By Jennifer Swanson
The Summer Olympics are just about to start. Hundreds of athletes are converging on Rio de Janeiro for the most important event of their athletic careers. These athletes have trained thousands of hours, honing their skills, pushing their bodies to the limit over the span of many years for just this moment. They are focused on one goal: taking home an Olympic medal.
While of course the athletes’ preparation is paramount, the equipment they’ll be using is also very important. In my latest book, Super Gear: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up, I examine how high-performance sports are using cutting-edge technology to enhance athletes’ performances in Olympic competitions. Nanotechnology is the science of the very small…microscopic even. A nanometer is nearly 100,000 times smaller than a single human hair and yet it can be used to make amazingly strong materials. That’s what the Olympic athletes are counting on—high tech equipment to aid them in their quest to win a medal. So as they are packing their shoes, their swimsuits, their tennis rackets and golf clubs, their bicycles, and running suits, let’s consider the technology behind the equipment the athletes will be bringing along.
What type of technology might we be seeing in the 2016 Olympics?
Sports gear companies hire experts and technicians and spend hundreds of millions of dollars creating the most high-tech equipment possible for athletes. Speedo, Nike, and Under Armour have actually used wind tunnels at NASA to help create their swimsuits and running gear.
Compression-swimsuit technology at work for US swimmer Missy Franklin.
From Super Gear. © BrunoRosa/Shutterstock.com
Speedo has updated their LZR swimsuits by creating them with a high-compression fabric. The suit is designed to push in on the muscles around the hips and upper thighs, thus making the swimmer more streamlined like a shark. The women’s suits have a specially designed “X” seam across the body. This is supposed to make the core (stomach, abdomen muscles) work more effectively and keep the swimmer’s body level in the water. This reduces drag, the force that pulls back on the swimmer as they glide through the water, which slows them down.
Click here to see what the US men’s and women’s Olympic swimming teams will wear.
Bobolat, Wilson, Yonex are using nanotechnology in the form of carbon nanotubes to make their tennis rackets stronger and more durable.
Runners are also utilizing the cutting-edge technology. Athletes like the US’s Allyson Felix will be wearing specially designed techno uniforms that have raised bumps to make her more aerodynamic (like an airplane). This reduces drag and helps her to speed through the air faster.
And golf is not left out of the technology craze. Graphite and carbon fibers are added to golf clubs to help athletes hit the ball farther and longer than ever before.
Nanofibers are added to the resin of the golf club shaft
to close up the gaps between the strands of graphite.
From Super Gear. © Sophia M. Gholz
Why is technology being incorporated into sports events?
Money. It comes down to the fact that all of these sports companies are hoping that if you, the regular consumer, watches an Olympic athlete win a medal, you will want to go out and buy their equipment. The swimsuit industry is worth over $1 billion. Spending a few hundred million to get the most out of your equipment is not much for some of these big companies.
Is it actually worth it?
The answer is YES! In the 2008 Olympics, the swimmers who wore the nanotechnology-enhanced swimsuits not only won all of the medals, but broke over 100 new Olympic speed records. The swimmers in the 2015 Championships who wore either Speedo or Arena suits won the greatest percentage of medals.
Roger Federer, a world-class tennis player has used his nanotech tennis racket for the past several years to great success. Serena Williams uses a carbon-fiber racket.
US tennis star Serena Williams with her “enhanced” racket.
From Super Gear. © Neale Cousland/Shutterstock.com
Is using this technology fair?
That is a question up for debate. It is true that the athletes that have the equipment appear to be performing better than the athletes that don’t. Is that solely due to the techno-enhanced tools? No one knows for sure. Training. Diet. Health of the athlete. Temperature and weather at the time of the event. These are all factors. To say that the technology of the equipment was the only thing responsible is not possible.
One factor that may make the use of technology seem unfair is that poorer countries may not have access to it for the major championships or the Olympics. That might affect the outcome of their event. However, much of this equipment is available for purchase before the event so it’s possible that it could be purchased by these countries. It depends on how much money they can invest in their athletes. It is definitely an interesting point to consider.
Is using technology-enhanced equipment the same as using performance-enhancing drugs?
Again, another interesting question. Everyone knows that performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) are banned from all competitions. In fact, athletes have to undergo blood or urine tests to prove that they haven’t used drugs to help them. If they are found to have tested positive for drugs, the athletes are then banned from participating in the sports.
Some people have stated that using technology-enhanced equipment does the same thing as a PED. After all, the technology can make your muscles work better, help you to run or swim faster by reducing drag, enable you to hit the ball harder and farther. So…maybe they are the same? At the moment most new technology is not being regulated by the sporting agencies. Other than the swimsuits in the 2008 Olympics, which clearly benefited the athletes to a huge extent, nothing much has been said on the Olympic level. Mostly that is because until the technology is used, no one knows how much impact it will have.
There have been instances of regulation on a smaller scale. As noted in Super Gear, Major League Baseball does not allow nanotech bats to be used by their players. The bats make the ball fly dangerously fast and can injure players.
So what do you think?
Should technology in sports be controlled? Should it be continued and pursued? Perhaps it is a question that you could debate in your school, library, or home.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for some amazing equipment in the Olympics! Go Rio 2016!
Watch Jennifer Swanson’s in-depth discussion about the nanotech equipment at the Olympics on the Jacksonville, Florida TV show “The Chat” from July 28, 2016:
Jennifer Swanson is the award-winning author of more than twenty-five books, including BRAIN GAMES (National Geographic Kids) and her latest book, Super Gear: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up. She and her sports-minded family live in Jacksonville, Florida.
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