On the surface it was just a well-attended press conference yesterday at the Dupont Plaza Hotel, where the officials of Running Times Magazine were bestowing their annual Gold Shoe Ratings on 16 of this year's running shoe models.
But even as the brightly colored shoes were being inspected under the glare of television lights, there were murmurs about the validity of such testing and questions about the objectivity of magazine ratings, when shoe advertisements are often the lifeblood of those publications.
The newest results -- which are guaranteed to boost sales of highly rated shoes and damage the market-ability of poorly rated ones -- reopened a bitter controversy between dozens of shoe manufacturers and the country's two major running magazines: The Woodbridge, Va.-based Running Times and the California-based Runner's World.
Both magazines sponsor annual shoe ratings. Both have been criticized by several major shoe manufacturers, including Nike, for their methods of testing. Runner's World has received more criticism and is engaged in a complicated legal battle with Nike, which last year accused editors at the magazine of collusion with Brooks Shoes.
As manufacturers were informed of the results of the Gold Shoe ratings -- which are made after a computer records the electrical impulses of competitive and recreational runners who ran in a laboratory setting with electrodes attached to their legs and joints -- their reactions appeared to be based on where they finished in the ratings. "This is very gratifying to us", said Martin Walter, New Balance vice president of marketing, whose company had five Gold Shoe ratings. "Of course, if you do well you tend to make nice noises about the tests and if you don't you try to make excuses."
Predictably, the losers felt differently.
"If we bought some advertising space in Running Times, who knows what difference that would have made?" said the executive of one running shoe company that failed to receive a Gold Shoe.
"This is never without a lot of controversy," said an official for Puma, who was critical of Running Times' testing methodology. Puma finished in the middle of the survey and received no Gold Shoes.
"Our opinion is that the only legitimate way of rating shoes is with very strict machines, not the human body . . . and we want an impartial judge like they have testing ski equipment."
Nike, which has condemned all shoe ratings, received two Gold Shoes. Company officials said yesterday they were pleased, but only for the effect it would have on sales.
"Philosophically we're opposed to the ratings, but obviously it's nice to see," said Tim Renn, Nike's public affairs director, with a laugh. "A high rating can be worth million of dollars."
Ed Ayres, editor and publisher of Running Times, is no stranger to the ratings controversy. He insists his test is completely objective.
"Our study results are based on controlled testing . . . and this is the only survey done with actual runners," said Ayres, himself an "ultra-marathoner" who runs in 50-mile races.
"After each survey was released, we've gotten some angry phone calls . . . some from attorneys. One year there was a private detective following (the doctor who designed the test). We confronted him (the detective) but he wouldn't tell us who had hired him."
Ayres said the annual shoe-rating edition is his best-selling magazine. He said he will print about 3,000 extra copies of the October Running Times, which will contain the results of the ratings.
The Running Times Gold Shoe rating was given to the following shoes:
Men's training shoes: New Balance 660, Adidas TRX Trainer, New Balance 420, New Balance 730, Nike Columbia, Adidas Marathon Trainer and Adidas Oregon.
Women's training shoes: New Balance W660, Nike Aurora, New Balance W420 and Brooks Lady Vantage.
Men's racing shoes: Tiger Ultimate and Adidas TRX Super Comp.
Women's racing shoes: Adidas Lady TRX Super Comp, Adidas Lady Marathon 80 and Adidas Lady TRX Comp.