Thursday June 30th, 2016

Speed and sizzle. Nike plays to both desires for its Rio de Janeiro-bound track and field athletes by announcing its latest round of spike technology wrapped into a new take on color.

Along with new spike-plate research and technology that runs through more than a dozen different footwear models we’ll see in Rio, Nike played up bright colors with both spikes and medal stand apparel. Along the way they added a little more spice to federation competition kits.

New spikes

Development of the new spike, the Zoom Superfly Elite, started more than four years ago when Nike engineers and designers analyzed two-time Olympic gold medal 100-meter sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce at her home in Jamaica.

“The key to sprinting at the foot level was to make the foot become really rigid,” Brett Schoolmeester, Nike’s senior product director for fast footwear, says. “Even an athlete as small as Fraser-Pryce [she is 5' 1"] was still flexing in what we thought to be a very rigid spike plate.”

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But with more stiffness often comes more weight, so Schoolmeester and his team came up with a solution from nature, specifically the cellular honeycomb geometry. The honeycomb design creates a reductive nature in the cells that reduces weight in some areas, but offers an incredibly strong connective nature, building a plate four times stiffer and 50 percent lighter. This new spike will be worn by Fraser-Pryce, Allyson Felix, Dafne Schippers and a host of male athletes in the Rio Olympics.

Courtesy of Nike

In another effort to increase plate strength while reducing weight, the Olympic versions of the track spike feature fixed-pin spikes instead of removable spikes. “For these athletes at the Olympic level, it does save us some weight and add strength for them to be permanent,” Schoolmeester says. 

While most Nike-sponsored sprinters will don the Zoom Superfly Elite in Rio (Schoolmeester says the conversion rate for athletes switching to the new spike has proven “incredible”), Nike has well over a dozen different performance spikes and flats that track and field athletes will select from. “This is by far the most diverse spike collection we’ve ever had for silhouettes, performance options and uppers,” he says. For example, Felix will select the Superfly Elite plate, but pair it with a Flyknit upper that uses engineered yarn.

Courtesy of Nike

New colors

Nike calls it volt—the neon yellow color of the shoes that athletes wore in the track and field events during the 2012 London Olympics. That volt gave Nike its “signature color” in London, says Michelle Miller, Nike’s concept director for the Olympics, and the brand has expanded on that color for Rio de Janeiro.

“The athletes really loved the volt that showed up in their bags in London,” she says. “It made them feel powerful.”

With that confidence behind them, Nike created the “hypernational” color palette for Rio—they reenergized national colors based on the image of a feather. So instead of a single shade of blue for the U.S., expect to see an array of hues, from deep obsidian on the track all the way up to the brightest neon blue. 

“Looking at art, looking at nature and Brazilian animals, we saw the most beautiful blue you have ever seen in a feather,” Miller says. “But there were many shades of blue [in the feather]. We wanted to make the national palette have that same energetic, patriotic feel.

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The concept of the hypernational coloring came on the heels of the popularity of volt, which shows up well on the track. Designers went through hundreds of iterations, up to the point they were hand-painting shoes to test them in different lighting scenarios, to find that perfect hue. Evolving that volt concept to the hypernational colors was a natural progression. And so was adding another color: hyper-punch pink.

The pink merges with the volt, creating what Nike calls the unlimited colorway on footwear, with the volt starting on the toe and mixing mid-foot with the pink until the heel goes all hyper-punch pink.

Courtesy of Nike

But the volt-pink combination doesn’t stand alone on footwear. Miller says inspiration from a beetle and its iridescent shells finds its way onto the footwear’s metallic spike plates, offering a flash that shimmers silver, purple and blue. “It bring a beautiful, vibrant palette to life and gives it energy,” she says. “If you look at the beetle shell in a microscope, it is made out of ridges with different colors on each side.”

That ridging plays through the apparel that athletes will wear on the medal podiums, especially for the U.S. and Brazil, with a ribbed sleeve. “It is an exciting piece to do,” Miller says. “Athletes work their entire lives for this moment.” 

Miller says her team dove through the U.S. Olympic Committee’s archives, finding old photos of track and field athletes wearing warmups right before and immediately after their race. Miller says she wanted to create a medal stand tracksuit rooted in that same heritage, but with a blurring of the line of performance and fashion.

Bette Marston for SI

Made in Italy, the ribbed knit sleeves have ribbons of brighter colors—red for the U.S. and yellow for Brazil, for example—that show when the arms are in motion.

From iridescent flashes to intensified hues, volt will have a few friends in the highly colorized Rio.

Tim Newcomb covers sports aesthetics—stadiums to sneakers—and training for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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