Top Stories from the Special Reports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, September 15, 2000

Can the Clothes Make a Difference?

Olympians Hope High-Tech Gear Will Give Them an Edge

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - The Olympics might have been born from a desire to revive the virtues of ancient Greece, but at the turn of the millennium, the Games have become a showcase for new -- and not so new -- technology.

Thanks to the potential marketing opportunity -- more than 10,000 athletes compete over 16 days before 5.5 million spectators and 3.5 billion television viewers -- the technological developments do not always have the best interests of sport as their goal.

In appearance alone the result should be one of the most high-tech-looking Olympics shows ever seen.

For technology watchers, the question hanging over the Games may not be so much, ''Will my favorite athletes win?'' as ''Will the technology work?''

Those two questions come together in the controversial new bodysuits for swimmers, runners and jumpers.

The polyester/lycra swimsuits are designed to reduce drag, provide better muscle support, more efficient blood flow and to avoid strain. Speedo turned to a shark specialist, Oliver Crimmen, of the Natural History Museum in London, to help design its suit. A shark's skin is made up of microscopic teeth that channel the flow of the water over the fish's head, reducing drag, which allows it to move faster while using less energy.

Matt Zimmer, of TYR Sport, another bodysuit maker, said the idea was to make swimmers more efficient rather than faster. ''Most major sports have made quantum leaps in technology, and it hasn't hurt the sport,'' he said. ''Swimming has come of age.''

The rules of FINA, the governing body of international swimming, state that ''no swimmer shall be permitted to use or wear any device that may aid his speed, buoyancy or endurance.'' So manufacturers are at once vaunting the suits as absolutely necessary to improve speed, and at the same time denying that they do it. Swimmers wearing various versions of the suits have been setting records like mad.

The contradiction was articulated by Susie O'Neill, an Australian swimmer: ''Everyone's going to think it's the suit,'' she said, as she trained to break the 200-meter butterfly record. In the end, when she broke the record in May she did not wear a full bodysuit.

For the runners, the bodysuits cover just about every part of the body, including the head which is buried in a hood. It is not just the technology but the brand that takes precedence over the personality that wears it.

Nike said its Swift Suit -- even the wrists and ankles are covered by shiny silver -- is supposed to suggest ''movement, energy and propulsion.'' The suits have also been described as making runners look like comic-book superheroes.

Michael Johnson, the U.S. sprinter, rejected part of the design, saying ''I don't do hoods.''

Johnson is getting a special suit without a hood, but another U.S. sprinter, Maurice Greene, said that he will not wear the suit at all. Some of the athletes say they liked the feeling of being all packed in, but Greene said he dislikes the feeling of his knees being bound up.

The creators of the Olympics, the Greeks, ran naked. It was only with the rebirth of the Games in 1896 that the athletes bundled up, and in those days it was also in bodysuits -- although that is not what they were called, nor were they very aerodynamic. They were heavy wool garments designed to cover as much nakedness as possible. As sports became more popular, clothing manufacturers strove for new ways to make money out of sportswear.

Today's nylon/spandex mesh and textured polyester/spandex tricot hooded bodysuits are not entirely new. Florence Griffith-Joyner, the U.S. sprinter, wore a suit with a hood, made by Adidas, in 1988 at the Seoul Olympics. Donovan Bailey, a Canadian who is the reigning Olympic 100-meter champion, tried an Adidas suit with a hood two years ago but said he could not see his opponents during a race.

Eddy Harber, the designer of the Swift Suit, spent two years analyzing the airflow over the fabrics in a wind tunnel, even trying to predict what the wind would be like in the stadium in Australia. The suit has dimples like those on a golf ball, which are meant to reduce drag.

Wind drag was never a problem for Griffith-Joyner, who won three golds in Seoul wearing long fingernails, long hair, rings, earrings and bracelets.

The suits also serve a psychological function: psyching out competitors and psyching up the suit wearer.

Dennis Mitchell, a U.S. sprinter, said of the bright green sprint suit and yellow shoes he often wears: ''This is my good-luck charm. It's my energy, my connection to the crowd and to the environment. It is my expression.''

Nike has also developed a long-distance runner shirt that is 75 percent made of recycled plastic soft-drink bottles. It takes about one-and-a-half 2-liter soda bottles to make each shirt. (Nike calls it environmentally friendly.) The fabric is dimpled to keep as much of the surface as possible off the runner's body.

Adidas says that aerodynamics are less important than reducing muscle vibration in a runner's legs. Its Full Body Suit was created by designers who studied slow-motion films of runners. They saw that large muscle groups, such as the quadriceps and hamstrings, shake as the foot hits the ground, and they considered this a waste of energy. The suit is designed to limit this by compressing the muscles.

Pierre Cornetet, an osteopath who treats martial arts athletes and Formula One drivers, said he is not convinced.

''The muscle that is swinging about is not the muscle that is working,'' he said. ''It's the muscle that is at rest.''

He said he, too, had watched slow motion films of runners and reached different conclusions.

''The most effective runners are those for whom only the essential muscles are at work,'' he said. ''All the other muscles, like the facial muscles, just drop and swing about. That's an excellent economy of energy. On the contrary, a muscle that is relaxed makes energy available to the others.''


THE Swift Suit uses darker colors on certain zones of the body to absorb radiant heat from the sun in an attempt to increase muscle power, while using lighter fabrics in other places. But this also leaves Cornetet skeptical.

''A muscle needs to be cooled while it is at work,'' he said. ''It's like an engine, if you put a paper in front of a car's radiator, and if it's hot out, you're going to explode the engine.''

Shot-put and javelin throwers also have new suits: the Adidas one-armed throwing suit. One sleeve is cut off so that the throwers can better concentrate on their throwing arms, Adidas claims.

But if every runner and swimmer has a bodysuit, then logically the fastest competitor will win. So what is the real issue? Image is everything: the bodysuit is all about selling itself.

Technological innovations will pop up in many sports in Sydney. Some to look out for include:

SAILING Yachts in some classes will be fitted with a kind of nautical black box that will send a signal to a satellite to allow officials to pinpoint the yacht's position to within 1 meter (3.3 feet). This information will be broadcast so television viewers can see where the yachts are in a race and follow their paths.

KAYAKING Competitors will wear goggles developed by the Australian Institute of Sport that have an in-built sensor showing them their vital signs, including heart-rate data.

ROWING Oars will have sensors that measure the force each competitor exerts on the water. That will enable coaches to plot the weak link in a boat or identify where an individual's timing is out.

MARATHON Runners will have chips weighing about 5 grams (0.175 ounces) attached to a shoelace. Antennas in the road every 5 kilometers (3 miles) will identify athletes.

MASSAGE French athletes will be equipped with machines that look like a cross between a robot and a vacuum cleaner. A motorized vacuum head both massages and sucks the muscular area. Its makers say it is a natural method of improving performance through quicker recovery.

Brad Spurgeon is on the staff of the International Herald Tribune

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