Material differences - materials science in sporting performance

Materials World magazine
4 Aug 2012

From all that has been written and said about the huge cost, tight security, transport chaos, soaring hotel prices and much more besides, it is easy to forget that at the heart of the London 2012 Olympics is a sporting competition, with every athlete striving to be best in their field, or at least their personal best. Whether records are broken will depend on many things, not least the great British weather, but what difference has sporting material science made over the years to give that world-beating edge?

There is no doubt that events such as rowing, sailing and especially cycling rely heavily on the latest material technology and sports equipment design to provide that extra few hundredths of a second difference, so I will limit my admittedly rather unscientific research to those events that are still essentially a test of the human body alone. Perhaps the best example of this is the men’s 100 metres, a race that can trace its origins back to the ancient Olympian stade, a short sprint measuring the length of the stadium. Usain Bolt’s current world record 9.58 seconds has held since 2009, and is only a 10% improvement on the first official world record of 10.6 seconds recorded at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. While modern running tracks provide a faster surface than the cinder tracks of old and lightweight footwear is an improvement on heavy leather running spikes, today’s runners are not so far removed from their ancient Olympian forebears, when athletes competed naked to emphasise the purity of the competition.

The 100 metres freestyle swimming, on the other hand, has seen a 40% improvement since Zoltán Halmay of Hungary set a 1 minute 5.8 second benchmark in 1905, compared to the 46.91 seconds set by César Cielo at the 2009 World Aquatics Championships. These were dubbed the Plastic Games after the polyurethane Arena X-Glide swimsuits were thought to be largely responsible for the 43 World Records that fell. FINA, the international swimming federation, had looked to implement limits on nontextile suits after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where the Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit was held accountable for the 62 World Records logged. The subsequent events in 2009 led to the enforcement of a set of regulations covering swimwear design, which runs to 29 pages and requires all new designs to be submitted for ratification in advance.

There is another event with a pedigree going further back than ancient Olympia. Tracing its origins to the East Anglian fenlands and European low countries, the pole vault originated as a means of vaulting across canals and marshy watercourses. The men’s pole vault record now stands at 6.14 metres, a 50% improvement on the 4.02 metres recorded in Stockholm in 1912. This is partly due to significant advances in vaulting pole material from wood-based ash and bamboo, then aluminium and now carbon fibre to achieve that combination of elasticity, lightness and strength. Surprisingly, there are very few rules governing pole design. IAAF regulations state that the pole may be of any material or combination of materials and of any length or diameter, but the basic surface must be smooth. Any tape at the grip end must be uniform except for incidental overlapping and must not result in any sudden change in diameter, such as the creation of any ring on the pole to support the athlete’s weight. Oh, and the athlete must bring his or her own pole…