Since 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, American athletes wear Nike on the Olympic podium. Nike clothing. Nike shoes. And not only on the podium; Athletes on the US national team, who compete in about half of the competition, from athletics to soccer to speed skating, wear Nike uniforms. Thanks to a deal signed in 2019, this near-ubiquity will continue until at least the Los Angeles 2028 Summer Games. The checkmark, as they say, is strong.
But this near-ubiquity also poses a challenge: staying ahead of the curve in relation to the aforementioned tick. As sports technology advances so quickly, you should start thinking about the equipment that athletes will need to following massive global competition every four years?
It turns out about four years old. “Once the closing ceremony is over and the fire has died down,” says Nike Chief Designer John Hawk, “our work begins on the next Summer Olympics.” This is not just a marketing ploy. The 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro ended on August 21 of the same year; In September, part of the Nike design team was in Japan to meet with members of the Tokyo Olympic Committee to find out where the collective heads of its members are.
A couple of things became clear very quickly. First, Tokyo will be far from Rio. August in the Brazilian city will seem familiar to anyone who has been to Miami in winter: an average temperature of about 78 degrees Fahrenheit and a respite from the usual humidity. Tokyo in August? Not so much. Hot, stuffy, ugh.
The second thing the Tokyo committee has made clear is their commitment to sustainability. This was not new to the organizers of the Olympic Games – since the 2000 Sydney Games, officials have taken measures to offset the undeniable consequences of being in the host city – but Tokyo has several new measures in mind. They hired architect Kengo Kuma, renowned for his work to live in harmony with the environment, to design the National Stadium at the center of the Games. They also pledged to make medals not only from recycled materials, but also from recycled mobile phones.
It was all music to the ears of the Nike team. They have already tried to develop Olympic gear with a similar environmental focus, such as the 2000 Sydney Games running jersey, which was from recycled bottlesbut intention and execution were not always the same. “It didn’t look great, it didn’t feel great,” Hawk says, looking back at that jersey. But now? With a handful of Olympics and another two decades of innovation in science and design? Tokyo will give them a chance to balance performance and principles.
The resulting shoes and apparel, which Nike unveiled last year, just months before the Covid-19 pandemic pushed the 2020 Games into summer 2021, aims to do just that. Technically, this refers to what Hawk calls the “atomic level,” using computational design to create either “second skin” or “breathing” waves, depending on the specific needs of the sport. It also represents the company’s largest demonstration that resilience doesn’t have to mean sacrifice – aesthetic, athletic or otherwise.
By now, of course, we know that those 2016 meetings on the dangers of weather in Tokyo have already been confirmed. Test events in August 2019 met temperatures so high that rowers suffered heat exhaustion as well as Triathletes were worse… In response, the Olympic Committee has moved this year’s marathon 500 miles north to Sapporo in the hope of a less harsh climate.
Heat is a special devil for athletics; The conditions on the track (and, well, the field) can be more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the ambient temperature. Nike apparel for this category aims to exorcise this demon with a new material it calls Aeroswift, a micro-bead version of its popular Dri-Fit technology. It’s like incredibly thin, narrow-band corduroy. With the exception of the ridges on these cords, they serve two functions: they create an obstruction effect that moves air through the skin underneath the fabric, and they give the fabric a two-tone, almost lenticular appearance that can look like it shimmers when the athlete is on the move.