From a Pig’s Bladder to Composite Microfiber: The Evolution of Sports Equipment

by Jay London on August 1, 2012

in Alumni Life, Athletics, Authors, Health, Modern Geekhood, Research

Men's Olympic pole vault records, corresponding with advances in vault equipment

At the first modern Olympics in 1896, American Bill Hoyt won gold in the pole vault with a jump height of 3.3 meters. Today, Hoyt’s first-place jump would not even qualify for the 2012 Games and is barely half of Australian Steve Hooker’s gold-winning 5.96 meters in 2008.

Among the many differences between the 1896 and 2008 events, Hoyt’s pole was made of a single piece of wood; Hooker used a pole that combined highly engineered carbon fiber materials.

To coincide with the London Olympics, an MIT-collaborated commentary in Nature Materials, “Materials and technology in sport,” traces how equipment innovations have impacted sports throughout history.

The commentary is co-authored by Kim Blair, a research affiliate at MIT’s Program for Sports Innovation, and Mike Vasquez ’08, MEng ’09 and Mike Caine, researchers at England’s Loughborough University Sports Technology Institute.

Tracing the history of various sports equipment like the skeleton bobsled and Olympic swimwear, the authors provides some interesting anecdotes, including:

  • The first soccer balls were composed of an outer leather shell and a pig’s bladder that served as an air containment unit.
  • Tennis racquet strings were originally made from animal intestine, with pig, sheep, and cow being the most popular.

The article pinpoints the advent of the technological infux in sports to the early 1990s, when financial, organizational, and competitive factors in sports and politics converged.

From Nature Materials:

As the Cold War drew to a close many of the high-end materials manufacturers, for example, DuPont and Dow Corning, started to consider commercialization pathways for their technologies other than for national security. Sport turned out to be a prime candidate for materials such as aluminum and titanium alloys, Kevlar, and neoprene.

Some advancements are not always welcome. Major League Baseball still requires a bat to be made from a single piece of wood. And when a microfiber composite basketball replaced the traditional leather ball prior to the 2006-2007 NBA season, players complained so loudly that the ball was switched back after less than two months.

More Olympic-related content on Slice can be viewed here and here.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jim Carbone August 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Nice article Jay. I think these continuous technological improvements in some sports are great; they’re leading to record-breaking feats and pushing the limits of what is possibile. The real trouble happens when technological improvements make it too tough for people who can’t afford the technological improvements to compete (for example, full body suits in swimming). It’s definitely a fine line.


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