Text: JOSE JUAN ZAPATA
Illustrations and audio editing: CAROLINA ROBLES
Additional voice over: QUITZÉ FERNÁNDEZ
Web design: JOSÉ JUAN ZAPATA
They are fashion accessories, but also high-tech sports pieces. What are some secrets that sports shoes hide? Miguel García Guerrero tells us about it in his book Technis, which combines his passion for science, basketball and tennis.
For a young man who grew up in the nineties, passionate about basketball and the Chicago Bulls, there was no greater object of desire than Michael Jordan sneakers. Bah, and not just football fans. Many will agree that there was no better experience than getting a good pair and showing it off on Monday morning at school.
Miguel García Guerrero was one of those young men who longed to have the Nike Jordan 7. “I’ll give you half, but you have to save the rest,” his father told him. The savings flowed slowly, but after six months he had the money. “The moment I bought them, it was heaven,” he says. But just at that moment the Jordan 8 came out, and with that pair a new desire.
“The first time I saw them in the store, it was like the equivalent of when King Arthur sees the Excalibur sword in the stone…and the price was like the equivalent of the sword too! There was no way,” he recalls with a smile.
Over time, he made these and other pairs that generated in him a taste for sports shoes. But they also led to an interest in the technology behind them. Miguel studied physics and has dedicated himself to popularizing science through numerous books and publications. It also has a tennis collection that is around 86 pairs. So it was a matter of time before both passions combined.
And that moment came during the pandemic. The time of confinement helped Miguel shape Technis: technology, science and history of sports shoes, a book that takes a tour of anecdotes, stories and details that surround tennis shoes.
So we talked via Zoom with Miguel, who is also responsible for outreach at the Science Museum of the Autonomous University of Zacatecas, so he can tell us a little about what lies behind this world of fabric, plastic, and high-tech materials.
From the Olmecs to Goodyear: the path of vulcanization
Today’s shoes are sophisticated devices that help athletes exploit their performance, and the turning point was the discovery of vulcanization in the nineteenth century by Charles Goodyear. But it all started with a plant.
Rubber is a material that is obtained from different trees native to America. The inhabitants of this continent knew its properties, and according to Miguel, the Olmecs already made a kind of “tennis” by covering their feet with latex obtained from plants to protect themselves when walking.
“The Olmecs mixed latex with ground plants and heated it. Vulcanized rubber was being made somewhat blind for at least 500 or 600 years before Goodyear discovered the process. Unfortunately, the Spaniards arrived, who seek to impose more than learn, and this knowledge was put aside.
It was not until the 18th century that Europeans “rediscovered” rubber in Brazil and used it to make lifebuoy tires and umbrellas. Although this material is flexible, it was also very sensitive to temperature and tended to melt in the heat or crack in the cold. It was Charles Goodyear, a hardware store from the United States, who began to experiment empirically with this material until he discovered vulcanization by mixing rubber with sulfur.
“Latex is a polymer, they are very long chains of atoms, and the problem is that the heat separates those chains. The sulfur bridges the chains and turns it into a network, making it much stronger. That is the key to vulcanization.”
Goodyear did not profit financially. Other people patented the procedure before him, and the company that bears his name has nothing to do with his family. However, vulcanization was the starting point for creating a stealth shoe (hence the name ‘sneakers’, referring to runaways) that would ultimately become an indispensable technology in the sport. And not only that: it was also a basis for the automotive industry by enabling the development of tires, bands and hoses.
Technologies that are a time machine
Perhaps it is a reference only for those of us who lived in that era, but do you remember Marty McFly’s sneakers in Back to the Future II? In Robert Zemeckis’ 1989 film Marty travels to 2015 and comes across a pair of sneakers that automatically adjust to the wearer’s foot.
Miguel tells us that at the time Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg approached Nike engineers to design what the sneakers of the future would be. The company suggested shelving the idea of magnetic tennis shoes for something more “compelling”: a pair that doesn’t need laces to adapt to the foot. We all know that the future comes sooner than later, and with 2015 approaching, it was time to find out if Back to the Future sneakers could have a place in real life.
Tinker Hatfield, one of Nike’s star designers, knew that one of the problems basketball players have is that when they put on their shoes they are cold. The foot has not been impacted, there is no heat dilation and no blood has flowed. As the intensity increases, the volume of the foot increases and the squeeze often injures the players. Hatfield thought of a shoe with a very light motor, with sensors that identify the tension. Thus, as the foot swells, the shoe adapts to the player’s foot.
“It wasn’t just the puppet part of Back to the Future, they developed it as a dedicated performance technology. In 2016, models with this technology began to appear, for running and playing basketball. Something that was literally from the world of science fiction now exists on the market.”
The “Miracle of Bern” was in the studs
As for tennis, the greatest innovations come from the world of basketball and athletics, where the performance of the feet is vital to lower those tenths of a second that achieve records or that block that avoids a defeat at the last second. But there are other sports that have also contributed their grain of sand to footwear.
One of them -could not be otherwise- is football. We continually come across new models that help players improve their performance on the turf and contact with the ball, so they can better exploit their talent. But there was a moment in history, Miguel tells us, when shoe technology helped win the World Cup.
1954 World Cup in Switzerland. Germany reaches the final against Hungary. The Hungarians had beaten the Germans in the regular phase, and everyone expected a similar result. Rain was forecast for that day. Adi Dassler, owner of Adidas, the brand that dressed the Mannschaft, visited the coach and told him: “We have a secret weapon if it rains tomorrow.”
“He had developed some studs with unscrewable studs. I could put some shorter ones or some longer ones. Longer studs could give players better grip,” says Miguel.
The day of the final arrives, and the Hungarians could never establish a good ground position, they did not take hold. The Germans fit deeper into the ground, and with a last minute goal they achieved the so-called “Miracle of Bern” that is still remembered in the history of international football. This hand in hand with a technological innovation from Adidas that is currently in common use.
In Mexico, can innovative tennis be manufactured?
As we can see, much of the cutting edge in sports shoe technology comes from American or German brands, who invest a lot of money in the development of materials, designs and patents. This leads us to ask: Are there manufacturers that innovate in Mexico? Is it possible to do it in the future?
Miguel tells us that many national brands actually wait for the patents of brands like Adidas or Nike to expire before incorporating these technologies into their designs. “The only brand that builds things that give you a certain level of performance is Pirma. But they do not have innovation and development laboratories. Sadly, there are no brands that innovate”.
On the other hand, in Mexico there has been notable progress in the physics of materials and nanotechnology in several universities, so public-private collaboration would be necessary. There are no Mexican brands that can make enough money to start an independent laboratory, so the idea would be for them to approach universities that have already made advances in these fields.
“It would be important for someone to commit to developing innovation. The later you jump on the tech bandwagon, the harder it is to do something new. The key would be for there to be someone with the vision to articulate tennis brands with laboratories that already exist. It would be ideal, but they are complex collaborations”, says Miguel.
How to buy good tennis?
After all, not everything in the tennis world is technology. We must accept that starting with sports superstars, sneakers have become fashion accessories and objects of desire for millions of people. Hip-hop musicians have also contributed their grain of sand, from Run DMC to Kanye West.
However, what should be taken into account when buying? In his book, Miguel includes a chapter called “Footwear Buying Guide”, where you can start thinking about what kind of tennis you need. And the basic question is: what are you buying them for?
“Do you want walking shoes? Adidas has Boost technology, Ascis has Nova Blast, Nike has React, there are very comfortable things. Do you want tennis to play basketball? It depends on what position you play, the type of footwear you will need is different. Do I want them to run? How much do I run? Depending on the degree of performance and the distance is the footwear”.
And, of course, style cannot be neglected. And it is that not everything in this world is technology and sport:
“There are shoes that I buy and I know that the day I wear them I will not be comfortable, but it is to combine with a suit. From a few years to now it is rare that I wear shoes with a suit. There are sneakers that I use for that purpose. There are sneakers to combine with certain clothes, to add style. I’m not much of a hype, of the limited editions of Nike with Dior or with some rappers, but there are people who do go that way.”
So the next time you put on some sneakers to go shoot a few baskets or run a few miles, remember that you have small technological devices on your feet that have come a long way in innovation, design and science.