March 22, 2012 - As clocks count down the days and hours left until this summer's London Olympics, manufacturers are busy putting the finishing touches on the newest, quickest, most aerodynamic apparel and gear to help athletes get an edge in capturing gold medals and set records.
Athletic apparel has become so high-tech, it's hardly appropriate to use the term "uniforms" anymore, said ESPN columnist Paul Lukas, who blogs about sports uniforms.
"It's a shift away from uniforms for athletes to costumes for heroes," he said.
Six-time Olympic medalist swimmer Ryan Lochte (pictured here) confirmed that when he tried on Speedo's Olympic suit: "When I put it on I feel superhuman, I feel like I can beat anyone," he told Reuters. "When I get on the blocks I'm like an action figure."
Here's a look at the technology for some of the apparel and gear the summer athletes will take advantage of.
Knowing marathoners wanted a shoe that fit and felt more like a sock, Nike engineers spent the last four years developing the Flyknit.
It's a shoe made of polyester yarn that's 19 percent lighter than its predecessor (the Nike Zoom Streak 3, worn by first, second and third place athletes in the men’s marathon at the 2011 World Championships).
Cables that loosen and contract with a runner's movement are woven into the polyester to provide support. A men's size 9 weighs 5.6 ounces.
Abdi Abdirahman wore the Flyknit during the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, where he placed third to qualify for London.
"I have to look down at my feet to know if I'm still wearing shoes," he said. "It feels like I'm wearing socks." Runners from Britain, Kenya, Russia, and the U.S. will run in the shoes in London, and they'll be available to the public in July.
In order to design its new Fastskin3 suit, cap, and goggles, Speedo needed to tread carefully. The International Swimming Federation banned polyurethane body suits two years ago because they aided buoyancy, prompting Michael Phelps and other swimmers to criticize them for providing performance enhancement.
Speedo claims the Fastskin products improve efficiency by eliminating drag. The company says the three-piece system produces a 16.6 percent reduction in full body passive drag (when submerged), a 5.2 percent reduction in full body active drag (when the swimmer is at surface level) and a 63.4 percent reduction of force on the goggle. The goggles are fitted with hydroscopic lenses and provide180 degree peripheral vision.
Some Australian swimmers, however, have complained about the fit. Female swimmers say the suits take 15 minutes to an hour to put on, and some have said they're too baggy in the waist once they're on.
Photo: Michael Phelps wearing the Fastskin Speedo suit
Nike's Team USA basketball uniforms represent a "trendlet" toward greener apparel.
"It's not a full-blown trend yet, but there's definitely some movement in that direction," Lukas said.
The Nike Hyper Elite Shorts are 14 ounces lighter (and slightly less baggy) than the average shorts currently worn by professional players, and are made of 100 percent recycled polyester material.
"We really look at big moments as a great showcase for our absolute pinnacle innovations. And what’s going to come to light in London won’t be any exception," said Tracey Teague, Nike global creative director for basketball.
The official soccer ball of the London Olympics even has its own name: The Albert, after London's Royal Albert Hall. Adidas claims it's the most tested ball it's ever produced. The ball's triangular panels are covered with a grip texture to support contact with shoes and enhance ball control. It also has a bladder for increased air retention and reduced water intake.
"The ball looks youthful and that is what London 2012 is meant to be about," Manchester United's Robert Ashcroft said.
Adidas will unveil more Olympic gear Friday on its website.
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When Australian Cathy Freeman donned a full-body suit for the 2000 Olympics, it seemed counterintuitive, Lukas said. "She was wearing more clothing, but it was so aerodynamic," he said.
Plus, he pointed out, there's a qualitative advantage as well: "If you look good you play good. How much an athlete is feeling cool, edgy, modern -- how much better does that make the athlete perform?"
However the tracksuit played a role, Freeman won the 400 meters that year.
In London, athletes from USA, Russia, Germany, and China will be wearing the Nike ProTurboSpeed. Nike used wind tunnel data to place specific surface patterns on key areas of the suit to offer "the greatest aerodynamic drag reduction of any NIKE uniform to date."
"We are here to enhance the athlete's performance," said Martin Lotti, Nike's Olympics creative director. "And at the end of the day, we give them this tiny advantage to win, but the heavy work comes from the athlete...They are always looking for a competitive advantage and we gave them just that in a suit that is faster than skin. How much faster is astonishing. It's not just the difference between first and second, but the difference in even making the podium."
When Puma renewed its sponsorship deal with Jamaican Usain Bolt, the three-time Olympic gold medalist and world record holder for the 100 meter sprint, the German company said it was the most it had ever given a track and field athlete.
"Puma's been by my side since the beginning, before anyone knew what I was capable of achieving," Bolt said in a press release at the time.
Puma hasn't unveiled the exact spike that Jamaican three-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt will wear in the Olympics, but the Bolt Faas 007 LTD is close to what he's training in. It features a curved last and rounded bottom with a lower instep midfoot "for optimized stability while running at a faster pace."
As Bolt's influence suggests, footwear is perhaps the most closely guarded element of an athlete's gear. While athletes can wear any brand of shoes during competition because footwear is classified as technical equipment, there could be controversy during medal presentations. Adidas is sponsoring Team Great Britain, and there is speculation that Nike-sponsored athletes may refuse to wear the official "presentation outfit" shoes on the podium, the London Telegraph reported.
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