During this year’s winter Olympics athletes will push themselves to their bodies’ physical limits in search of a place on the medal podium. While the peak of human performance has always been on display at the Olympics, recent games have also become a showcase for technology designed to help athletes shatter records.
While the debate around performance sportswear has always stirred controversy, the 2008 Beijing Olympics stand as a testament to what can be accomplished by a finely tuned athlete wearing performance engineered textiles.
At the Beijing Olympics audiences worldwide cast their focus on the Games’ aquatic center where Michael Phelps was preparing himself to swim in a record 8 events. Wearing a suit named the LZR Racer, Phelps would win each event he entered and break 7 World Records along the way. If that weren’t enough, Phelps also cemented himself as a legend by topping Mark Spitz’ record for the most gold medals won during a single Olympic Games.
Although most were rightfully in awe of Phelps’ performance, many discounted his efforts claiming his suit played a major role in his victories – and his critics’ opinions weren’t without merit.
Designed from a proprietary blend of elastane-nylon and polyurethane, the LZR Racer was developed using NASA’s wind tunnel testing facilities and advanced fluid dynamics simulation software. Featuring ultra-sonically welded seams, the suit allowed better oxygenation of a wearer’s muscles, held the swimmer’s body in a more hydrodynamic position and was more water repellant. Given those features, the expertly engineered LZR was worn by 94% of all race winners during the 2008 Olympic games.
Within a year the suit was banned from competition.
In just a month we may see the same controversy rear its head again, as the Sochi Olympics feature another state-of-art performance textile built specifically for the US speed skating team.
Jointly developed by Under Armor and Lockheed Martin, the newest textile marvel, named the Mach 39, features friction reducing fabrics, a newly designed zipper and counter-intuitively bumpy surfaces. Tested for 300 hours in Lockheed Martin’s wind tunnels, the suit’s designers have been extremely secretive about their new high performance suit. While few details have been released, we do know the suit will feature a dimpled hood, forearms designed to perfectly disrupt airflow, and super slick fabrics on the upper thigh. In addition, the suit will feature a meshed back to cool the athlete’s body.
Given the secrecy and exclusivity of the Mach 39’s development, we feel confident its design will stir controversy at this year’s Olympic games, particularly if its performance mirrors that of the LZR Racer.
So while slipping on a hyper advanced suit won’t turn you or I into world-class athletes, the difference textile engineering can make at the Olympic level is sure to garner further claims of “technological doping”.
Images Courtesy of Under Armor & Speedo