NEW YORK — Reebok, Nike, Adidas and other sports manufacturers have created fabrics and footwear intended to keep Olympic athletes as cool and dry as possible when they compete in Athens’ sizzling August heat.
From lighter colors to fibers that control moisture, the innovations are the result of intensive research on how to help competitors achieve optimal performance in temperatures that average 88 degrees in August — compared with 64 degrees in Sydney, Australia, where the 2000 Summer Games were held.
“We have been looking very carefully at what the conditions are going to be versus the last Olympics,” said Jordan Wand, global director of Nike’s Advanced Innovation Team. “Athens is going to be very hot and not very humid so there are some differences as it relates to keeping athletes cool and comfortable.”
Some developments show how important technology and textiles have become in performance apparel. Nike and other companies now have labs where researchers study the performance of their apparel. These labs use high tech chambers with various simulated environments to re-create exact weather conditions.
“In the Olympics past, man-made fabrics were not as prevalent and everyone used cotton, even for sports such as swimming,” said Christine Wu, Reebok’s director of apparel for sports marketing. “Now there have been many advancements. We have raised our standards, and we work closely with the factories and the athletes to develop our apparel.
“Athletes now win by fractions of a second so everything is considered,” she said. “It’s not just training and strategy, but equipment, shoes, clothing and even hair come into play.”
Reebok introduced its Play Dry system in 2002, though this is the first time it is being used at the Olympics. It is incorporated into the team outfits for the National Basketball Association and the WNBA, as well as apparel for individual athletes, including Reebok-endorsed tennis star Andy Roddick.
With this technology, Reebok creates crevices within the fibers of the garment, and the water molecules are drawn into the channels that take them away from the body, Wu said. There are also more mesh panels in the track and field Olympic apparel, which allows for greater breathability, she said.
Antimicrobial treatments, which are built into socks and apparel to inhibit the growth of sweat-based bacteria and keep fabrics smelling fresh, are also new.
Adidas, an official apparel sponsor of the United States Olympic Committee and 20 other national committees, is using its ClimaCool system in apparel for teams and its sponsored athletes. It will also be used for the award ceremony uniforms as well as apparel that each athlete will receive for team training and to wear in the Olympic village. Adidas is also providing uniforms, all of which will have ClimaCool, for the Athens staff, volunteers and technical officials.
ClimaCool was first tested two years ago. It is now a key part of Adidas’ performance apparel for athletes and consumers and is at the forefront of the company’s offerings for athletes going to Athens, said Chris DiBenedetto, leader of the Adidas Innovation Team.
“We started at the beginning with this technology,” DiBenedetto said. “We felt we had to understand the body to be able to effectively cool it, so we mapped the entire human body to determine which areas generate the most heat.”
Years in development, the technology is designed to enhance ventilation and moisture management by pulling sweat across the surface and through the fabric, DiBenedetto said. In addition, conductive tape is placed in key areas to dissipate heat, and a chimney-type vent on the athlete’s back is intended to increase airflow and vent areas. The goal is to create an environment around the body that is cooler than air temperatures, he said.
The technology is also used in Adidas footwear, and has been built into the midsole to create extra ventilation. The construction now has a patent.
Nike is incorporating a number of its proprietary thermoregulation systems for its Olympic apparel, including Sphere, Added Zone Venting, Dri-FIT and Strike Out Swift. Sphere, technology that was invented for long-distance runners, helps keep athletes cool through an evaporation system. It was introduced at the 2000 Summer Games and has evolved into new styles, including a singlet that is lightweight and eliminates chaffing through its seamless construction and ventilation.
“There are many components to our technology,” Wand said. “Our research has shown that it’s not about the amount of venting you have, but where it’s placed, and it’s not always an obvious thing.”
Wand said Nike has worked closely with teams and leagues, as well as individuals, including five-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, to develop its elite performance apparel. “In our research with Lance, we find that his [performance-related] problems are the same as his teammates and with everyday athletes.”
Swimwear giant Speedo, official sponsor for the U.S. swimming team, is using lighter colors and wickable fabrics for its new Olympic products.
“Since plans for a roof at the pool have been scrapped at the last moment, the swimming competition faces a very unique challenge with limited sun protection,” said Craig Brommers, vice president of marketing at Speedo. “For the first time ever, we are offering the team a vest and shorts combination instead of the usual long-sleeve warm-up and long pants seen at previous Games.” Speedo is also providing more Aussie-style hats than before, he said. “Our team needs to stay out of the sun so as not to dissipate energy.”
Under Armour, the fast-growing brand best known for its performance underwear, doesn’t have deals with athletes, but the company has found that many elite competitors are using its products.
“We believe our brand has brought more awareness to the importance of having performance products,” said Kevin Plank, the company’s founder and president. He said products that have been particularly popular with athletes are the polyester shirts, which have a stretch element as well as other Lycra offerings.
Many of these companies plan to bring the innovations used in the apparel for athletes to consumers after the Games. Reebok’s new Play Dry is being incorporated into spring offerings.
“Consumers are getting a lot more savvy about technology,” said Reebok’s Wu. “Even if it’s for casual competition, people want the same level of performance as the Olympians.”