Athletes Dress for Success in the Science of the Olympics

Olympic athletes wear special competition clothing to gain an edge in their sport. Science & technology continues to improve the clothes and protective gear they wear.

In the bobsled, downhill racing and speed skating, athletes want to go faster.  How do they do it? Hard work, physical training, the right equipment and fast clothes made of special aerodynamic material all contribute. Clothes are engineered to enhance performance and reduce drag.

All Olympic suits start in the lab with synthetic polymer materials and molecules called monomers.  Engineers string the monomers together to make polymers. A long polymer chain is strong.

Chemical engineers decide which monomers to use and how to connect them to make different materials for different uses. Spandex is lightweight and flexible for suits while Kevlar is strong yet lightweight for skis and helmets.

Even wind resistance can be engineered into a clothing design. Sometimes, a rougher surface can have less drag than a smooth surface helping an athlete go faster. Golf balls are designed with dimples to go farther. The dimples create whirlpools or tiny vortexes of air that act like ball bearings when the ball is flying through the air. The air flows over the ball smoothly and the ball goes farther.

In sliding sports and speed skating a sleek fit can be right for the correct airflow. Exposed hair and skin can also slow athletes down so they wear hoods and gloves to minimize drag.

Some athletes don’t want to slide through the air; they want to catch it. A ski jumper’s suit captures the air like a kite. The bigger the kite, the more air it catches to generate the greatest amount of lift with the lowest amount of drag.

The athletes who are dressed for success do the best in competition.

Get more information from and the National Science Foundation. Lesson plan available on Competition Suits at

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