A suit banned from use after having contributed to over 130 world records, breathable sportswear, smart socks and more. In the Olympics, as well as in other sports competitions, clothing technologies are no less important than talent.

One of the most famous photographs from the Athens 1896 Olympic Games, the first Olympics of the modern era, was taken during the men's 100-meter dash, which was won by the American Thomas Burke with a result of 12.0 seconds. One hundred and thirteen years later, in 2009, the Jamaican Usain Bolt set the current world record at 9.58 seconds, the difference is huge. Have humans changed that much within no more than a single century?

Both in sprinting, as well as in other sports, athletes become increasingly stronger and break world records time after time. One of the main reasons for this is technological development in both training practices, where advanced equipment and gear enable better monitoring of the athletes’ physiological state and improvement of their performance, as well as in other areas. For example, advances of knowledge on the field of nutrition enable a better balance to be created between an athletes' weight and muscle mass, so as to enable better optimization of his or her energetic balance.

One of the fields that have advanced the most is that of athletic attire. Back to the 1896 photo - sprinters wore knee-length shorts and simple fabric shirts with sleeves of various lengths - not particularly fashionable and certainly not aerodynamic. The sprinters at the London 2012 Olympic Games already looked entirely different: they wore colorful jerseys with their national flags, tight shorts and, naturally, the logo of the clothing company that produced them. 

Over the years, sports companies have invested a lot of resourses into producing fabrics and new materials to improve athletes’ performance. The requirements vary from sport to sport: some require materials that are better water repellents and allow for better heat dispersion, some require lighter and more efficient shock absorbents, better muscle support and more.

The record-breaking swimsuit 

One of the most famous examples for this is the controversy that arose in recent years over the use of swimsuits that dramatically improved swimmers’ results in the Olympic swimming pool at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.  Many of the competitors that year wore a full body swimsuit called “LZR Racer” manufactured by Speedo, which significantly reduced friction with the water and dramatically improved the performance of the athletes. Eventually, swimmers who wore the new suit won 98 percent of the swimming medals in Beijing. Suits of this type were responsible for over 130 world records in swimming in the years 2008-2009.

It was not long before full body suits were banned from use in competitions. In fact, as a result, professional swimmers today are forbidden from competing in swimwear that contains polyurethane or rubber in general. Alought the world records that were set in those years have remained in place, there has been a sharp decline since then in the number of new world records.

The breathable fabrics

Not all technological advances are equally controversial. Presently there is widespread use of lightweight and “breathable” fabrics in running and cycling. Sweat wicking shirts, for example, contain a layer of tight fabric pressed against the skin that transports the sweat to another layer in which it evaporates into the air. 

Companies are investing significant resources in the development of new materials, to help athletes as much as possible, with terms such as “Nano-thechnology” or “Biomimetics” becoming more and more common in the development of new products. The uniforms of the USA team, unveiled ahead of the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, were made to be lighter, more flexible and to allow for faster sweat evaporation. These qualities were made possible thanks to the use of lightweight synthetic fabrics such as lycra, which are made of polymers, as well as to advanced weaving methods.     

Unveiled at the same time were also new soccer shoes that were eventually used by players at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. These utilized a new technology, designed to prevent the build up of mud on the shoe soles during the game. The new soles contained a polymer that creates a buffer layer upon contact with water, thus preventing mud from sticking to the shoe.

Smart clothing

Smart clothing technology is manifested not only in the type of materials from which the clothing is made. Many companies today manufacture “Smart” sportswear that incorporates electronic components that allow athletes to monitor different physiological metrics during their training so as to better analyze their performance. One example of this is a new type of socks that contain conducting silver fibers, which serve as sensors. The information from the sensors is relayed to a small receiver worn by the athlete and is then transmitted on to a dedicated application. Sensors are also incorporated into watches, shirts and pants, and are able to monitor heart rate, blood pressure, muscle load and more. 

The Rio Games also served as a platform for innovation and ventures in the field of sports. The Hype foundation, which focuses on education for entrepreneurship and startups in sports, announced an international competition, on the occasion of the 2016 Olympics, entitled “Global Sport Innovation Competition – Rio 2016”. The goal of the competition was to nurture partnerships between entrepreneurs from sports tech startups and leading commercial companies in the industry, in order to promote implementation of innovative technologies in the field of sports. Preliminary competitions were held in several venues around the world, and the finals were held in Rio during the 2016 Olympics.  

There is no doubt that the changes in athletic sportswear that have taken place over the years have made a significant contribution to the performance abilities of today's athletes. However, technological advances also intensify the gap between athletes from developed countries and those from developing and underprivileged ones. Advanced equipment and clothing can provide the athletes who are able to obtain them, with an unfair advantage, from the training stage to the competition itself.

Many athletes today can even obtain custom-made personalized designs, enabling them to fit their clothes optimally to the contours of their bodies, thus increasing their aerodynamics. This issue is accompanied by another problem in competitive sports, called “Mechanical Doping” - the use of technologically advanced materials and equipment that provide athletes with an unfair advantage in competitions. The continued evolution of technology and sportswear creates a situation, in which the line that can be drawn between empowerment of athletes’ abilities and cheating, is fading increasingly.