- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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NEW YORK -- When USA Track and Field sprinters Walter Dix and Carmelita Jeter line up in the starting blocks in London this summer, they'll do so wearing recycled plastic bottles. Marathoner Abdi Abdirahman will wear running shoes that look like they were crocheted by grandma. That, of course, is a simplistic way of describing some of the most high-tech, sustainable, performance apparel and footwear Nike has developed to date.
On Day 1 of a two-day Olympics innovation summit held at Basketball City in New York City, Nike revealed innovations in basketball and running, including the uniforms that will be worn by the U.S. men's and women's basketball teams and track athletes in all events. (See photos below.)
The most attention-grabbing piece in Tuesday's collection was the Pro TurboSpeed track suit, dubbed the fastest track uniform Nike has ever built. According to Nike, the suit is reportedly .023 seconds faster over 100 meters than the company's previous uniform, according to wind tunnel data. It comes in a one-piece, full-body suit, a two-piece option and shorter styles for athletes in longer distances.
"When designing these uniforms, we always start with the athletes," said Martin Lotti, Nike's Olympics innovation director. "They are always looking for a competitive advantage and we gave them just that in a suit that is faster than skin. How much faster is astonishing. It's not just the difference between first and second, but the difference in even making the podium."
Of course, when talking about suits that are astonishingly "faster than skin," questions arise as to the legality of such suits and the debate over what constitutes performance enhancement begins.
"We are following all the rules and guidelines, so it is a legal suit," Lotti said. "The U.S. federation, U.S. Track and Field goes through the approval process with [the International Association of Athletics Federations], not us, and it is approved."
Lotti said it is his job to enhance athlete performance.
"It's no different than giving athletes a lighter shoe," he said. "That has been the endeavor of Nike since the beginning. We are here to enhance the athlete's performance. And at the end of the day, we give them this tiny advantage to win, but the heavy work comes from the athlete."
The suits are made with 82-percent recycled polyester fabric, which is made from recycled plastic bottles. The bottles are reduced to fine pellets, which are then made into a yarn that is spun into material. It takes an average of 13 bottles to create enough yarn for one uniform. The basketball uniforms are made from an average of 22 bottles and are 41-percent lighter than the uniforms worn at the 2008 Beijing Games.
The distance-running shoes are constructed using Nike Flyknit technology, which is exactly what it sounds like. The shape and structure of the shoe's upper is knitted by machine using a variety of yarns and fabric threads. There is zero waste and the shoe weighs only 5.6 ounces. It is also 19-percent lighter than the shoe worn by the gold, silver and bronze medalists in the men's marathon at the 2011 World Championships.
"I have to look down at my feet to know if I'm still wearing shoes," Abdirahman told a group of more than 300 international journalists Tuesday morning. "It feels like I'm wearing socks."