Technological innovations in sports equipment has greatly affected the definition of athletics. Improvements in the design of diving springboards, poles, fencing swords and clothing, archery equipment, discs, bicycles, barbells and kayaks have permitted great achievements in the Olympic field. Rules committees find it necessary to ban or approve innovations depending on the degree of popularity and affordability it has achieved. Equipment change will necessarily result in athlete-requirement change but the innovation must be available to all to be fair sport.
Full Text :COPYRIGHT Massachusetts Institute of Technology Alumni Associatio 1993
As innovation in sports equipment threatens to turn the Olympics into the world's greatest technology tourney, rules committees struggle to ensure a level playing field.
THE thrill of victory and the agony of defeat may be unchanged since the first Olympics, but competition sports equipment undergoes constant technological improvement. Whether bicycles, kayaks, javelins, barbells, archery gear, or fencing swords, just to cite a few, the tools of the athlete's trade are now lighter, stronger, and better designed than even a few years ago.
In fact, sports equipment is so good that it raises some troublesome questions. Should attempts to advance the technology of sports equipment be a wide-open race to "build the best"? Should such equipment be allowed to drive world records? Or must rigid standards be imposed to ensure fair competition? "In theory," says Chester Kyle, a designer of bicycles and clothing for the 1984 U.S. Olympic cycling team, "you want a contest between athletes, not machines, but in practice it doesn't work that way."
From Boards to Bars
Many of the most dramatic improvements in sports equipment came on the heels of World War II. Diving springboards, for example, were transformed by way of the aircraft industry when Norman Buck introduced a design in 1948 that used 300 interlocking pieces of war-surplus square aluminum tubing. The "Buckboard" soon gave way to designs that used even stronger and lighter aluminum alloys. By the 1960s the enhanced springiness of diving boards made possible dives at the 1-meter height that had previously been performed only at 3 meters.
Today's boards are springier still and provide 15 percent more lift than those of the 1960s. They also feature superior non-skid surfaces, and the light weight and resiliency of the board tip minimize injuries, especially to the head. In fact, the last two feet of the springboard now weigh less than 10 pounds.
Pole vaulting also got a boost from improved materials. In 1960 Herb Jencks, manufacturer of fiberglass fishing poles, had just built a new deep-sea fishing rod 10-feet long and more than an inch in diameter. Jencks's son, a junior-high-school vaulter, borrowed one of his father's poles for a practice vault and, much to his surprise and delight, surpassed his personal best by half a foot.
Until then, pole vaulters used bamboo poles and landed in sawdust pits, and the world record was 15 feet. Today the world record is just over 20 feet, thanks to carbon composite poles that are custom built to the vaulter's weight, take-off speed, and hold technique. Foam-rubber pits that cushion falls more effectively also allow vaulters to be evermore fearless in their quest for height.
Safety has clearly been the force behind improvements in fencing technology. Epee and foil weapons must now be made from maraging steel, a jet-fighter alloy that is stronger and less brittle than conventional carbon steel, according to Dan DeChaine, armorer for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team and member of the technical commission for the international fencing federation. The most dangerous situations in fencing arise when blades break in the heat of competition and puncture the fencers' protective garments. While 50 to 100 carbon blades typically snap in a world-class meet, only 3 maraging steel blades broke in the last world championship.
Safety standards for clothing have also been made more stringent. Fencing jackets and bibs--now made of Kevlar, a flexible synthetic fiber that is stronger than steel--are essentially bulletproof. Partly in response to the Soviet fencer who was killed in 1982 when his mask was pierced by a broken blade, masks are now constructed of stainless steel with a thicker mesh and denser weave that can withstand twice the force of the standard puncture test.
Archery bows made from new materials are a far cry from the sleek wooden relics that were still standard less than 30 years ago. In the mid-1980s Hoyt Archery introduced the latest in a series of materials innovations, a take-apart bow with a core made of syntactic foam--a material composed of tiny glass beads embedded in a rigid foam matrix--and wrapped in layers of carbon fibers and fiberglass.
The Hoyt bow is lighter and more stable than wood-core bows and is impervious to temperature changes, says archer and equipment expert Donald Rabska of Easton, which now owns Hoyt. "With wood you eventually get flex fatigue in the fibers," he says, "and no matter what you put on it, wood absorbs moisture and is affected by temperature changes." This means that wood bows shoot fast in cold weather but get mushy when the temperature rises. Rabska says the lightweight synthetic material also provides a speed boost: "Foam-core returns more of the release energy stored in the bow when the archer pulls back on the string."
Bow strings and arrows have also been transformed. Originally made of linen, strings are now made of a lightweight and low-stretch polyethylene that provides a velocity gain to arrows of several feet per second. The latest arrows--made from hollow aluminum with walls only .006 inch thick--are the lightest and therefore fastest yet. In fact, "they are about 20 feet per second faster than the all-aluminum arrows that were standard until the mid-1980s," says Rabska.
Such design changes have sent winning scores soaring. In a competition round, archers shoot a total of 144 arrows aiming for a perfect score of 1,440. Thirty years ago winning scores in major international tournaments hovered in the 1,100s. To win today, an archer must shoot in the neighborhood of 1,350.
Even the lowly discus, traditionally made of wood with its weight concentrated in a metal hockey-puck center, has been re-engineered. In the 1960s manufacturers began to experiment with different materials and weight distributions, hollowing out the wood rim and then replacing the hollow wood with a plastic shell. Designers then lined the edges with lead weights, distributing the weight nearer to the perimeter. "The theory," says Jay Silvester, chair of the U.S. discus development committee and former world-record holder in the sport, "is that weighting the edge stabilizes the discus in flight, which translates into longer throws." Certainly the numbers don't argue against the change. While Silvester set the world mark at 60.56 meters in 1961, the current record, set in 1986 by Jurgen Schult of East Germany, stands at 74.08 meters.
Barbells, too, have been improved. The newest bars are made from "clockspring steel" that is so flexible it can be bent nearly into a U and still resume its shape. "Lifters can take advantage of this," explains Lyn Jones, a coach of the U.S. Olympic weight-lifting team, "by timing the 'whip' of the barbells. Because the ends of the bar are momentarily lower when the center is jerked to chest height, the lifter can wait until the ends swing back upward to complete the lift.
Another innovation is a nylon sleeve that fits around the bar. Because the bar can rotate freely within the sleeve, the lifter can maintain balance and grip more easily while snapping the wrists under the tremendous strain.
Even the weights are better today. Since the 1972 Olympics, weights have been encased in rubber so that lifters could drop the barbell to the floor without causing damage. Having to lower it carefully wastes precious reserves of strength that are needed on the next lift.
In the early 1980s a study by the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) found that American athletes earned more medals in low-tech sports such as running and swimming than in high-tech sports such as kayaking and cycling. "It seemed paradoxical," says Eric Haught, chair of the sports science and technology commission of the U.S. canoe and kayak team, "that one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world performed worst in just those events in which it would be expected to excel." In an effort to close the technology gap, the USOC formed the Sports Equipment and Technology Committee (SETC) and enlisted researchers throughout the country to improve the quality of equipment available to U.S. athletes.
For example, Haught, an engineer who specializes in fluid flow, and Edward Van Dusen, president of Composite Engineering, received SETC grants in 1985 to perform extensive hydrodynamic testing of "slender body" forms such as kayaks and racing shells. From that research they designed a kayak with a more rigid body, which Greg Barton and Norm Bellingham paddled to gold medals at the 1987 world championships and Pan American games and then used to win two gold medals at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
Competition kayaks, once made of mahogany veneers, are now constructed of a combination of carbon-fiber cloth, Kevlar, and high-temperature epoxies--a stiffer design that minimizes the amount of energy wasted in flexing as the hull moves through the water. The hulls are also much lighter, but because there is a minimum weight requirement in competition kayaks, the weight saving is applied to new features such as reinforced foot braces and seat supports. These enable the athlete to sit in a position that is ideal for both mechanics and comfort, explains Haught.
Paddles, once made of solid poplar or birch, are now constructed of high-tech composites and weigh only half as much. Even more significant is a new spoon-shaped "wing" paddle that pulls more efficiently and achieves lift, thereby increasing speed. This design has required changes in paddling techniques, but the results have been so dramatic that all world-class kayakers now use it. "The wing was a revolution," says Haught, who estimates that the paddle has trimmed several seconds off world-record times.
Today work continues on the hydrodynamics of slender bodies. "We basically run races on the computer and see which design performs better," says Norman Doelling, assistant director of the Sea Grant Program at MIT.
But even when science and engineering come together in a dazzling new boat design, there is no guarantee that it will be embraced by rules committees. What's worse, explains Haught, is that you can't prequalify a boat. Kayaking officials believe it wouldn't be fair to approve a new design in secrecy, away from competitors' eyes, so they specify that boats have to pass inspection at the race. A team might decide to surprise the competition with a new design, he says, but the committee may throw the boat out of the contest right at the meet.
When it comes to run-ins with the rules, bicycle racing is in a class by itself. The sport has a long history of technological improvements and an equally long history of ambivalence over them. For example, in 1911 the French designer Etaine Boneau Varilla patented an enclosed bike that resembled a mini-dirigible on wheels, which indeed did "fly" past competitors. But by 1914 the international cycling federation decided that it was in the best interest of the sport to ban features added to a bike solely for streamlining. Bicycle design has been a game of hopscotch between engineers and cycling-federation officials ever since.
In 1932 French engineer Charles Mochet designed the recumbent bike, a low-slung affair in which the cyclist reclines and pedals as if in a Barcalounger. The bike used a rider's leg and lower-body strength more effectively than did an upright bike. "Even when piloted by second-rate cyclists," says bike designer Chester Kyle, "Mochet's bike beat every cyclist in Europe and also promptly set a new world record for the distance covered in an hour." Just as promptly, the authorities outlawed the revolutionary new bike from all official competition. The recumbent, the ruling body declared, was not a bike at all.
Kyle's own designs for cycling equipment have been outlawed eight times. "But the federation seems to waver back and forth in its interpretation of the rules," he maintains--a feature that is declared illegal one year may become the legal standard the following year.
For example, in 1984 Francesco Moser, an Italian bike racer, broke what wheel designer Steven Hed refers to as "the Babe Ruth home-run record of cycling." Moser covered more than 50 kilometers in one hour, surpassing the mark set in 1972 by Belgian cycling great Eddy Merckx, the most successful professional racing cyclist of the modern era. Moser accomplished this feat riding a custom bike--crafted by Antonio Delmonte, designer and physiologist for the Italian national team--featuring wheels in which the spokes had been replaced with a thin but rigid disk that supported the tire rim.
Disk wheels were suddenly hot. Moser's were priced at $6,000, but European manufacturers were soon selling them at a discounted but still stiff $1,200. In 1984 both the U.S. and Italian teams battled the international cycling federation, arguing that disk wheels should be allowed into Olympic competition. When the cycling authorities eventually relented, Italy and the United States cleaned up: the United States earned nine medals, its first since 1907.
Disk wheels have a drawback: they can be tough to control in crosswinds. The best solution often proves to be a bike with a rear disk wheel and a conventional front wheel, especially since designers like Hed, whose wheels rolled bikes from 10 countries at Barcelona last summer, have further refined the performance of the front wheel. The designers have cut drag by reducing the number of spokes and flattening the remaining few into thin blades that slice through the air. The rim has also been made more aerodynamic with a new egg-shaped cross section.
An even more significant innovation is the aero handlebar. Because it extends far over the front wheel with the hand grips close together, the aero bar forces the rider's body into a low forward tuck with arms extended almost prayer-like. "It's one of the biggest technological innovations since the beginning of the bicycle," Hed claims. The aero bar was developed by former U.S. ski-team coach Boone Lennon, who brought downhill skiing and wind tunnel experience to his enthusiasm for bike racing. The bars were first used by triathletes but really caught on when Greg LeMond used them to win the 1989 Tour de France. "In a 25-mile time trial," says Hed, "aero bars probably make a three-minute difference. In these events, if you don't have aero bars, you don't have a chance."
Bicycle engineering innovations don't end with hardware. Helmets are tear-drop shaped, visored, and vented to eliminate turbulence and are form-fitting, thanks to an inflatable bladder that can be pumped up to desired firmness. And new suits made of breathable nylon with silicone ribbing on the back and shoulders smooth out wind turbulence by helping air follow the natural contours of the cyclist's body.
Air resistance, in fact, is the barrier against which cyclists expend 90 percent of their energy. "What's most important is the turbulence created in the rider's wake--it's like an invisible hand holding the rider back," says John Sipay, former manager of team support for the U.S. Cycling Federation. Installing a fairing, or smooth wraparound structure that reduces air resistance, behind the seat could clean up 20 percent of that swirling turbulence, he says.
However, what's clearly illegal, says Chester Kyle, "is when things are done for streamlining purposes only." Everything on the frame has to be a functional part of that frame. The dodge, therefore, is to try to make the fairing part of the structure, not an add-on. In fact, already on the drawing board for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta are designs that make a seat fairing "an integral part of the bicycle."
Sipay, for one, believes that the sky should be the limit when it comes to technical improvements in cycling. "In the world of auto racing, no one believes we should still be racing Model T's, do they?"
Selecting for Athletes
The actual consensus, at least in principle, is that sport should remain a contest between athletes, not machines. But we need to be aware, says Haught, that changes in the rules governing equipment can determine who will excel. "Why do elite rowers stand 6 feet 4 inches to 6 feet 6 inches tall and weigh about 210 pounds," he asks, "while elite kayakers stand 5 feet 10 inches to 6-feet tall and weigh 180 pounds?" The reason is found in the allowable boat dimensions: a rowing shell can be as long as boat designers desire, whereas the length of competition kayaks is strictly limited.
In a rowing shell, stronger is better, even at the expense of added weight, because longer boats can distribute more weight over a larger area without riding low in the water and thus creating excessive drag. Performance in a kayak, however, says Haught, is more dependent on an ideal "aerobic strength-to-weight ratio." At a certain point, added bulk is a disadvantage despite any increase in strength that a heavier paddler can bring to the race.
This important consideration applies to nearly every sport: change the equipment--make it lighter, faster, stronger--and you change the athlete. Or more accurately, you select for athletes who possess the traits that are able to maximize the performance of the new and improved equipment.
Take the javelin. When it was redesigned to be lighter and possess a more aerodynamic taper and center of gravity, athletes accordingly honed their technique to make the javelin sail. "If thrown at exactly the right angle, velocity, and orientation," explains Mont Hubbard, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California-Davis who applies computer modeling to sports, "the aerodynamic javelin would achieve a powerful lift, floating with its nose up even as it passed its zenith and began to descend back to earth. If all went right, the javelin would dip nose downward only at the very end of its trajectory."
The technique required a great deal of finesse, but those who mastered it staggered the competition. In 1983, American Tom Petranoff broke the world record by three meters with a stunning 99.72-meter toss. Then just days before the 1984 Olympics Uwe Hohn of East Germany smashed Petranoff's world record by five meters with a soaring 104.80-meter throw.
Unfortunately, this match of exquisitely refined spear and perfect technique was rendering the world's sports stadiums obsolete--not to mention endangering spectators and other athletes warming up on the far side of the track. Javelins were being thrown out of the field of competition, and what's more, says Hubbard, they had a nasty habit of veering sharply to either side if misthrown. The sport's rules committee responded in 1986 by banning the new design. With the new de-engineered model, the world record dropped precipitously by 20 meters. And as the finesse throwers suddenly faded into the second ranks, the strong arms of power throwers once again prevailed.
Popularizing the Sport
Today the highest priority among rules committee officials is to keep their sport affordable to many athletes. "It's not fair to compete on one-of-a-kind designs," says John Tarbert, technical director and effectively keeper of the rules for the U.S. Cycling Federation. For instance, disk wheels were initially banned from Olympic competition because they were so expensive they really couldn't be considered "available" to most cyclists, he says.
Andy Toro, a former bronze medalist who now sits on the board of the International Canoe Federation (which oversees both canoe and kayak competition), wrestled with this very issue at a committee meeting last October in Madrid following the summer Olympics. On the agenda were several proposals that called for all canoes and kayaks to conform to a single hull design.
Toro supported the concept in theory. "Our sport is considered expensive, and we run the risk of pricing ourselves out of existence if we let the technological race continue wide open," he says, pointing out that new designs using exotic materials cost some $3,000 each. Costs must be reduced before the sport can be expanded internationally, he notes; for example, only three African countries are currently competing.
But Toro spoke out against the specific proposals because of concerns that the owner of the chosen design would suddenly have a monopoly. His proposed solution was to allow technological improvements, but at a slower pace: "I think we can establish a standard that we can review every four years and change if necessary to accommodate development."
The Federation of International Target Archery devised a similar approach--also to introduce competition archery into less affluent countries--that appears to satisfy both the conservative and progressive factions in the sport. Four years ago the federation established a "standard round" in international competition, in which the bows, strings, and arrows that can be used are all carefully specified. "It's very good equipment, but not the top end of cost and technology," explains Easton's Donald Rabska.
Part of the reason for the success of the standard round is that "there are a lot of archers who just don't want to futz with the cost and the latest technology," Rabska says, but at the same time an open competition challenges competitors who shoot the latest equipment, such as bows that use pulleys to amplify the archer's pull strength. By allowing competition at different equipment levels, archery resembles car racing, which has managed to fuel competition along a broad spectrum of equipment ranging from stock cars to formula-one racers.
Some observers argue that the goal should be to keep a sport alive for athletes and fans--not to mention manufacturers--by encouraging rapid technical innovation. But when push comes to shove, rules committees seem to place popularizing the sport first. As Haught says, "The more children you can put into boats, the more chances you have for an Olympic champion."
DAVID BJERKLIE is a science writer for Time magazine.
Bjerklie, David. "High-tech Olympians." Technology Review 96.1 (1993): 22+. Academic OneFile. Web. 6 Dec. 2009.
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