Beyond the double glass doors, out past the marble fountain burbling near the Tiger Woods building, a billion perfect blades of grass stood at attention. Songbirds twittered. Sunlight shone. Flags fluttered over twin soccer fields so plush the pitches looked like swimming pools. All was as it should be on
Which was when one of Nike's prototype Olympic track shoes, code-named Flywire, went to pieces. A test athlete on the 400-meter Michael Johnson test oval, told to push the top-secret racing spikes to their limit, had done just that. "The shoe blew out on the side of his forefoot," says Sean McDowell, Nike's design director for Olympic footwear, "like a balloon."
But in that breakdown three years ago, Nike caught a whiff of engineering ambrosia: a loophole in the Universal Law of Sports Technology, which says unequivocally that you can build something infinitely light or infinitely strong but not both; that there are I-beams and there are feathers, and you can't build one from the other. No exceptions.
Except in this case.
"He said it was the most amazing 300 meters he'd ever experienced," McDowell says of the test runner's reaction to his first strides in the ethereal prototype. "Like he was running naked. Like he had spikes growing out of his feet."
Before that day, the lightest pair of track shoes ever made — Michael Johnson's golden Nike spikes — weighed 112 grams. Even now, they are considered a marvel of shoe engineering because they were designed to hold together just long enough for Johnson to make it across the finish line, and maybe a few meters more. But the Flywire prototype that disintegrated on that Oregon track weighed 67 grams per pair, or a little over 1 ounce each. They were an astonishing 41% lighter.
Flywire, which will debut at the Beijing Games, uses only the barest exoskeleton of wispy, high-tech filaments — roughly 7 linear feet of thread, affixed to an ultrathin fabric scrim — to provide its structure and shape (think of a space-age Roman sandal). With the usual need for supporting material reduced almost to zero, the shoe is not only featherlight, but also radically simple, fast, and cheap to build. So while it promises to improve racing performance, it also hints at dramatically lower production costs for everyday shoes — a construction technique that springs directly from a designer's imagination, flows through a computer chip, then flowers in three dimensions in a matter of seconds. "It opens up new frontiers," says Jay Meschter, Flywire's lead designer. "Analog stitching is gone. This is a digitally programmed shoe. Everybody realizes this is a smarter way to build shoes, and it's just going to pervade everything we do."
Nike is not alone in its Olympic cries of "Eureka!" Adidas, Mizuno, Gill Athletics (the world's largest manufacturer of track-and-field equipment), Speedo, and many others have been working feverishly to rewrite the Universal Law of Sports Technology. And by August, all of them will have performed another amazing feat: collapsing the timeline that separates a new Olympic concept — often representing millions of dollars in up-front R&D costs — from its return on investment. Suddenly, Olympic innovators will be able to make the long jump between the design studio and the cash register. About a week before the lights go up on the opening ceremonies, you'll be able to find a pair of Flywire HyperDunk basketball shoes at a Niketown near you.
What you'll discover on these pages are 18 technological masterworks — from archery bows to BMX gear — and a behind-the-scenes look at how they were created, including a rare tour of Nike's supersecret Innovation Kitchen. Each item represents a dramatic technological insight, a critical increment of leverage over the competition. Such improvements are hard enough to come by but even rarer in the tradition-bound context of the Olympics.
Take Adidas, for example: With just two years until the opening ceremonies in China, the German giant was struggling to conjure a new track spike for its star Texan runner, the 400-meter gold medalist Jeremy Wariner. After watching hours of super-slow-motion footage of Wariner's quirky gait, the company decided to replace his Pookie spike, which helped Wariner win in Athens (and nearly every 400-meter race he has entered since). Called Lone Star and sporting a crown insignia to signify Wariner's leadership in the sport, the new shoe has the following unorthodox feature: It lists to port.
"Most middle-distance races are won in the turns," explains Mic Lussier, the French-Canadian leader of the Adidas Innovation Team, or aIT, which developed the shoe. And track runners never, ever turn to the right. So Lussier's 50 biomechanical engineers, industrial designers, and electromechanical experts set about making asymmetrical spikes for Wariner. The skewed shoes would be founded on ultralight carbon plates made of microscopic nanotubes 20 times stronger than steel. And they would "redirect the line of force that loads on the outside of his right foot," Lussier says, "and send it inward, toward his big toe." In other words, Wariner's new right shoe would accelerate to the left.
"The idea is based on the same asymmetrical suspension you see in a Nascar stock car," Lussier says. "It's really quite amazing."
Even before he pulled the trigger on his company's pneumatic javelin gun, Gill Athletics' vice president of engineering, Jeff Watry, knew he had created a breakthrough Olympic spear. Still, he was curious to see just how far his new design could fly, so he disconnected the catapult's regulator and hooked the gun directly to the factory's compressed air.
"Uh-oh," he said to his team as they watched the javelin disappear over the company's headquarters in Champaign, Illinois. "That's farther than we thought." The new 800-gram OTE Composite FX landed a quarter mile away, in a pond behind another company's warehouse.
Watry's bench testing had already shown him that the OTE (one of two primary javelins you'll see during the men's event in Beijing; the other is made by the $7 billion Swedish materials-technology company Sandvik AB) had struck a near-perfect balance between weight and strength. But his challenge was not to make something light and aerodynamic; it was to design something light and aerodynamic that wouldn't destroy the athlete throwing it.
When an elite thrower releases a javelin correctly, it "goes through a point," flying out of the hand in a straight line at a 40-degree incline, as if it were being thrown through a bull's-eye: no wobble, no flutter. But a javelin shaft typically vibrates for two seconds after it's released, and since vibration hinders aerodynamic lift (by disturbing the flow of air around the shaft), many engineers began experimenting with javelins built of pure, vibration-absorbing carbon. There was only one problem: Pure-carbon javelins may not vibrate, but they "kill your thrower," Watry says. Instead of being released as a two-second-long flutter, all that energy is directed backward, into the athlete's body — with dire consequences. "The guy would last about three months before his shoulder blew out," Watry explains. Shoulder and elbow injuries may be endemic to the sport, but all-carbon shafts made it downright unhealthy to throw a spear.
Watry's solution: He made an aluminum shaft (for elbow-friendly flexibility and "softness") and wrapped it in a spirally woven carbon sheet — a giant toothpick swaddled in a carbon-fiber fishnet stocking. The 50-50 mix of materials reduced the forces exerted on the thrower's elbow, and cut the OTE's vibration time by 10%, a big margin by Olympic standards.
If that all sounds like a lot of labor for an item that will sell only about 30 copies (at $785 a pop) in the next year, remember: The Olympics are the mother of all loss leaders, and if everything goes well, Watry says, Gill-branded javelins will be on all three levels of the medal stand this summer. That's the hottest 60-second spot on television for the company's vast product line.
Speedo's brand image hit a high-water mark in 1972 when a mustachioed Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in the company's star-spangled nylon-elastane briefs. But the Nottingham, England — based company's success in the Olympic pool had begun with its first world record in 1932 — and has been constant since. For example, during three consecutive Olympics, from 1968 to 1976, the brand was worn by an estimated 70% of medalists, including 27 of 29 gold medalists in Mexico City.
If there has been a dark side to Speedo's hegemony, it lies in its product's minimalism. The mere word "Speedo" conjures images of plump, pallid Germans basking on the Côte d'Azur in unter-size beachwear. Today, however, Speedo looms large. In February, the company introduced a full-body swimsuit so fast it has inspired regulatory scrutiny, international controversy, athlete-sponsorship defections, and — in Italy, not surprisingly — fist shaking.
The controversy springs from the way Speedo outfoxed the rule governing swimsuits: FINA, the sport's international federation, bars suits that create buoyancy. No suit may "lift" a swimmer or make her lighter. No air bubbles. No fins or spoilers. Given two swimmers of equal power, however, the smaller one slips through the water faster. So Speedo's new LZR (pronounced "laser") Racer doesn't lift; it squeezes, exploiting a swimming-pool loophole in the Universal Law of Sports Technology. If the law insists that you can have something lighter or stronger, but not both, Speedo decided to make its swimmers "lighter" by making its suit stronger, using a NASA-tested black sheathing that compresses the body with 70 times more force — 7 kilograms per meter — than the nylon-elastane standard. And the suit doesn't just make swimmers smaller, it makes them sleeker, too: Speedo used the powerful material to remold athletes into a more ideal hydrodynamic shape. Working in water flumes in New Zealand and test facilities in Australia, and using computational fluid dynamics software invented by Ansys, the company determined where a swimmer's "form drag" (turbulence caused by a body's shape) is most acute. It then inserted slippery, polyurethane panels to compress and reshape those body parts — buttocks, breasts, upper thighs — most responsible for the drag.
When the LZR Racer appeared at the world short-course championships in Manchester, England, in April, the swimming world went off the deep end. While the LZR Racer was FINA-approved and available to any athlete who wanted one (including you, as of this fall), it was clearly faster than offerings from competitors such as TYR, Adidas, Mizuno, and Nike. There were rumors of elite athletes jilting their sponsors on the pool deck and slipping into a Speedo. Italian coach Alberto Castagnetti claimed use of the suit was the equivalent of "technological doping." Head American coach Mark Schubert says Americans sponsored by other brands will have "a black-and-white decision" when they get to Beijing: "The money or the gold medal." German swimmer Thomas Rupprath went so far as to suggest apostasy — that his country's swimming federation dump German-made Adidas suits in favor of Speedo's. "Otherwise," he says, "we will sink completely into mediocrity." As of late May, 41 world records had been set since the LZR Racer was introduced: 37 of those swimmers were wearing it.
The Italian swim coach claimed Speedo's suit was the equivalent of "technological doping."
Nowhere do the extreme technical precision and naked commercial yearning of Olympic research coexist more naturally than at Nike. And this year, Nike is producing Olympic gear on a larger and vastly messier scale than at any other time in its history: The company will introduce 68 event-specific shoes for all 28 sports and their various disciplines in Beijing (up from 11 sports in Athens); new high-temperature-specific apparel for USA Track & Field and USA Basketball uniforms; and outfits for more than 120 individual countries and federations.
Nike's global manager for Beijing, Kris Aman, is charged with preparing the company for the Games and beyond. In what he calls a "two-headed monster of process management," Nike has decided to offer nearly all of its Olympic innovations to everyday consumers in September. (Nike's primary competitor, Adidas, will also offer many of its Olympic shoes at retail this August, through distributor Eastbay Inc.)
But the new Olympic idea with the biggest commercial potential is Flywire — not because every kid will want the shoe, but because Flywire reinvents how shoes are made.
The inspiration for the new construction came from the cables on a suspension bridge. Rather than cords of steel, Flywire uses thin, strong-as-steel threads of Vectran, placed in fan-shaped clusters of between 10 and 20 strands, each about 3 inches in length. The strands are positioned at key points — the forefoot, the heel, and so on — and anchored to the shoe only at the ends; a scrim between the foot and the filaments keeps out rocks and debris but has no larger structural role. Up close, you can see through a Flywire shoe in the same way you can see through a house that's just been framed with two-by-fours.
Predictably, a shoe made of thread and a slip of fabric is incredibly light. "When I tossed one up in the air," NBA MVP Kobe Bryant says of his Flywire-based HyperDunk, "I wasn't sure it was going to come back down." The surprise lies in how strong the new construction is — and how Flywire could change Nike, maybe even the shoe industry itself.
Flywire lead designer Jay Meschter's stroke of genius was to stop thinking of a shoe as something assembled and start thinking of it as something that is, well, printed. When Meschter connected the two ideas of filaments and strength, his mind leaped to embroidery machines, which, he realized, print out lines and shapes using colored thread stitches rather than ink. If Meschter could stitch in 3-D form the cabling that holds up a suspension bridge, and anchor the ultrathin "cables" around a foot shape, he'd be able to create an ultralight shoe in the same time it took to stitch somebody's name on a shirt.
"When we worked out the kinks," he says, "we realized what makes this so exciting: This embroidery machine is literally a printer for shoes. Most of [a Flywire shoe's] design can take place in a computer; you make decisions on-screen about where you're placing reinforcement, and then you trial the shoe as a 'printout.' "
No more laboriously handcrafted one-off prototypes. No more fabrics painstakingly selected for the right blend of weight and strength. Now, if a new shoe needs tweaking, all a designer has to do is add another filament to the design and hit PRINT.
The impact of Flywire could be huge. There have been rumors that the new technique is so inexpensive it could allow Nike to return some of its manufacturing to the United States from China, the company's largest manufacturing and materials source, drastically reducing labor and manufacturing costs. And like most miracles of design, Flywire did not spring from some gleaming white mountaintop — it came limping out of a cruddy backwater, a tiny subset of a subcube on the Nike campus called the Innovation Kitchen.
To find the Kitchen, look for this welcoming sign on the right side of the lobby of the Mia Hamm building:
NOBODY GETS IN TO SEE THE COOKS.
POSITIVELY NO TOURS
When the doors swing open, the first color you see is blood red. It's probably paint, of course, but the crimson entryway is nevertheless a reminder that about 90% of the concepts hatched here are mortally wounded before they get to the lobby. Inside, the Kitchen is a disaster area: a jumble of blown-out test spikes, a rejected pair of Bryant's new HyperDunks, tickets to a Clapton concert, a René Magritte poster. But this ratty little warren of offices — the only place in Nike's hypermanicured campus where you'll find chaos — has been the source of some of the company's greatest hits: Michael Johnson's golden spikes, Cathy Freeman's famous speed suit, and every Air Jordan since the Kitchen was founded in 2001.
Rumor has it that tens of millions of dollars have been spent on the Kitchen since its inception. A number of people inside the company still ask why it exists. "What are you guys doing, man? Where's the stuff?" says the Kitchen's VP of special projects, Tinker Hatfield, recounting the challenges he still gets occasionally from Nike business-unit directors who question (or even resent) the Kitchen's freedom from the normal quarterly business cycle.
In fact, the Kitchen was first created to counter the negative effects of Nike's enormous growth. After the company stumbled in the late 1990s, it was divided into six discrete business units (basketball, women's fitness, running, and so forth), each responsible for its own profit and loss. "A natural casualty of [dividing up the company] is fewer resources going to new product design," Hatfield says, "because one of the easy ways in the short term to make your division's numbers look good is to cut back on innovation." The Kitchen was created as an antidote to fiscal prudence run amok.
"You have to remember, we're very strategically shot into an orbit around planet Nike," Hatfield adds, "but not too far out. In the end, innovation is not helpful unless there's a way to tie it to a powerful company that helps drive it somewhere."
Innovation isn't helpful unless it's tied to a powerful company that drives it somewhere.
Right now, that somewhere is Beijing, where athletes will be flying citius, altius, fortius in defiance of the Universal Law of Sports Technology. Their "faster, higher, stronger" ethos may stir our souls — we mortals thrill to their victories and agonize at their defeats — but the unromantic truth is that the guys who made all this cool stuff moved on a while ago.
"I don't sit there biting my fingernails when I watch somebody compete at the Olympics," Hatfield says. "I hope they do well, but we're working four or five years out, especially for these really meaningful performance innovations."
He pauses for a moment, a wry smile playing across his face. "There's a certain amount of swashbuckling that goes on in this process," he confesses. "You have to be a bit of a cold-blooded killer."
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.