Faster than nature

This month's Olympic Games will showcase technology that makes athletes go faster and stay cooler.

Running shoes that deflect heat and sweat. Swimsuits that imitate the flow dynamics of shark skin or airplanes. "Cool" woolen clothing that can keep athletes comfortable between events in 100-degree heat. The Olympic Games in Athens promise to spotlight not only superb athletes, but also the latest sports science and technology.

The ancient Greeks, who used science to help organize their world, would probably approve. And while the debate continues about whether the impact of "smarter" body wear can be measured in gold medals, athletes and sporting-goods makers agree that if using such items makes athletes feel more comfortable and confident, it can help them achieve peak performance.

Olympic contenders already have been testing experimental versions of high-tech suits and shoes, especially in high-speed events like sprinting and freestyle swimming.

"I think technology is helping improve swimming times, but ultimately it's about the swimmer and what you feel best wearing," says Martina Moravcova, a silver medalist in 2000, who in Athens will wear a shoulder-to-ankle suit by Tyr Sport of Huntington Beach, Calif. "You can't judge if you are one-tenth of a second faster or slower, but you do feel much slicker than if your body wasn't covered."

The "long-john" swimsuits have become popular since Australian medalist Ian Thorpe made a big splash with his full-body Adidas JetConcept suit during the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Mr. Thorpe, who won three gold and two silver medals in Sydney, reportedly was able to convince Games officials that the suit was not merely swimwear, but a crucial piece of equipment because of its hydrodynamic qualities.

Most freestyle swimmers are expected to wear some version of them in Athens, says Mary Wagner, spokeswoman for USA Swimming, the national body for competitive swimming based in Colorado Springs, Colo. "These suits aren't magic bullets," adds Steve Furniss, an Olympic medalist in 1972 and cofounder of Tyr. "But they can increase performance through lower drag coefficients."

To more effectively reduce drag, water must be kept attached to the body surface for as long as possible. When water hits the shoulders of a swimmer, it normally separates from the body, causing pressure drag, often the strongest type of drag. But placing ridges around the body in strategic places causes the swimsuit essentially to alter the water flow and keep it along the length of the body longer. While the ridges do increase friction drag a bit, they reduce pressure drag more than enough to compensate.

Tyr has applied research from the University of Buffalo to design its new Aqua Shift swimsuit, which it claims reduces drag by 10 percent by incorporating ridges called turbulators that look like hollow pipes. Adidas uses riblets over the back and buttocks to mimic the aerodynamics of an airplane, and Speedo's new Fastskin II suit mimics the tiny toothlike scales in shark skin, called dermal denticles, that are slanted toward the tail of the shark and help force water flow around its body, thus reducing friction.

Speedo's suit was designed by aerospace engineer Barry Bixler using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software to simulate and test the suit's reduction of drag. CFD also has been used in other sports like the javelin.

In devising the new suits, companies must be careful to adhere to the rules of the Fédération Internationale de Natation, the world governing body for water sports, which state that no swimmer shall be permitted to use or wear any device - such as webbed gloves or flippers - that may aid in speed, buoyancy, or endurance during a competition. The long-john suits allowed so far simply represent swimwear, it has ruled.

The full body suits also compress a swimmer's body: They are so tight that it takes 10 minutes to put them on, says Slovakian swimmer Moravcova, who will compete in Athens in freestyle and butterfly events. And they stretch with wear, she adds, so she typically changes to a new suit every three to five elite competitions.

Another innovation for this Olympics: sprint suits for runners. In July, Adidas introduced its "Formotion." The company had studied top sprinters to see how they move, according to James Lamont of Adidas's innovation team. Then it designed the suit to complement those movements by applying compression in key areas with Lycra power bands. The bands are wrapped around the lower thigh just above the knee, for example, and encircle the leg to harness power, essentially by pushing the runner's body together so he or she can use the momentum coming from the legs in the upper body as well.

"We link that power through the back of the thigh following the abdominal muscles, through the real power center of the body, and drive the athlete forward," Mr. Lamont explains in a written statement.

Adidas's designers mapped the human body by computer to pinpoint where specific technologies were needed for support, ventilation, freedom of movement, and muscle control and guidance. They placed large Lycra bands across the lower back to stabilize the orientation of the hips to keep them square to the sprinting lane. They added power bands along the arms and shoulders to enhance forward arm swing and minimize nonlinear motion. And they put them across the back end of the athlete down to the hamstrings to help store and release energy. The Formotion also includes mesh inserts in the underarm to reduce the weight of the suit and ventilate that critical heat zone.

Five US runners wore the suit during the recent US trials, including reigning Olympic medal winner Maurice Greene, who is expected to wear the suit at the Athens games as well. 0Kim Collins, a 100-meter sprinter who hopes to win the first Olympic medal for the tiny Caribbean island of St. Kitts and Nevis, has been testing the suit since the 2003 track and field world championships in Paris, where he won the gold medal in his event.

Although sprint- and swimwear typically attract a lot of attention at the Olympics because of the sports' popularity, other sports are also benefiting from high-tech gear.

For example, Canada's national rowing team will wear a new red-and-white, hooded "Swift Suit." The unisuit, designed in Nike's sport research lab, uses technology in its seams to support the motion of rowing. "The unisuits are intended to reduce even the smallest amount of drag so the team can maximize their performance," says Raegen Salchow, the suit's designer at Nike Global, in a written statement.

Working closely with rowers, the designers at Nike pushed the seams in the suit to the front in order to make it as aerodynamic as possible. Nike claims the hood helps eliminate drag by 3 percent, equivalent to eight feet in a 2,000-meter race.

The Swift Suit also incorporates improved moisture-wicking technology, called Nike Dri-Fit, to help sustain body temperature. It draws sweat away from the skin and moves it to the outside of the fabric, where it evaporates, and the Dri-Fit panels are mesh so they breathe.

In addition, the rowing uniforms use a "No Sew" laminating technology in the leg hems that puts the fabric together without the bulky seams of sewn garments. This also helps reduce chaffing and irritation, Nike claims.

One of the biggest challenges Athens poses is heat. With sweltering temperatures routinely topping 100 degrees in the summer, several companies are developing "beat-the-heat" athletic wear, some of it for events, some for warm-ups, and some just for hanging out in the Olympic Village.

For example: Adidas is applying to clothing the ClimaCool technology it pioneered in running shoes. Using three-dimensional fabric construction, the company has come up with jerseys and other garments that use the latest techniques and fibers to absorb sweat and conduct heat away from the body. To improve the cooling aspects of ClimaCool, Adidas used computer technology to map the body's sweat zones, and then placed ventilation in those zones.

Strange as it may sound, the Australian Olympic Team hopes to conquer the heat with wool. The nation's sheep-centric powerhouse, Woolmark Co., will provide all-natural wool garments that breathe, absorb moisture, and stay dry against the skin.

Because shoes trap so much heat in track and field, research continues to make them more breathable. Adidas, for one, has added venting under the foot through the midsole. And by placing polyester and polyurethane film under the ball of the foot, the company has developed new shoes that reflect away different wavelengths of light and heat coming from the surface of the running track, even before they get absorbed in the shoe. The film will be used in shoes for long-distance races and the marathon.

Consumers eventually will see derivatives of high-tech athletic wear in sporting goods stores.

Most items produced for the Olympics basically are a giveaway, says Tom Doyle, vice president of information and research at the National Sporting Goods Association in Mount Prospect, Ill. He adds that recognition of the item helps in sales of consumer versions later. The association figures retail sales of sporting goods will rise 2 percent in 2004 to $46.6 billion.

Only a small fraction of that is swimsuits and other gear for world-class athletes, he adds.

Olympic technology

Pole Vault: At the 1896 Olympics in Athens, a bamboo pole was used to set the vaulting record of 10 feet, 6 inches. Between 1942 and 1957, aluminum, steel, and fiberglass poles were tried. Fiberglass won out, increasing the indoor world record height to 20 feet, 2 inches in 1993.

Sprint: Wooden starting blocks replaced toe grooves at the 1948 London games. (In ancient Greece, runners took off from a standing position and were flogged if they started too soon.) Modern metal starting blocks contain micro-controllers to prevent false starts.

Marathon: Wedge-heeled Nike sneakers at 1972 US Olympic trials began the modern running-shoe era.

SOURCES: vaulttechniques.com; Guinness Book of World Records; HickockSports.com; Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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