Are Professional Track and Field Athletes Required to Wear Shoes?

Zola Budd runs at Crystal Palace in London in June 1984.

Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images

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Answer by Aaron Ellis, former high school track coach:

Barefoot running is allowed, but it’s rare. In order to compete in bare feet, one should first be training in bare feet, and there aren’t many track athletes who do this. Shoes are cheaper and more easily accessible nowadays around the world, especially among elite athletes. While there is a growing resurgence in barefoot running, most of the people doing this are not competitive runners, but rather recreational runners.

Realistically speaking, the only events in which one can be competitive in bare feet are distance races. It would be nearly impossible to compete without the proper footwear in the throws. In the sprints and jumps, competing barefoot would put the athlete at a massive disadvantage. However, there have been a handful of distance runners who have competed in bare feet.

Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia won Olympic gold medals in the marathon in 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo. In Rome, he ran with bare feet. The story goes that he planned on running in shoes in Rome, but Olympic sponsor Adidas ran low on shoes, and the only ones that remained when he went for his fitting were shoes that were uncomfortable. Since he was already training in bare feet, he decided to run without shoes. He later switched to wearing shoes because of injuries, notably foot and knee injuries in 1968 leading into and during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Zola Budd, who competed for Great Britain and later for her native South Africa, was a memorable figure at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, not just for competing in bare feet but also because of her collision with American favorite Mary Decker. While running in a midrace pack in the 3000 meters, their legs made contact, and Decker fell to the ground, out of contention. Budd continued, but surrounded by the boos of the American crowd that was upset at her for dashing Decker’s Olympic dream, she faded to seventh place. Years later she admitted the fallback was deliberate, as she didn’t want to medal in front of a hostile crowd. Despite blaming Budd for years, Decker later accepted blame for the collision, as she was inexperienced at running in a pack. Budd has also switched to running in shoes, reportedly due to injuries.

P.C. Suppiah was a distance runner from Singapore who ran the 10,000 meters at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He ran 31:59.2 in the first preliminary heat, making him the first Singaporean to run under 32 minutes in the 10,000 meters. His barefoot story was that he simply couldn’t afford footwear. But he later saw this as an advantage rather than a disadvantage, believing that he could run faster without shoes. His national record from 1973 of 31:19 still stands.

Tegla Loroupe runs for Kenya. She is one of the finest distance runners in the world, with marathon wins in Rotterdam, Netherlands (three times); New York (two times); Lausanne, Switzerland; and London. While a junior athlete, she ran barefoot. She has since alternated between running in shoes and running barefoot. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, she ran both the marathon and the 10,000 meters without track spikes, placing 13th and fifth place respectively (due to battling food poisoning). 

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