The eight gold medals that Michael Phelps brought home from the 2008 Summer Olympics broke world records and created a swimming-star phenomenon.
But the swimsuits worn by the elite swimmers in Beijing were groundbreaking achievements, too, with fabric technology so advanced that it set off controversy beyond the international sporting rivalries.
Just as Olympic swimmers vied for the most performance-enhancing pool attire last summer, the crop of elite athletes training for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver are donning fabric technology to strengthen their skills on the slopes.
The Vancouver events, including skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports held on snow or ice, require athletes to cover themselves in substantially more gear than last summer's headlining-grabbing swimwear. When Burton, for example, recently unveiled the US Snowboard Team Uniforms for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the snowboard manufacturer highlighted the performance benefits of the Gore-Tex fabrics used in the jackets and pants.
As a waterproof membrane with microporous holes, the 1980 patent on Gore-Tex fabric ended several years ago. Today, textile scientists have access to the patent and are developing new variations on the classic performance fabric, says Anita Heiberg, who teaches textiles and garment construction at The Art Institute of Vancouver.
"They're always making Gore-Tex better, so it will be more breathable, let more perspiration out, and let less water, rain, or snow in," Heiberg says. "That's a product that's constantly being changed."
Heiberg notes that if there are any recent breakthroughs in Olympic-grade performance fabrics they likely won't be revealed to the general public until after the Winter Games, so that competing apparel manufacturers won't have time to copy new developments. Because her experience with fabric technology isn't related to Olympic-specific apparel, Heiberg adds that her insights into the Winter Games are based on speculation.
Performance wear companies also compete for sponsorships so that they can outfit a high-profile athlete in their brand, Heiberg says.
"Basically they're paying for advertising space on an athlete that millions of people are watching perform," Heiberg says. "It's huge for marketing."
From an athlete's point of view, freedom of movement is the most important factor in performance gear, she says. Designers for Olympic athletes also leave out extra features like pockets that are necessary for outerwear for the general public.
Speed skaters, bobsledders, and downhill skiers alike need streamlined, tight-fitting clothing that won't cause drag that can slow them down, Heiberg says.
"Any sports where time or speed are a factor would be most benefited by using a technical or performance fabric," Heiberg says. "Skiing and snowboarding tend to be ahead of the pack as far as developments go."
Athletic apparel manufacturer SportHill is just one company leading the charge in developing technical wear for winter athletes. In 1991, SportHill developed 3SP, a high-performance cold-weather fabric worn by Olympic cross-country skiers including Canadians Beckie Scott and Sara Renner.
Along with the rest of the Canadian Olympic Cross-Country Ski Team, medalists Scott and Renner wore 3SP fabrics during most of their Olympic training, says SportHill President Jim Hill.
"It's the only fabric we've found that you can wear a single layer in conditions anywhere from 35 degrees to 10 degrees," Hill says. "If the sun is out, you can wear 3SP in 10 degrees, all by itself."
While Winter Olympians typically compete wearing lighter fabrics like Lycra, training consumes 98% of an Olympic skier's time on the slopes, Hill says. That's where 3SP and other SportHill-developed fabrics designed for warmer weather come in, he says.
The features that make 3SP so effective on the training slopes are its breathability, stretch, and windproof and hydrophobic qualities, Hill says.
"3SP is, ounce for ounce, the warmest fabric that we've ever come across in the world," Hill says.
Elite athletes in skiing, running, and mountaineering wear 3SP, Hill says; the Canadian Olympic Cross-Country Ski Team picked up the fabric in 1993.
Winter Olympic hopefuls outfit themselves in apparel that will help them go faster and compete longer in harsh conditions, says Kat Schoewe, senior design manager at L.L. Bean.
"You're talking about anything from keeping the body warmer for a longer period of time, or keeping the body dry, controlling the temperature," says Schoewe, who oversees the design of L.L. Bean outerwear, accessories, hunt/fish apparel, and equipment, which includes camping, winter sports, and water sports.
A new trend in cold-weather fabrications for athletes is minimizing fabric weight, Schoewe says. The lightweight compressible fabrics developed in the last 10 to 15 years for mountaineers and ice climbers translate into Olympic-grade performance apparel for outdoor winter events.
"When you're mountaineering or ice climbing for many days on end with that pack on your back, that weight really matters, as it does when you're performing at an Olympic level," Schoewe says.
Other fabric innovations work to keep the body cooler during intense heat, Schoewe says. The German-made fabric with the trade name coldblack, for example, incorporates technology that reflects the sun and shields the body from UV rays, she says.
During the Beijing Olympics, athletes wore Nike PreCool Vests an hour before competition to lower the body's core temperature. The vest has two layers: an inner one filled with triangles of frozen water and an outer layer coated with aluminum to trap cold air while reflecting radiant heat.
In addition to performance fabrics, new advances in garment construction take athletic wear to the next level, says Schoewe. Using compression technology when designing a garment, for example, can accentuate the fabric's features to create the most optimal athletic apparel, she says.
While L.L. Bean isn't providing any uniforms to Olympic athletes, Schoewe and her team research fabric innovations in the market and explore their possible applications for enthusiast athlete customers. In general, the level of technology desired really depends on the athlete's skill level.
"At the most basic level, it's can your skier stay out longer, stay warmer, and stay dry," Schoewe says. "At the pinnacle level, it's about how much faster can the athlete go, getting less tired, and supporting the muscle groups through compression and through aiding the body's performance."
Written by freelance talent for Ai InSite
Contributing writer for EDMC.