The Competitive Edge

“I will conquer what has never been conquered, defeat will not be in my creed. My heart and soul will be the fuel to carry my body when my limbs are weary. I will never give in to the evil that is weakness and I will fight that evil with my dying breath. Readily will I display the discipline and strength required to fight on to my objective, and I will complete my mission. 

“History will remember my name but he does not have to be kind, for I have denied his criticisms and cut out my own praise. Nobody will define me and nobody will tell me what I can’t achieve. No one will say that I haven’t given all that I have to I give and no one will take my glory. Who am I? I am a champion.” Maurice Flowers, 2011 

 In 1936 James “Jesse” Owens stunned the world by becoming the first athlete to win four gold medals at the Berlin Summer Olympic Games. So impressive was the feat, it was a record that stayed unbroken for 48 years. Outside of Owens’ achievements, two significant things happened at those games. The first was Owens’ humiliation of Hitler and his aspiration to prove the superiority of the Aryan race. But the more relevant to us was the persuasion of Owens by German cobbler Adolf “Adi” Dassler to wear his handmade Dassler Brothers lightweight running shoes. Dassler saw and seized the opportunity to provide athletes with a better alternative to the heavier metal running spikes in use at the time. The desire for athletes to find an edge over their competitors had been stoked. Adi Dassler soon founded Adidas, while his former business partner and older brother Rudolf founded Puma (formerly Ruda) after the relationship between the pair had soured. The race to create superior sporting equipment, fueled by a bitter sibling rivalry, was on. 

 More than 80 years on, the competitive sporting landscape has evolved beyond recognition. Elite athletes are now full time professionals. Most have an entire team of sports scientists behind them designing and analyzing their nutrition, hydration plan, physical conditioning, strength and cardiovascular programs, recovery, injury rehabilitation, psychological preparation, sleep behaviour and hygiene. So comprehensive is the search for every last percentage point of performance that a professional sporting team can have up to 80 support science staff. No stone is left unturned.  

 We have seen the most rapid of this evolution since the turn of the 21st century. As more professional athletes turned to experts to refine and improve their training and recovery, others were forced to follow suit, or else be made to eat literal and figurative dust. The demand for these experts from the sciences created a multi-billion dollar industry and the desire for young people to join this exciting industry swelled. Accordingly, graduate degrees that are specifically tailored to sports sciences are now offered in almost every major university in the world. Demand still outstrips supply, however, as professional organization’s and national sporting bodies look to employ support staff in ever developing roles. 

Apparel has not been left behind in the pursuit of excellence. Rather, it has lead the charge in many ways. The vision and entrepreneurship of Adi Dassler kick started an industry. Later, the rivalry with his brother drove each to a battle of one-upmanship that served to benefit athlete’s worldwide. Their rivalry was so intense that their hometown became affectionately known as “the town of broken necks” as the residents would be constantly looking down to see what brand of footwear the other pedestrians were wearing. Research and development of materials became a key focus in the pursuit of increased comfort and performance. The construction materials of running shoes became lighter, more flexible and with greater durability. Orthopedic design rose to prominence thus making footwear more comfortable for longer periods. Clothing designed specifically for the athletes discipline soon followed and the race to sponsor and outfit the world’s elite spurned a whole new fashion industry. 

But throughout all of the technological development and staggering improvement in sports apparel throughout the 20th century, the industry remained almost exclusively dedicated to male athletes. Women’s sport had yet to gain the significant interest that we’ve witness blossom over the past decade and as a result apparel companies invested little in research and development in female specific sportswear. This month marks 100 years since the women’s rights movement were granted suffrage in the United Kingdom. The United States of America followed two years later with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US constitution. Most of Australia had granted voting rights to women late in the 19th century. Remarkably, though, it is only in the current decade, more than a century later, that we have seen women in sport, outside of those in nationally sponsored programs, become full time professionals. It’s no coincidence that the women’s sporting apparel market has emerged alongside the dawning of the age of female professionalism in sport. Unprecedented money is pouring into women’s sport due to more lucrative broadcasting contracts, sponsorship deals and competition prize money. The competitive nature and drive to succeed is both a product of the individual’s ambition and organization’s need to take as large a slice of the financial pie as possible. Of course the investment in sports science and apparel has been a natural continuance of that drive and need.  

The seeds of change were sown when Stella McCartney began designing exclusive women’s apparel early after the turn of the century. Finally, sportswear imagined by an experienced female designer catering exclusively to women emerged. Who better to design clothing that is intended to be comfortable and practical for women than a woman? Now the modern female athlete is more spoiled for choice. International brands such as Lorna Jane and Lululemon have a wide variety of fitness and athletic wear available. Lorna Jane alone release up to 100 designs every month. It’s fair to say that the industry has grown exponentially in the 21st century. Professionals and amateurs alike are afforded a selection to cater to not only their taste, but their requirements of performance and comfort. 

Outside of professionalism, women of all skill, fitness and ambition are more involved in sport and fitness activity than ever before. The professional sports woman strives for the perfect technique, every hundredth of a second, every inch and every marginal gain in the pursuit of excellence, success and recognition. The amateur sportswoman, or even fitness enthusiast strives to reach the goals she has set for herself. And part of achieving those goals is a sense of accomplishment, wellbeing and empowerment. We’ve all started at the bottom; some of us are still there. Whether your goal is to complete a five kilometer run or a single push-up or pull-up, or to complete a marathon in less than three hours, we are all striving towards a goal. The obstacles to that goal are both tangible and psychological. The psychological barriers are the hardest to overcome, but once you find that determination, the difference between achieving your goals and not lies in the little differences, the little advantages that you can find in your training technique, your diet, your recovery and your equipment and apparel. 

In the movie Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino delivered an inspiring monologue prior to the final act of the movie; “life is just a game of inches. In either the game of life or sport, the margin for error is so small. One half step too early or too late and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow of too fast and you don’t catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They are in every break, every minute, every second. And I know if I am going to have any life anymore it is because I am willing to fight and die for that inch because that is what living is. The six inches in front of your face.” 

So, the next time you take to the court, the field, the track or the gym, ask yourself the question; how badly do I want to achieve my goals? Have I clawed back every inch I can? Have I fought for every possible advantage available to me? Then look to those around you, those that you aspire to be like, and you can know for certain that they have. Because that’s what successful people do.