Sports and science: how the Olympic Games rely on petrochemistry

Have you ever realised how much chemistry plays an important role in the world of sports – especially when it comes to issues such as performance and safety? Advances in chemistry can help take sports a step further and this is the case for virtually all sports, from skiing to sailing, from athletics to swimming.

Just think of skiing. Although alpine skiing was first included in the Winter Olympic Games in 1936, it made its real start in 1948. Imagine the equipment of a downhiller at that time: skis made out of a single piece of wood with some metal pieces, heavy leather shoes strapped to the ski and bamboo ski poles. Ever since the evolution of ski equipment has been so big that it is sometimes difficult to keep abreast of the new technology.

The development of petrochemicals made it possible to provide the ski industry with synthetic materials that are light, flexible and reliable: polyurethane foam, fibreglass and epoxy plastics just to name a few. Combined with polyethylene for the sole of the ski they offer better gliding performances and a good protection.  In ski – as in many other disciplines (biking, sailing, tennis…) - lightweight materials mean performance.

Also regarding safety issues, the chemical industry has played a major role over the last decades. The development of new and improved materials led to manufacture lightweight yet highly resistant safety equipment such as bicycle helmets, knee pads and elbow guards. These can help prevent a significant number of injuries.

Sportswear is another area where chemistry can make a difference. The use of specific materials can certainly improve sportswear’s comfort but also performance. This will be particularly true for the next Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. Running shoes that weigh just a few grams yet provide the strength and suppleness that athletes demand as they power out of the running blocks could mean the difference between a gold medal and no medal at all.

The sports equipment industry has clearly understood the importance of collaborating with the chemical industry. Today many sports brands collaborate with chemical producers in order to develop innovative solutions that benefit both athletes and leisure sportsmen.

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