be worn in events by Nike-sponsored athletes. This year's Olympic Marathon actually will now take place five hours north of Tokyo, in Sapporo, with runners pacing around a three-loop course on the final two days of the Olympic schedule. Organizers opted to move the race's location amid heat concerns, with Sapporo expected to six degrees cooler on the Aug. 8 and 9 race days.
For the company, the 2020 Olympics offer up yet another opportunity for Nike to look to tackle performance solutions for a variety of sports.
"Barriers are inspiring to innovators," Bignell said. "Like athletes, when a barrier is in front of us, we are challenged to think differently and push game-changing progress in footwear design."