Science: Changing the World of Sports

With the latest release of the Nike Alpha Fly Next%, My curiosity in the role of technological advances in sports over the past couple of years was peaked. These advances are what help humans to push the limits of sports achievements to greater heights. Over the years, scientists have made use of everything given by Earth to help athletes. From observing biomechanics of animal movement gaits to understanding how different types of foam used in running shoes can help to increase comfort for athletes, Science has been integrated into the training regimes of athletes and of course, their equipment.

A huge controversy of applying science to sports equipment was in 2020, when the World Running Federation contemplated on banning the use of the Nike Vaporfly Next%, Nike Vaporfly 4% and the Nike Alphafly Next% in competitions. Many professionals claimed that sporting competitions were about the athlete rather than the equipment, and that the use of those shoes was a form of mechanical doping.

These shoes first came into the spotlight when Eluid Kipchoge broke the 2-hour barrier for marathons while wearing the Nike Alpha Fly Next%. A few weeks after Kipchoge’s record, Brigid Kosgei broke the women’s record in the Chicago marathon while wearing one of Nike’s “magic shoes”.

Nike claimed that their shoes contained engineering aspects that can help improve an athlete’s performance. This included the placing of a carbon fibre plate in the mid-sole to make a firmer sole and much more responsive sneaker. Nike also utilised its proprietary foam in the sole, claiming that it could provide up to 85% energy return to the athlete.  

Reading about these records and claims intrigued me. As a runner, I decided that I had to try these shoes out and experience for myself if the claims were true. My initial impression was that running was more comfortable. My regular timing for finishing 2.4 kilometres with my previous running shoes was 00:08:07 and my average heart rate was 135 beats per minute (bpm). I was pleasantly surprised as while wearing the Nike Zoom Fly, my timing was a 00:07:59 and my average heart rate went down to 133 bpm . I felt that the shoes did allow me to reduce my timing by about 8 seconds while running with the same effort. After speaking to some of my running mates, we all felt that Nike had really pulled off an engineering feat with their shoes.

Nike’s shoes were not the first sporting equipment to be in the limelight. Another similar occurrence was more than a decade ago, in the world of aquatics, more specifically during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The equipment in question was Speedo’s LZR racer suit.

Statistics surrounding the use of Speedo’s suit was incredulous. 98% of the swimming medals during the Beijing Olympics were won by athletes decked out in the suit. 25 world records in swimming were also broken during the Olympics itself, with 23 of these feats performed by athletes in the suit. The legend of the suit carried on past the Olympics, with a staggering 93 world records broken by swimmers while wearing the suit as of August 2009. If it was only one record broken in that suit, it might have been just coincidence, but this many? I believe it was truly the start of a technological revolution in sporting equipment.

Speedo’s scientists gained inspiration for the suit from one of the ocean’s deadliest predators – the shark. A shark’s skin feels rough as it contains dermal denticles (think of very tiny shark teeth on their skin). These denticles allow a shark to swim faster through water. Speedo’s scientists then sought to create a similar sort of “skin” for swimmers to allow them to move faster through the water.

The outcome of years of scientific research was a full-body suit that combined numerous engineering aspects. The suit was made of unique material with small parallel grooves to emulate the shark’s skin. This reduced the drag (friction with water in this case) that the swimmer experienced. Multiple layers woven into the single suit allowed the swimmer to maintain a more streamlined posture. The suit that took the spotlight in the Beijing Olympics was born. Eventually some claimed that the suit was “technical doping” and the authorities made restrictions to prevent the use of the LZR racer in competitions.

These two case studies led me to think about the speed at which technology is evolving. Companies develop cutting edge technology and put them in equipment. Athletes then use those equipment to break records. Complaints mount, leading to a ban in the said equipment. Rinse and repeat above process.

It feels that we are simply playing a catch-up game with the development of technology – that we can no longer predict the new technology that will appear in the next competition and can only ban the newest technology on hindsight citing mechanical doping. Maybe it is time for us to accept that in this new age, sports will no longer be just about the physical performance of man but also that of technology.

Of course, that opens a Pandora’s Box of questions. How much of an athlete’s performance can technology boost before the spirit of sports becomes null? Would this be discriminatory against athletes who do not have access to such equipment? Science has brought much change to sports equipment, but also many questions.

What are your opinions? Leave us a comment on this article!

Written by Amit
Illustrations by Toh Bee Suan

One Comment Add yours

  1. Anil says:

    Well written article and an Interesting read. Makes me wonder if they need to regulate the usage in competitive athletics. Say for an event, all participants should be wearing same type of gears, so that it is fair to all athletes. However, this may also start a competitive business between the vendor who manufacture the gears and a whole chain of influencing and selling factor will come in

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