Ever since 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, American athletes at Olympic the podium was worn by Nike. Nike clothes. Nike shoes. Not just on a pedestal; U.S. athletes who compete in about half of the competition, from athletics to football to speed skating, wear a Nike kit. Thanks to a contract signed in 2019, that ubiquity will take place at least during the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Mach is, as they say, strong.
But that almost ubiquity also comes with a challenge: to stay ahead of the curve on the said legume. With the advancement of technology advancing just as fast, how early do you have to start thinking about the equipment athletes will need to next a massive four-year global competition?
It turned out to be about four years. “As soon as the closing ceremony is over and the flames pass,” says Nike’s chief designer John Hoke, “our work for the upcoming Summer Olympics will begin.” It’s not just marketing. The 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro ended on August 21 of that year; in September, part of Nike’s design team was in Japan, meeting with the Tokyo Olympic Committee to see where the collective heads of its members are.
Several things became clear very quickly. The first was that Tokyo would be far from Rio. Augustus in the Brazilian city would feel familiar to everyone who was in Miami in the winter: average highs around 78 degrees Fahrenheit and a respite from the usual humidity. Tokyo in August? Not so much. Hot, itchy, uh.
Another thing that the Tokyo Committee made clear was their seriousness in terms of sustainability. This was not new to Olympic organizers – starting with the Sydney Games in 2000, officials implemented measures to mitigate the undeniable impact of hosting the city – but Tokyo had several new measures in mind. They hired architect Kenga Kumu, known for his works that sought to live in balance with the environment, to design the National Stadium as the central part of the Games. They also pledged to make medals not only from recycled materials but also from recycled mobile phones.
All of this was music to the ears of the Nike team. They have previously tried to design Olympic equipment with similar eco-bending, such as the 2000 Sydney racing singles. made from recycled bottles, but intent and execution did not always coincide. “It didn’t look great, it didn’t feel great,” Hoke says, looking back on that single. But now? With a handful of the Olympics and two more decades of science and innovation in design under their belt? Tokyo would give them a chance to balance performance and principle.
The resulting footwear and clothing – which Nike introduced last year, just a few months before Covid-19 pandemic pushed the 2020 Games to the summer of 2021 – trying to do just that. It is technically considered what Hoke calls the “atomic level,” using a computer-aided design to deliver either skin cover or breathing, depending on the specific needs of the sport. It also represents the company’s biggest demonstration to date that sustainability doesn’t have to mean sacrifice – aesthetic, athletic or otherwise.
So far, of course, we know that those 2016 meetings on weather hazards in Tokyo have already been confirmed. Test events in August 2019 met with such high temperatures the rowers suffered from exhaustion i the triathletes went upstairs. The Olympic Committee responded by moving this year’s marathon 500 miles north to Sapporo in hopes of a less brutal climate.
Heat is a special devil for athletics; track conditions (and, uh, field) can be more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient temperature. Nike’s clothing for that category seeks to drive that demon out through a new material called Aeroswift, a micro-ribbed version of its popular Dri-Fit technology. It’s like an incredibly thin cord of a narrow wave. In addition, the ridges in these ropes have two functions: creating a confusing effect that moves air along the skin beneath the fabric and giving the fabric a two-tone, almost lenticular look that can look as if it is flickering while the athlete is on the move.