Petroleum in Real Life: Running shoes

Imagine running 10K without running shoes. Zola Budd did it, but most of us can’t live without our favourite pair of sneakers.

At every Olympic Games, there are always a few especially memorable athletes – sometimes because of their athletic prowess or capability, but often because of their quirky personalities, fascinating back stories, or even, at times, unusual habits. Such was the case with Zola Budd, a 1984 and 1992 Summer Olympian from South Africa, who competed in the 3000-metre running race, both times barefoot.

Zola Budd runs barefoot during the 3,000-metre qualifying heat at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Photo: AP Photo/File.

We remember her as an outlier… one of the very few of us in the world that didn’t wear running shoes while running! Despite the rise in barefoot runners (a trend that struck the globe around 2008), it’s fair to say that most of us regard a good pair of running shoes or cross-trainers as essential fitness gear—something we simply couldn’t live without.

And while there are hundreds of brands designed for all kinds of activities, styles and sensibilities, there’s one constant: good running shoes wouldn’t be possible without petroleum.

The Global Market for Athletic Footwear

Whatever you may call them, running shoes, trainers, sneakers, kicks… most of us don them dailyIt is estimated that more than 700 million running shoes were sold in brick and mortar stores in 2017, with the total global athletic footwear market size valued at $64.3 Billion USD that same year. Those numbers are predicted to grow by another 5% between 2018 and 2025 as globally, we increasingly look to adopt healthier lifestyles.

A Brief History of the Running Shoe

Running shoes can be traced back to 1917, when the first plimsolls were invented. Canvas shoes were fitted with rubber soles and called sneakers (the rubber in them allowing people to quietly walk without being heard). They were first produced by Converse and Keds, respectively, both industry leaders that are still around more than 100 years later. In the 1940s, Puma and Adidas launched; in the 1960s the founder of Nike sold shoes out of the back of his van prior to the inception of the Nike empire—they were the first athletic shoes to offer cushioning against the impact of the road. In the ‘70s, ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA)—a combination of two types of plastics—became the common material for the running shoe sole, and has remained the dominant material for midsoles to present day.