The history of how chemicals have helped Olympic athletes

Olympic chemical gold

31 July 2008 11:38  [Source: ICB]

The motto for the Olympics is "citius, altius, fortius" (swifter, higher, stronger) - and it couldn't be that way without chemistry's gentle touch. Now it's time, sports fans, to check out some of the highlights

Ivan Lerner/New York

ENVIRONMENTALISTS AND their more radical ilk may regard the Olympics as a "green" event. After all, what could be more "natural" than athletic human beings using only their bodies, fine-tuned after years of training, to their fullest potential?

But chemistry and its products have been with the Olympics since the start, when the ancients referred to it as alchemy and metallurgy. A discus cannot make itself.

The Modern Olympics began in 1896, towards the middle of the second industrial revolution. This was the time of large-scale industrial development and the mass production of chemicals. Many of today's giants, such as Germany's BASF (founded in 1865), and Bayer (1863), Dow Chemical (1897), and Thomas Edison's General Electric (1878), both US, started around this time.

Practically every advance in chemistry that has been applied to our daily life, as opposed to those chemicals solely used in industrial applications, has also wound up in our sports.


Once it was created, the basic design of the athletic shoe, or sneaker, did not change much, but it would not exist if it were not for the chemical industry. Although the process to attach India rubber to the soles of shoes and boots was patented in New York City in 1832, it wasn't until vulcanization was developed that rubber soles became practical.

Charles Goodyear (after whom the company is named, although he didn't found it) discovered the vulcanization of rubber in 1839 - although he did not patent the process until 1844.

Vulcanization is a thermoset process that cures rubber with high heat and pressure, with the addition of sulfur. Without it, natural rubber is sticky, odiferous, brittle when cold, and easily misshaped when warm.

Vulcanization was also used to attach rubber to cloth, and soon, in the late 1800s, a rubber-soled shoe called a plimsoll arrived. Rubber-soled athletic shoes became known as sneakers because they allowed the wearer to "sneak up" on people.

Olympians, meanwhile, ran on clay or cinder tracks until the 1968 games in Mexico City.

Before that, runners had to contend with muddy tracks when it rained, or dust and debris kicked up by competitors when dry. The Mexico City track was an artificial, all-weather surface and the predecessor to today's polyurethane (PU) track. PU was invented by Bayer in 1937.


The gold medalist for pole-vaulting that year was US Olympian Bob Seagren. According to the Mt. San Antonio College Relays Hall of Fame, "Seagren rode the fiberglass revolution in vaulting poles to ever-higher heights.He was one of three jumpers to clear 17ft 8½ inches at Mexico City, winning the Olympic gold medal on fewest misses."

Poles for pole vaulting were originally made of solid wood from locally available timber, befitting their original use as a method to cross canals. In the early 1900s, though, the hollow, and thus more flexible, bamboo was introduced. It was in general use by the 1920s.

Bamboo became scarce in the US during World War II, and athletes turned to hollow aluminum and steel poles as replacements.

Herbert Jenkins, an engineer at US-based arms manufacturer Browning working on fiberglass tubes for bows and arrows, first developed the fiberglass pole in 1949. Fiberglass, a polymer matrix, usually epoxy, reinforced with silica fibers, was developed at US glass fiber maker Owens Corning in 1938, initially as insulation.

Although gold medalist Bob Mathias reportedly used an experimental fiberglass pole in 1952 at the Helsinki games, according to The Journal of Olympic History, the fiberglass pole did not become popular in pole-vaulting until the early 1960s.

Fiberglass poles amazed spectators because it practically bent in half before snapping back to its original shape and flinging the athlete over the bar. This is called the "catapult" technique.

In 1957, high-performance carbon fiber was first developed by Roger Bacon at US polymers producer Union Carbide (acquired by Dow in 2001), but did not become widely used until 1991, according to the European Athletics Association.

Partly this was because of the controversy carbon fiber poles caused at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Although the International Amateur Athletic Federation's rules did not prohibit the material, East Germany lodged a complaint, and the Olympic committee banned the poles at the last minute.

Seagren was at the 1972 games and was going to use a carbon fiber "Cata-Pole," designed by Jenkins, but the ruling forced him to use an unfamiliar pole, and many feel that cost him the gold. Seagren won the silver, with the gold going to East Germany's Wolfgang Nordwig. Today, pole-vaulters generally use poles made of fiberglass or fiberglass/carbon fiber composite.


The first nylon swimsuit was introduced in 1948 by Adolph Kiefer, when he was the official aquatics supplier to the 1948 US Olympic Swim Team. Kiefer was the US gold medal winner for swimming at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the founder of swimming equipment company Adolph Kiefer and Associates.

Nylon, invented by US chemical giant DuPont in 1936, made the swimsuit lighter and cheaper. At first, the new thermoplastic was used to make bristles for toothbrushes, but in 1940, it was adopted as a replacement for silk in ladies' stockings. Soon after, nylon found its way into all forms of clothing.

In 1962, DuPont commercialized Lycra, which also became a popular material for swimwear. It is rumored that UK sportswear maker Speedo's radical new LZR Racer swimsuit is made from a blend of Lycra, PU and other polymers (see page 26).

But nylon wasn't Kiefer's first encounter with polymer chemistry. According to his company, during World War II, while inspecting a captured German warship, Kiefer, who at the time was a naval officer, discovered that the Germans' ring buoys were uniquely designed and were, to him, an unknown material. He had the material inspected and it was discovered to be polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

"At Kiefer's suggestion, the US Navy instituted the use of PVC foam in the construction of ring buoys and life vests," says the company. "Prior to this, the navy had used canvas-covered cork and kapok flotation devices."

In the mid-1970s, Kiefer released what has become today's standard for pool buoys: a series of paddle-wheel floats that rotate independently of each other.

Plastics even help swimmers against the assault of other chemicals. In response to the pool chemicals that burned their eyes after many hours of practice, swimmers began wearing goggles.

They have always been plastic, with refinements in technology making them lighter, more durable and comfortable since their introduction in the late 1960s. By 1972, they were ubiquitous.


Formerly made from natural leather, soccer balls are typically made from synthetic leather, a combination of PU and PVC. Synthetic leather was adopted as it did not absorb water in the way leather did.

Soccer balls with synthetic leather were first made in the 1960s, but were not widely accepted until the 1980s.

According to website Soccer Ball World, a soccer gear consumer information group, the interior of a soccer ball can be made from latex or butyl rubber, with the inflation plug made from butyl rubber.

But the greatest chemical and technological advances to affect the Olympics are not related to any of the sporting events.

Since 1894, when France's Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee, the ease, speed and safety of global travel has increased exponentially.

Telegraphs, steamships and the old railroad have given way to email and jet planes. To get to the Beijing Games 100 years ago would have taken weeks. Today, you can be there tomorrow.

Today, pole-vaulters generally use poles made of fiberglass or fiberglass/carbon fiber composite

More on the history of the Olympics

By: Ivan Lerner
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