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Olympic Records Boosted by Materials Science

New materials in athletic equipment and within athletes' bodies make previously impossible performances commonplace today. Cynthia Graber reports

The London Olympics are about to begin, and spectators will again be riveted by feats that would have been impossible when the modern Olympics began in 1896.

Jaw-dropping records are attainable in part because of advances in materials science. New materials have led to equipment like super light and strong vaulting poles, and bathing suits that improve the flow of bodies in water.

Such developments are detailed in a series of articles in the journal Nature Materials. ["Materials for Sports," free until August 22]

The scientists say other advances are afoot that build sensors into athletes’ clothing for, for instance, measuring performance in training. Or protective gear that repairs itself when damaged.

And advances in materials science can help Olympians internally as well. Elite athletes may tear cartilage or break bones. But cartilage doesn’t have enough blood and cells to mend well, and sometimes bones just can’t naturally bridge the break.

So scientists are homing in on the best combinations of bio-compatible materials, along with growth factors and other compounds, as well as implanted cells and proteins, to help mend what have been until now nearly intractable injuries. So that world-class athletes can push the limits of sports and science.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

[Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.]

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