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Innovation in Action at Tokyo 2020

By Thomas Compton
Innovation in Action at Tokyo 2020

Pioneering, astonishing and enthralling - these words perfectly describe the record-breaking performances we saw at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. But the terms could equally apply to the cutting-edge innovations that were also on display for the first time. In this article, we race through the new technologies that are pushing the boundaries of human capability.

Tracking improvement

On the track, world records were broken in the men's and women's 400 metres hurdles, as well as the women's triple jump. However, advances are also to be found in the track itself. The revolutionary Tokyo 2020 athletics track contains three layers specially designed for the Olympics. The base layer takes the form of a honeycomb structure, in which the hexagons are elongated in the direction of running (see EP patent 2055833). Air cells embedded within each hexagonal unit compress on impact to provide shock absorption and an improved energy return to the athlete.

The middle layer is made of a rubber that is vulcanised to improve rigidity. The vulcanised rubber matrix bonds with semi-vulcanised rubber granules that are interspersed within the matrix to improve elasticity. Meanwhile, the surface layer is embossed with a patented non-directional tessellation pattern, which supposedly enhances slip resistance and traction.

It has been estimated that the new material provides athletes with a 1-2 % edge, a significant margin in elite-level athletics. However, based on the events of the three world records broken this year, it would appear that the new track technology comes into its own in events where springing off the track is particularly important, whether bouncing over hurdles or hopping, skipping and jumping into the sandpit.

Spikes in performance

When Faith Kipyegon and Jakob Ingebrigtsen broke the Olympic records over the women's and men's 1500 metres at Tokyo 2020, commentators were quick off the blocks to note that both athletes were wearing the same type of running spikes. Their lightweight shoes utilised a combination of carbon-fibre plates and pebax foam to achieve an estimated 1.5-2 % advantage, which translates roughly to a 3 second improvement over 1500 metres.

The particular arrangement of the carbon-fibre plates has drawn much attention since Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour barrier in the marathon while wearing trainers that featured the technology. However, it is the foam that may be the key to the recent breakthroughs in performance.

The pebax foam material comprises block copolymers, which are polymers that are made up of two or more different types of monomer units. The block copolymers are advantageous because they inherit the characteristic properties of each of the homopolymers from which they derive, as well as further properties unique to the specific combination of the homopolymers.

In the foam of these particular spikes, polyethers and polyamides are combined to form the block copolymers. Polyethers are typically flexible and elastic, while polyamides provide strength, high energy return and are remarkably lightweight. By tailoring the ratios and lengths of the polymer blocks, the properties can be finely tuned to provide an optimal foam.

Making a splash

In the pool, the introduction of Speedo's new Fastskin LZR Pure Intent swimsuits coincided with 6 world and 27 Olympic records. The swimsuits, allegedly inspired by sharkskin, are made of a fabric featuring a ribbing pattern of zigzagging peaks and valleys. Counterintuitively, the ribbing reduces drag because water flowing at the right speed and parallel to the ribs only comes in contact with their peaks.

The swimsuits, protected by over 26 patents, also incorporate thinner, tighter fabric zones around the core that trigger a proprioceptive response, encouraging targeted muscle activation. According to Speedo's GB patent 2529472, this core muscle activation supports the swimmer's posture and prevents muscle vibration, a cause of wasteful oxygen usage.

Tokyo, the past and the future

This isn't the first time that a Tokyo Olympics has seen innovations leading to sporting breakthroughs. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics pole-vaulting competition, aluminium poles were replaced by lighter and more flexible fibreglass poles for the first time. The new poles provided a greater elastic energy return and made it easier for the athletes to convert their kinetic energy in their run-up into gravitational potential energy and thus a greater vaulting height. Staggeringly, nine men broke the previous world record and the event lasted an unprecedented seven hours.

Looking to the future, it is often the case that cutting-edge innovations in elite sport eventually filter down into products available to the general population. I wonder if it is therefore only a matter of time before we start seeing the latest carbon-fibre/pebax foam shoes at the weekly parkrun, Fastskin LZR swimsuits at the local pool, and other exciting new technologies, driving us all to be, in the words of the Tokyo 2020 motto, "Faster, Higher, Stronger - Together".