That old saying that says a poor workman blames his tools holds true in sports as much as anywhere, but there's no question that having the absolute best equipment can make a big difference for the world's top athletes. Once you get to the Olympic level, the spread between first and last place can be truly tiny, so even the smallest technical advantage could mean the difference between standing on the top of the winner's podium, or being an also-ran.
When an Olympic champion uses a certain brand of equipment while achieving victory, the exposure can translate into big bucks for that brand at the sports-equipment store. After all, doesn't it make you look like a more serious competitor if you have the same gear as the person who crossed the finish line first? Knowing this, the big sports equipment companies pour major bucks into research, so they can develop the gear that top athletes will want to use.
Hit the Continue jump to read about 10 of the best new ideas that have come along since the last Olympics four years ago in Athens.
1. Speedo LZR Racer Swimsuit
EVENT UPGRADED Swimming
WHAT'S NEW? In the Olympic swimming pool, just a couple thousandths of a second can be the difference between winning and losing, so even the tiniest competitive edge is critical. Back in Athens we saw plenty of swimmers using the Speedo Fastskin to good advantage, but now Speedo has upped the ante with the LZR Racer. Developed in association with NASA and the Australian Institute of Sport, the LZR Racer uses a woven elastane-nylon and polyurethane material that's said to hold the body in a more hydrodynamic position, while expelling water and allowing for improved oxygen flow to the muscles. It also has ultrasonically welded seams to avoid drag.
DOES IT WORK? Since the suit was launched in February of this year, dozens of world records have already been broken by swimmers using the LZR Racer. I think that makes the answer an unequivocal yes.
2. Adidas AdiStar Rowing Shoes
EVENT UPGRADED Rowing
WHAT'S NEW? Silly me, I always figured rowing was mostly about upper body and arm strength. Clearly I am mistaken, and it turns out that leg power is equally, if not more important. To transfer all of that power into moving the scull, your feet need to have a solid and stable foundation, and Adidas provides one with their latest "made for Beijing" AdiStar rowing shoe. Featuring a lightweight rowing plate with stabilizing outriggers, the AdiStar is designed to provide a more direct transfer of power. It also has a so-called "speed heel" with built-in ventilation that's designed to keep the feet at the optimum temperature.
DOES IT WORK? Having a firm foundation for your feet allows all of your stroke power to be transferred into moving the scull. That can only result in a better times.
Via Fast Company
3. Doppler Lidar
EVENT UPGRADED Sailing
WHAT'S NEW? Sailing is all about getting wind into your sails that can push your yacht along, but other than licking your finger and pointing it up towards the sky, where do sailors get wind speed and direction info? For years they've been using Doppler radar systems similar to what weather forecasters use on TV, but the problem is these systems are pretty useless when there's little or no wind, which is precisely when sailors need the information.
This year in Bejing they're using a Doppler Lidar system, which scans the surface of the course with laser beams and measures beam scatter to provide a real-time readout of wind speed and direction over a large area.
DOES IT WORK? While all teams will have access to any data provided by the Doppler Lidar system, how well each team is able to interpret that data could mean the difference between winning and losing.
Via Physics Today
4. Morini CM 162 EI Air Pistol
EVENTS UPGRADED Air Pistol and Pentathlon
WHAT'S NEW? If you figured air pistols and cutting-edge technology didn't go hand in hand, think again. Modern air pistols use a compressed-gas capsule to propel the pellet. The catch is that even the tiniest uneven force in the firing action can be the difference between a bull's-eye and a lower score. The rules dictate that the trigger must require a minimum force of 500 grams to fire, but smoothness is still critical.
The new CM 162 El from Swiss manufacturer Morini takes this thinking a step further by replacing the traditional mechanical trigger with a switch that operates a battery-powered microchip-controlled firing mechanism. Two AAA batteries provide enough juice for 15,000 shots, with a pulsating red LED to indicate battery condition.
DOES IT WORK? A smooth trigger action is critical in pistol shooting, and what could be smoother than a simple switch? Look for many of the top shooters in Beijing to be using the CM 162 El.
5. Nike Precool vest
EVENTS UPGRADED All
WHAT'S NEW? With daily high temperatures expected to average around 85 degrees Fahrenheit, keeping cool is going to be a major consideration for many athletes. Just in time for Beijing, Nike has come up with a clever solution. The Precool is a vest that holds a bunch of prefrozen ice packs, similar to those blue ice packs you put in a cooler to keep your drinks cold. The athlete wears the frozen vest for about an hour prior to the start of competition, reducing his core temperature enough so the body won't be wasting energy trying to keep cool.
DOES IT WORK? Keeping cool is likely to be an issue for middle-distance and endurance events, so being able to start the event with you muscles warmed up but your core feeling as cool as a cucumber has to be a plus.
6. Gill Athletics OTE Composite FX Carbon/Aluminum Javelin
EVENT UPGRADED Javelin
WHAT'S NEW? Following 102 years as an Olympic event, you might figure that it would be hard to come up with new technology for a sport as straightforward as the javelin throw. But high-tech has its place in even this ancient sport. Rule changes introduced following the Athens games now allow for javelins made using carbon-fiber composites. And while there are strict minimum weights for Olympic javelins, adding carbon fiber can greatly reduce vibration and wobble, allowing for a straighter flight with less wind resistance.
DOES IT WORK? Javelin is another sport where inches count, and anything that gives you a straighter, truer flight has got to be beneficial.
Via Gill Athletics
7. Nike Ippeas Riding Boots
EVENT UPGRADED Equestrian
WHAT'S NEW? Equestrian events are about as steeped in tradition as the Olympics gets, and riding technology has practically stood still since the 19th century. Trust Nike to come along and shake things up, introducing a riding boot that addresses several issues at once. First, for comfort, Nike added a long zipper that eases the chore of taking them off. Then they added a special high-abrasion rubber on the medial (horse) side of the boot, to give the rider added control and stability in jumps. Finally in one of those slap yourself on the forehead V8 moments, they replaced those clunky strap-on spurs with a height-adjustable screw in titanium stud. Brilliant!
DOES IT WORK? While the zipper and screw-in spur are mainly convenience items that make the rider's life a little more comfortable, the extra-grippy inside surface should make it easier to control the horse, with less chance of falling off or being thrown.
8. Mizuno Frenzy 120 RB500 Carbon-Fiber Bat
EVENT UPGRADED Softball
WHAT'S NEW? Softball has been an Olympic sport for only 12 years, starting with the 1996 Atlanta games. And while Team USA has won all three prior competitions, in Beijing they face stiff competition from Australia and China. Traditionally, softball bats have been made from metal composites, but this year expect to see plenty of Mizuno's latest carbon-fiber offerings. The Frenzy 120 RB500 was introduced earlier this year, and uses a new four-way materials axis technology called AX4 to provide a much larger sweet spot.
DOES IT WORK? Having a larger sweet spot with greater driving power could mean the difference between a home run and an out. While we may have lost the ping of those old aluminum bats, that sweet music at the medal ceremony would more than make up for it.
Via Mizuno USA
9. Nike Aerographics Jersey
EVENT UPGRADED Basketball
WHAT'S NEW? Even since the rules were changed to allow a "dream team" of NBA stars, it was assumed they might as well just hand out the gold medals to Team USA. So it was a bit of an embarrassment when they only managed to come home with bronze from Athens. Clearly, Team USA understands that they need to take things a little more seriously, and they are not taking anything for granted in Beijing.
A basketball jersey hardly seems like an area for technical innovation, but Nike have delivered something called Aerographics for Team USA. By etching graphic designs into key areas of the garment, they can increase airflow over the skin, while reducing the overall weight by 31 percent. Oh, and the graphics look pretty cool, too.
DOES IT WORK? By increasing airflow and reducing sweating, the Aerographics stop the athlete from wasting energy trying to keep cool. Reducing the weight should also allow them to jump just that teeny bit higher.
Via NikeBiz Media
10. Adidas Lone Star Shoes
EVENT UPGRADED Running
WHAT'S NEW? NASCAR racing cars are set up to make left turns more easily, because on most circuits that's all they do. So why not do the same for track runners? Working for two years with 400 Meter specialist Jeremy Wariner, Adidas has developed the Lone Star running spike. Track races are generally won or lost in the bends, so by analyzing Jeremy's technique using video and pressure mapping in its lab, Adidas was able to determine that the left foot is used primarily for stabilization, while the right foot delivers more of the power. From that information they were able to develop an asymmetric pair of spikes tailored to the strengths of each foot.
DOES IT WORK? By making his feet more stable through the bends, Jeremy should be able to apply more energy towards moving faster, rather than trying to stay in his lane.