Chemistry to help lift winter athletes to peak performance in Sochi

The 2014 Winter Olympics, just three shorts weeks away, will showcase high-speed skiing, super-skilled snowboarding, and high-stakes ice hockey, among many other sports. But did you know that the products of chemistry help world-class athletes perform at their peak?

Chemistry is behind each and every pair of skates, goggles, knee pads, and footwear — though it’s not something that most people think of when looking at sports equipment or clothing.

In fact, chemistry makes up 28 percent of the value of material inputs that go into sporting equipment. It’s even higher for athletic footwear and high-performance, moisture-wicking clothing.

High Performance Equipment

Polyurethane is fundamental to modern snowboards and skis. Most boards and skis have a polyurethane core with a specialized synthetic fiber coating, which together increase strength and minimize weight, meaning that the board or skis have the durability and flexibility required to deliver high performance. A fiber like Kevlar® helps to reduce vibrations when going down the slopes.

Helmets and other protective gear, also of utmost importance, depend on cutting-edge polymer chemistry to help protect athletes while they push themselves to succeed. Lightweight and impact-resistant polycarbonate is used to make helmets because of its shatter-resistance. Polycarbonate is also used for its optical clarity meaning sharp vision for athletes competing at high speeds. Vinyl nitrile helps to make hockey helmets crack resistant as well, while plastic foam padding in helmets provides cushion and support for tough blows during a game.

Additionally, high-strength polypropylene is used in shoulder pads, knee pads, and other protective equipment, safeguarding athletes during rigorous competition. Even hockey sticks utilize chemistry – plastics like nylon help to balance flexibility and rigidity, and maximize durability.

High-Tech Clothing

World class winter athletes need high-tech clothing that doesn’t impede their full range of motion, keeps their temperature regulated in winter conditions, and allows moisture to wick away from the body.

Many athletes competing on speed – experts on the luge and skis, for example – need the most aerodynamic shape possible to reduce drag, so they favor form fitting stretch fabrics made of plastic. LYCRA® is an example. And in every sport, it’s important to have “breathable clothing” that wicks perspiration away from the skin, and in outdoor sports, fabrics also have to resist snow, hail, and rain. Fluorochemistry delivers water and wind-resistance, and breathability, in fabrics – a well-known example is GORE-TEX® fabric.

Polypropylene is a popular material for active sports clothing because of its moisture-wicking properties, which help keep skin dry. It can be found in items such as cold weather performance tops and pants, gloves, and ski masks. Nylon plays a vital role in keeping athletes’ feet supported and comfortable during sport events. Many snowboard boots use nylon for lightweight durability and insulation. To make boots and skates perform even better, plastic inserts offer extra cushioning and support for athletes’ knees and feet.

And competition around the world demands style and color, too. Whether expressing sheer individuality (those half-pipe snowboarders, ice skaters and ice dancers come to mind with their electric and eclectic fashion statements, or patriotic national spirit with a uniform display of, well, uniforms), the vibrant colors on team equipment and uniforms can also thank chemistry. Fade-resistant pigment allows for long-lasting colors that survive multiple hits from opposing ice hockey players or snow and ice abrading a snowboard run after run down the slopes.

For more on cutting-edge chemistry in sports, be sure to check out our post on the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.  And discover even more innovative technologies made possible by chemistry.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

LYCRA® is a trademark of INVISTA.

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