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Engineering the Olympic Games: How Materials Engineering Transforms Athletics

The 2020 (now 2021) Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo were remarkable in terms of the skill and sophistication of the athletes who competed, and in terms of how the scope of the games broadened traditional definitions of what constitutes a sport. New boundary-pushing sports showcased included surfing, climbing, skateboarding, and karate. Remarkable, record-shattering athletes pushed boundaries by achieving athletic feats once thought to be impossible. 

Since the first Olympics were held in 1896, the world of sports and athleticism has evolved at an astounding rate. Early Olympic games  were largely played by amateur athletes who had varying degrees of athletic ability. For example, in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, the men’s marathon was run by a group of 32 men who had little long-distance running experience. Runners were felled by severe dehydration, injured by dust kicked up from the dirt track, and chased by rabid dogs. The winner was famously fed a toxic cocktail of rat poison, egg whites, and brandy halfway through the race. Several runners ran the race with no shoes, and one runner had to ask a spectator to help him cut his dress pants into shorts before the race began. 

Now the Olympics are a world-class sporting event, and an Olympic medal is one of the highest honors an elite athlete can win. As the athleticism at the Olympics has become more impressive and professionalized, the demand for specialized gear and equipment has also grown. Runners are no longer running marathons in bare feet and slacks, they are using high-performance running shoes designed to propel them (often by a matter of milliseconds) past their competition. The secret behind this game-changing gear? Engineering. 

The Materials that Make the Games 

When it comes to designing the best Olympic gear, it’s important to start with the basics: materials. Engineering a pair of running shoes, a bicycle, a performance swimsuit, or even an Olympic swimming pool starts with the question of what the product should be made of. What kind of material will do the best job reducing weight, drag, absorbing shock, or increasing speed? To answer this question, you need materials engineering. 

At its heart, materials engineering is concerned with how the properties of a material – whether synthetic or natural, affect its performance. Materials engineers understand that controlling the structure of new materials are often the building blocks for new technologies. When it comes to sports, the development of new materials has enabled athletes to move faster, jump higher, and push their skills to previously unreachable limits. 

Bike frames, for example, were once commonly made from steel,a heavy alloy unsuitable for the high speeds that modern Olympic bikers achieve. As the technology needed to produce other kinds of frames became more accessible, bike engineers began to make frames from aluminum, a lightweight metal that was better suited for speed-biking. Now Olympic bikes are engineered to be as fast and lightweight as possible, using a combination of carbon fibers and layered resin to make a superlight composite. 

The materials used for a bike profoundly affect the bike’s performance in different environments. A mountain bike necessarily needs to be heavier and sturdier than a road bike, and a racing bike needs to be as light and aerodynamic as possible. To determine the effect that different environments will have on bike materials, materials engineers test how different materials hold up in different conditions ∫ in wind or rain, for instance, or on a road riddled with potholes. 

Artec, a company that makes high-performance cycling outfits for Olympians and other elite athletes, uses a wind-tunnel and 3D modeling techniques to test their products in realistic conditions. Because Olympic cycling races are won by fractions of a second, even the smallest components of a cycling suit, such as the placement of a zipper or a wrinkle in the fabric, can mean the difference between winning and losing. Artec uses state-of-the-art modeling software to custom-fit their designs to the athletes who will be racing in them, and all their suits are engineered using materials that are as aerodynamic as possible. An estimated 90% of a cyclist’s speed goes towards pushing against the air, so any design element that can cut down on drag is highly coveted. 

Advancements in technology have enabled materials engineers to push the envelope when it comes to design. A few decades ago, it would have taken months for an engineer to design a custom, high-performance bike suit. Now, companies like Artec are using a host of new technologies ∫ including biomechanical equipment, performance modeling, 3D imaging, and “smart” textiles ∫ to produce quality equipment in record time. Artec’s current goal is to be able to design and produce a cycling suit in 24 hours, a feat made possible by the company’s 3D scanner, which can produce an exact replica of a cyclist’s anatomy in less than six minutes. 

"Nikhilesh Chawla Ransburg Professor Of Materials Engineering"
Nikhilesh Chawla
Ransburg Professor Of Materials Engineering

At Purdue University, one of the leading engineering schools in the country, materials engineering researchers are also using innovative technologies to make advancements in athletic gear. A research team led by Dr. Nikhilesh Chawla, Ransburg Professor of Materials Engineering, is working with the shoe company Adidas to design high-performance running shoes. “Adidas uses a unique foam called BOOSTTM in a variety of their running shoes. We are using state-of-the-art x-ray microscopy to understand how the structure of the foam affects performance. We can visualize and study how the foam is deforming, on a microscopic level, to design the next generation of lightweight, high performance foams.” These advancements in engineering are helping runners go farther and faster than ever before. 

The athleticism on display during today’s Olympics is a far cry from the days when Olympic athletes ran marathons barefoot. The evolution of the games ∫ from amateur entertainment to a professionalized, elite enterprise has occurred in tandem with the evolution of materials engineering. As the materials that athletes use to compete have become more specialized and complex, the scope of what is possible in sports performance has also reached new, spectacular heights. 

Purdue’s Interdisciplinary Engineering Degree Teaches "U.S News and World Report Badge for Best in Online Engineering Graduate Programs."Practical Engineering Skills 

Purdue University’s online engineering graduate programs are ranked in the top three by U.S. News and World Report, and many program graduates go on to work as engineering researchers and practitioners, creating innovations that help propel fields like sports, medicine, aerospace, automotive, and energy forward.  

The online Master of Science in Interdisciplinary Engineering is ideal for engineering professionals or undergraduate students who want to create a custom plan-of-study around the engineering issues that matter most to them including materials engineering. Program participants can concentrate in Materials Engineering, Aeronautic Engineering, Systems Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Nuclear Engineering, and other fast-growing fields. Online students are taught by the same expert faculty who teach Purdue’s on-campus engineering programs while also enjoying added flexibility and the opportunity to learn from anywhere. 

Purdue’s program takes 30 credits to complete. Program graduates will either earn a Masters of Science (MS) degree with a major in Interdisciplinary Engineering or a Masters of Science in Engineering (MSE) degree depending on their undergraduate major. 
To learn more about what you can do with an interdisciplinary engineering degree and how to apply, visit the program’s webpage