The knowledge that compromising pictures had been released on the internet can’t have helped the performance of former Olympic champion swimmer Laure Manaudou in the French championships in Dunkirk in April. The 21-year-old Frenchwoman suffered her first defeat in four years in the 400m freestyle event. But, according to a story in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, the swimmer ‘ungraciously’ blamed her defeat on her swimsuit, which it noted ‘does not use revolutionary material said to increase speed’.
Whatever the reason for her lacklustre performance, Manaudou’s reported comments should come as no surprise to athletes preparing for next month’s Olympic Games in Beijing. Given the hair-splitting differences in timings recorded at many of the world’s top athletic events, their choice of clothing could determine which medal, if any, they eventually take home.How the athletes fare will also be a big deal for the sports firms that sponsor them, determining sales on the high street. So, with just weeks to go before the games, what can we expect to see the athletes wearing, and what difference, if any, could it make to how they perform?
In the swim
One item of sportswear already grabbing headlines is Speedo’s LZR Racer swimsuit. The world’s first fully bonded or seamless bodysuit that is ultrasonically welded, the suit has clocked up 38 world records since it was launched in February.
It also incorporates special ultra low drag, high power compression panels to streamline the body shape and reduce surface drag.
‘When I hit the water, I feel like a rocket,’ says Michael Phelps, holder of six world records. ‘I can’t wait to race in it, this is going to take the sport of swimming to a new level.’
The suit’s performance is due partly to the exclusive LZR Pulse fabric from which it is made, according to Jason Rance, world wide head of Speedo’s Aqualab in Nottingham. Comprising 70% nylon and 30% elastane, the fabric is unusual in being made from nylon-covered elastane rather than a mixture of the two separate fibres.
As well as improving chlorine resistance, this allows researchers to create a very tight, light weave, Rance explains. Metre for metre, LZR Pulse fabric, at 104g/m, is less than half the weight of the Fastskin material worn by more than 80% of the medal winners at Sydney in 2000 and used in the Fastskin FSII in 2004. ‘Fastskin is a knitted fabric that mimics the dermal denticles on a shark’s skin, reducingthe level of drag on the surface. It was very revolutionary at the time,’ Rance says.
‘Today, we are taking all our learnings from that suit design to create a material with even lower surface drag which is much faster, lighter and more compressive.’
Over in track and field, Nike’s Flywire shoe technology also claims to be breaking new ground with the creation of paper-thin shoes, no more than 2 microns thick, to be worn as part of the official China team kit. The technology, which was more than five years in development, will feature in the Zoom Victory track spike and Nike’s new Hyperdunk basketball shoes, which at just 13oz, weigh in at three ounces less than a standard basketball shoe.
Designed to do away with most of the shoe upper, Flywire uses high strength nylon fibres stitched across the top of the shoe that ‘work like cables on a suspension bridge, with support engineered precisely where a foot needs it,’ according to Nike.
‘Flywire gets to that elusive thing of the plate attaching to the bottom of the foot and forgetting about the shoe,’ says Jay Mescher, innovation director of Nike’s Innovation Kitchen. ]
It also provides a solution to the previously troublesome problem of slippage, Nike claims. Walk or run in a shoe and with each step your foot slips a millimetre or so each time. Wearing shoes engineered with Flywire could equal a metre saving over the course of a 1000m race, it notes – often less than the distance between third and first place.
In China, Nike, which is the official Chinese federation team sponsor, claims to be the leading sportswear brand, having passed the $1bn sales figure a year ahead of schedule.
British Olympic and Paralympic teams, meanwhile, will be putting Powerweb compression technology to the test. Powerweb consists of a series of TPU (thermoplastic urethane) bands pressed into the base layer of adidas’ Techfit apparel, engineered to function like springs and work in unison with the body’s muscles, adidas says.
When an athlete moves, one set of muscles contracts while an opposite set extends; the bands mimic this, stretching on the extension side to store elastic energy. When the process is reversed and the extended muscles contract, the bands snap back to their shorter length, which provides the wearer with more power.
In tests with the University of Calgary, Canada, adidas claims that researchers observed an average 5.5% improvement in power output and 1.1 faster sprint time over 30m. They also noted a 1.3% reduction in oxygen consumption– indicating delayed onset of fatigue and enhanced performance.
Compression technology is also claimed to result in improved body awareness, which means better form and technique; reduced muscle vibration, so lessening any wasted energy from tremor; and improved muscle recovery and less wear and tear during workouts.
And, with average temperatures in Beijing in August expected to be 770F (250C), and humidity levels hovering around 90%, keeping the athletes cool is a top priority. Adidas’ ClimaCool, originally developed for Athens in 2004, is designed to wick away sweat from the skin and help to keep competitors cool and dry. Conductive fibres along the back and neck of the suits draw away heat from critical heat zones and send cooling signals to the brain, while hundreds of small indents on the underside of the fabric keep the material away from the body and maximise ventilation.
A newer innovation with a similar aim is Nike’s Aerographics process, for incorporating graphic designs by removing rather than adding fabric to garments. Besides reducing the weight of the clothing, this creates a breathable mesh that allows air to flow in and around the garment, explains innovation designer Kirk Meyer. ‘It really came from asking “how do we get that airflow and that cooling without having to put in seams everywhere?” We wanted to cut out anything unnecessary and get down to the lightweight essence of what you need to perform.’
As well as reducing heat, Nike’s designs for the China team kit may also be kinder to the environment. The suits are designed around Nike Swift apparel made from recycled polyester bottles and first developed for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. In its latest iteration for Beijing, Nike claims the suit produces 7% less drag than the Athens version, which equates to a benefit of about .02 of a second in the 100m sprint - ‘no small feat given that Asafa Powell recently beat his own record in that race by less than that’.
Computer-designed seamless swimwear
Developed with the help of sophisticated computational fluid dynamics software, Speedo’s LZR Racer suit is ultrasonically welded or melted together, to dispense with the need for seams. To create the finished suit, a plasma finishing treatment is applied to roughen the surface of the material at a nanomolecular level before applying a water repellent finish to the surface. Rance likens this process to ‘sanding a wall before painting it’, and explains that the final water repellent coating helps to ensure the suit doesn’t absorb water which would make it heavier.
In water flume tests at Otago University in New Zealand, athletes were hooked up to an oxygen monitoring device that recorded their intake and ‘out-take’ of oxygen as they swam against a moving tank of water. On average, the suit improved oxygen efficiency by 5% compared with standard training swimwear.
Nike’s Lunarlite foam, which originated from material designed by NASA, allows researchers to design lightweight shoes that are comfortable to wear. It provides super-lightweight cushioning and also returns energy released on impact to the wearer – so giving the shoes valuable extra bounce at every step.
Nike designer Kevin Hoffer recalls how the original NASA material had exactly the sensation they were looking for: ‘It felt like a marshmallow that was really springy’.
To adapt the material for commercial use, however, Hoffer and the team needed to make a few adjustments. The original NASA foam was expensive, degraded by light, air and water, and had a tendency to shrink. To carry out their original experiments, researchers had to freeze the foam as wedges that looked like ice cream bars – ‘hardly conducive to large-scale production runs’.
Adjusting the foam’s composition, and embedding it in a second material called Phylon – made of compressed ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) pellets – led to the final Lunarlite product.