For an Olympic athlete, gear that shaves milliseconds off of your time can mean the difference between a gold medal or defeat. But this year, as Rio 2016 gets underway, wearable tech is serving an additional purpose: protecting an athlete’s health. From sportswear designers, here are four innovations created for these Olympic games:
1. Water-repellent sailor suits
In December 2015, German sailor Erik Heil was hospitalized for skin infections in his legs and hip. Heil said he believes he contracted the infections during a test regatta in Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay, when water slid underneath his suit. It hasn’t been confirmed whether the antibiotic-resistant infection came from Rio’s waters, but the incident nonetheless sheds light on water contamination concerns.
In an attempt to protect the athletes and improve performance, the Australian team’s Olympic uniforms have been made with a fabric that repels water. The material, known as Avlare, also weighs 75 percent less than wet spandex.
Sportswear marketed as “water repellant” has been used in prior Olympics. But Tom Hussey, research and development manager for Zhik, which invented the fabric, argues that Avlare is different, as it can withstand extremely wet sports like sailing.
Plus, he said, it could provide protection from Rio’s polluted waters.
“This has definitely been a big concern of the teams we have been working with,” Hussey said. “The hydrophobic nature of Avlare fabrics prevents water absorption into the yarns of the fabric, which will provide some protection against contaminants absorbing into the fabrics.”
While Zhik has officially partnered with the Australian sailing team, Avlare is also being used by British, New Zealand, Singaporean and Danish sailing athletes.
2. ‘Zika-proof’ uniforms
With Zika concerns looming large over the Rio games, teams are taking extra precautions to prevent bites from the Aedes ageypti mosquito, using jackets, long pants, high socks…and even “Zika-proof” condoms.
All South Korean teams have been issued what the country is calling “Zika-proof” opening ceremony and training uniforms. The fabric in the athletes’ gear is laced with a mosquito repellant. The uniforms also cover as much skin as possible.
Making clothing resistant to mosquitoes is nothing new. Permethrin is a mosquito repellant that can be washed into clothes, creating a similar effect to the “Zika-proof” uniforms. There have also been numerous studies into the effectiveness of bug spray, and no mosquito repellant is 100 percent effective.
South Korean athletes are expected to wear this “Zika-proof” fabric throughout the duration of the games…except for during the competitions themselves. Due to strict “performance-enhancing regulations” for sportswear, the mosquito-repellant fabric has been banned when athletes compete for the gold. However, athletes are permitted to use bug spray on their regular uniforms as a precaution.
3. Speedo 2.0
Speedo brought a fully redesigned suit called the LZR X to the Rio games.
The LZR X is designed to compress certain muscles to increase endurance, maintain horizontal posture in the water and optimize performance during a race. The leg panels are made of two fabrics, meant to minimize the buildup of lactic acid — a byproduct your body makes while exercising that creates a burning feeling — and maximize the movement of kicks. The swim kits also come with goggles based on head scans from more than 2,000 swimmers, and head-molded swim caps to make them as hydrodynamic as possible — allowing athletes to move at top speed rather than be held back by the water.
The redesign comes after FINA–the governing body for international swimming — banned prior versions of the suit in 2009.
Those suits — dubbed the LZR Elite and Elite 2 — changed the sport of swimming at the 2008 Olympic games. During those games, many swimmers — including Michael Phelps, the most medaled swimmer in the history of the games — wore Speedo’s LZR Elite technology.
The full-length hydrofoam bodysuit made a swimmer more buoyant and drag-resistant, shaving seconds off their times. Ninety-eight percent of the medals won at that Olympics were awarded to swimmers wearing the LZR Elite or Elite 2. By the 2009 World Championships, 23 of the 25 swimming world records were broken by people wearing this suit. Ultimately, FINA decided the LZR Elite and similar full-body suits gave performers an unfair advantage.
Tim Sharpe, Speedo’s head of design and innovation, told the NewsHour before the games began that he would be watching the game, hoping new world records would be set in their suit.
“It makes the games more exciting. It’s the athletes that win the medals, we just support them in doing it.”
Sharpe says they released the suit earlier this year so athletes could have time to adjust to the technology before race day, and added phrases chosen by the athletes like “land of the free and home of the brave” on the inside of the suit.
“They do superhuman feats, but they are still human,” said Sharpe.
This is the first year that Speedo is providing a choice of two suits: the LZR X, or the lower compression LZR Racer 2 from the London 2012 games. Mireia Belmonte, a record-breaking Spanish swimmer, has said she’ll use both suits throughout Rio 2016, according to Sharpe.
So far, gold medals have been won and world records broken in the LZR X. U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky broke the 400m freestyle world record — which she herself previously set — by almost two seconds.
4. Fighting microbes
Members of the U.S. rowing team are wearing an “anti-microbial” rowing uniform. Their unisuits are woven together with an anti-microbial technology meant to control exposure to the bacteria and viruses in the rowing venue’s sewage-laced waters. The suit also has water-repellant qualities, which are supposed to provide another level of protection and keep the rowers dry during races, according to Kavya Chengappa, a digital marketing manager for Boathouse Sports — creator of the unisuit.
Chierika Ukogu, the first Olympian ever to row for Nigeria, tested the prototype of the lightweight “anti-microbial” suit, and will compete in the technology at Rio 2016. She says that the suit feels like wearing air.
That quality was intentional, according to Chengappa. She told the NewsHour that the uniform was meant to feel like a “second skin,” reducing friction and increasing stroke motility.
However, this suit, like most rowing uniforms, is sleeveless. With so much exposed skin, it’s unclear how much protection the unisuit will provide, according to Chengappa. The U.S. team will wear the “anti-microbial” suit during training. But for race day, they had a choice: this “anti-microbial” suit, or a standard one. All members of the team must wear the same suit in competition. So far, the team has opted for the regular suit, one that has an American flag across the back.