Running: watch for . . .
How the runners' feet strike the ground in the longer races. The top competitors should barely touch with their heels. Newton running shoes accentuate this form in elite runners and encourage it in those with less-than-perfect technique.
Nike’s Zoom Victory should make the most noise on the track, as the company’s new-tech shoes have at recent Olympics. The lightweight track shoe gets its support from 116 cables spun out of Vectran—the same material NASA used in the air bags that cushioned the Spirit and Opportunity rovers when they landed on Mars. While Nike’s shoes may draw the most attention, though, a small company in Boulder, Colorado, called Newton Running is trying to have a much larger impact on the sport.
Founder Danny Abshire, a longtime running coach and orthotics expert, has been working for more than a decade on a shoe that makes you feel as if you’re running barefoot. He says most runners have poor form: They strike with their heels first and opt for a longer stride instead of higher turnover. When running barefoot, though, you tend to correct these errors, so the Newton shoes encourage a more efficient gait by tricking the foot into thinking it is naked. The forefoot section of the shoe’s sole includes four small rubber blocks that move up and down relative to the rest of the shoe. When you hit the ground, the lugs press against a stretchable membrane below your foot, which then pushes back as you launch into the next step. “It’s basically an energy storage and retrieval system,” Abshire says. Several world-class triathletes have tested the Newton in major races and significantly dropped their times.
Whitewater kayaking: watch for . . .
The gates. Paddlers are penalized for hitting or missing gates as they race down. Shorter boats should improve handling, helping the kayakers stay on course, but the faster artificial river will do its best to throw them off.
Since the 2000 Olympics, the whitewater kayaking event has moved from natural rivers to artificial courses in which the water’s speed and flow, the height of waves, and the obstacles can all be adjusted. These man-made rivers are narrower, and their smooth concrete floors make for a course that is faster and less turbulent than nature’s waterways. Scott Shipley, a three-time Olympian in the event, says the races are now a bit more like cycling. The boats move so fast that you can bank into turns instead of just paddling through them. He calls the event “ballistic.”
The Beijing course will be one-of-a-kind—the Chinese redesigned it after an exact replica of their course was built in the Netherlands. That might sound like a serious home-court advantage, but U.S. kayakers should be well prepared. Shipley designed a course in Charlotte, North Carolina, that several national teams, including the U.S. squad, have been using to train. A pneumatic pump inflates bladders along the bottom to change its shape and, consequently, the form of the waves on the surface. Obstacles can easily be switched around, and pinball-style paddles extending from the walls squeeze the water in spots, altering both its flow and its height.
The courses aren’t the only big change in the event. Paddlers will also be able to race in boats that are 11/2 feet shorter than at the last Games—they lobbied for the change so they could better maneuver the boats through the trickier artificial courses. The kayaks have to weigh at least 19 pounds, but John Brennan, a coach and boat designer in Durango, Colorado, says builders will typically aim to come in a few ticks below that limit, then add weight to the rider’s seat. By moving more mass to the middle, Brennan says, you make it easier for the boat to swing around its center of gravity. He says this kind of design trick, combined with the shorter, 2008-model kayaks, have made the sport far more dynamic. “These guys are doing moves that honestly just blow you away,” he says.
Volleyball: watch for . . .
High-arcing set shots. See if the ball moves around due to turbulence. Study how the players position the ball on their serve and whether they are using the ball’s new seams effectively to generate more spin.
In Beijing the human pogo sticks known as volleyball players will have to pay attention to more than just their opponents. They will also be striking a new kind of ball. Mikasa, a leading equipment manufacturer, has produced two new models, one for the indoor event and another for the beach. The outdoor version has a water-wicking outer material that prevents the ball from absorbing moisture—and gaining weight—during a match. It also has a new stitch pattern that, combined with smaller threads, does a better job at keeping sand out of the seams.
The indoor ball is radically different too. The biggest change is its newly dimpled, golf-ball-like surface. Tiny divots reduce the ball’s aerodynamic drag and, according to Mikasa, allow it to fly truer through the air. The dimples also increase the surface area that comes into contact with players’ hands, which should give the competitors more control.
U.S. men’s head coach Hugh McCutcheon says that Mikasa’s aesthetic alterations are significant too. The company switched the ball’s panels to a swirling pattern. McCutcheon thinks that because of the resulting change in the seams, a player can actually produce more spin by hitting the new ball in certain spots rather than others. Mikasa has shipped each national team a set of practice balls to give players time to adjust, which McCutcheon says is critical. “When you are trying to win medals,” he says, “the way the ball plays is a big part.”
Field hockey: watch for . . .
How the ball hydroplanes over the surface of the field, and whether Nike’s new cleats prevent the players from slipping.
For several years China has been touting its plans to host an environmentally friendly Olympics. In field hockey, that means reducing water consumption. Matches are held on artificial turf that is watered heavily prior to the game and during halftime. The watering speeds up play, allowing the ball to hydroplane across the thin layer of moisture at the surface, but a single game might use as many as 15,000 gallons. A giant water footprint doesn’t exactly scream Earth Day.
In Beijing players will be racing across a new surface developed by chemical engineer Martin Schlegel and his team at Advanced Polymer Technology in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and their subsidiary in Australia. With more efficient drainage, the company’s system cuts water consumption by 40 percent. And the rubber subsurface—which Schlegel says absorbs more force than standard artificial fields and should thus reduce player injuries—has an elastic layer made from recycled materials. But this is the Olympics, after all, so the new field isn’t all about minimizing environmental impact. It’s designed to improve play as well. Accordingly, Schlegel opted for turf that’s denser than the standard surface. The last Olympic field used 55,000 stitches per square meter; the new one uses 75,000. This increase should result in a more uniform field that allows the ball, when struck, to keep on a straight path instead of being nudged in one direction or another by the fake grass blades. It has also forced shoe designers to adjust: Nike footwear design director Sean McDowell says the company tested 20 prototypes on the Beijing turf before choosing a shoe that the players said gave them the best grip, enabling faster cuts.
BMX: watch for . . .
Who wins the gold in the unofficial fashion event, but study those first five seconds of the race, too. Whoever leads into the first turn has the best chance to stand atop the podium.
As part of an ongoing effort to make the Olympics more appealing to young people, this year’s Games will feature BMX, or bicycle motocross. Make no mistake, though: The riders are true athletes. BMX experts say their racers rank with the top Olympic participants in terms of strength-to-weight ratio.
A BMX race is an all-out sprint around a dirt track full of tight turns, bumps, and jumps. Typically, the tracks start on flat ground, so the most powerful riders, those who generate the most acceleration in the first few cranks of their pedals, have the advantage. That’s why strength is so critical. In Beijing, though, BMXers will start at the top of a 30-foot-high ramp. Because all of the competitors get the same gravity assist, the riders with the biggest kick will lose their advantage. But the U.S. Olympic Committee wasn’t going to let this procedural change hurt its team; the organization commissioned a near replica of the Beijing track in Chula Vista, California, for training.
This year’s BMX bikes feature advanced materials; one manufacturer says its high-tech construction method allows it to strengthen the frames at stress points with stiffer carbon fiber and to use lighter blends in other spots to save weight. But overall the sci-tech craze hasn’t hit BMX as hard as it has road cycling. In fact, when the Australian Olympic team tested out skintight aerodynamic bike suits at a recent competition, they were mocked by fans. “The skin suits made them look silly,” says U.S. National Bicycle League official Justin Travis. The sport’s international governing body subsequently banned the slick outfits: In BMX, speed is important, but you’ve got to look good, too.