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A look at sports gear: then and now


Jesse Owens by Wikimedia/Public Domain; Usain Bolt by Wikimedia/Stephanie Kempinaire

Today’s athletes seem to be faster than most superstars of the past, often setting new records in their sports. But why is this? The Equalizer, a CBC Doc’s The Nature of Things’ documentary, looks into why modern athletes seem to have an edge over those of the past. The show airs on CBC-TV and online on Thursday, March 3, 2016 at 8PM. Before you watch it with your family, we look at how high-tech gear may be one of the reasons behind the success of today’s athletes.

Let’s break down some of the advances in sports equipment over the last few decades:


Cycling then and now

Then: Leather helmets, known as hairnets, provided little protection for cyclists. The bikes were made of steel and the wheels were the kind that you probably have on your bicycle.

Now: Cyclists wear moden skinsuits and tapered helmets to cut through the air and help them travel quicker. Their bikes are strong and made of carbon fibre, which is stiffer than steel and allows the force of the cycling to be transferred directly to the forward motion of the bike. Today’s bikes also have a disc wheel that acts like a sail, cutting through the air so the cyclists can ride faster.

100m Race

100m race then and now

Then: There weren't any fancy Nikes around - athletes just wore simple leather shoes to run on tracks made of cinder, a combination of gravel and sand.

Today: The shoes are high-tech with support for the heel and arch of the foot to keep the athlete’s foot in the best position for running at high speeds. The tracks are made to prevent runner’s feet from slipping and also provide bounce with each step, as compared to a cinder track.


Kayaking then and now

Then: The kayaks were made out of wood and canvas. Athletes used a wooden, flat heavy paddle to move through the water. 

Today: Today’s athletes have kayaks made from carbon fibre that slice through the water very quickly. The bottom of the boat, called the hull, is much narrower to help increase its speed. Another advantage that old kayaks did not have is a special system that tracks the boat’s movements and sends the info to coaches on land who use the data to make suggestions to improve the athlete’s performance. Today's kayakers use a wing blade paddle made of carbon fibre. It’s stiffer than wood and allows more of the athlete’s energy to be transferred into the forward motion, letting them to pull more water with each stroke.


swimming then and now

Then: Swimming used to be much more simple. Swimmers wore a one-piece, simple bathing suit. The pool didn't have all the technology that's used today - it looked more like the type of pool you swim in at the rec centre or YMCA.

Today: Today, swimsuits are constructed of high tech fabric to help water pass over the body so swimmers can glide through the water quickly. Even the swim caps and goggles fit perfectly for aerodynamics. Modern pools have also been designed to include gutters along the sides and lane markers to prevent waves.


javelin then and now

Then: Javelin was a pretty simple sport and used just a standard javelin - basically a long pointy stick sometimes made of thin, light wood with a leather cord for a grip.

Today: Since the javelin was redesigned in 1986, today’s athletes cannot throw it as far as athletes of old. As throwers became so good at their sport it was feared their throws would overshoot the field and endanger the crowd watching the competition - so now the redesigned javelin doesn’t fly as far as the front dips down earlier.