In February this year Nike introduced the Flyknit, its running shoe for Olympic athletes. Weighing in at 5.6 ounces, it's a whopping 19% lighter than their shoe for last year's marathon runners in the men's 2011 World Championship. The virtually seamless, mesh-like body is the result of a radical new process that can create an entire shoe upper, including the tongue, from a single knit structure. When Tony Bignell, Nike's director of footwear innovation, asked athletes what they wanted in a shoe, their answer was: a sock. "A sock fits great, feels snug, goes unnoticed and you get no irritation," Bignell said. "So the idea was, how do you engineer a sock into a high-performance shoe?"
Bignell and a team of designers and engineers spent four years developing brand new software and machinery to answer that question. They tested out a wide array of materials, eventually choosing "a feather-light, high-quality polyester yarn of varying elasticity, durability, thickness and strength." Cables that expand and contract with the motion of the athlete's foot are woven into the shoe to give it structure, and a Lunarlon cushion sole provides support.
This isn't the only technological breakthrough Nike has introduced to its Olympic line up, but it's design is strikingly similar to the eleventh-hour Adidas entry, the adiZero Primeknit. Adidas announced that they had been working on the shoe for the past three years but it was slipped into the Olympic lineup at the last possible moment—Thursday July 26th on the eve of the games. Its seamless, mesh structure is so close to Nike's design that Matt Powell, a footwear analyst with SportsOneSource, commented that "Adidas told me they were working on a similar technology to FlyKnit, but I had no idea it was this similar."
Whether Nike or Adidas makes the better shoe is actually of little consequence when it comes to winning gold medals. According to Steve Haake, a sports engineer, improvements in equipment don't actually increase athletic performance all that much. After researching the men's 100-meter sprint from 1900 to 2008, Haake found that while athletic performance improved by 24% overall, only 4% of that could be attributed to equipment upgrades with the remaining 20% a result of advancements in physiology, nutrition, coaching and better running tracks.
If you want to get a pair of your own Nike Flyknit shoes, good luck. While they retail for a modest $150 online, they've been sold out for months, though if you've got an extra $1,750 burning a hole in your pocket you can find them on eBay.