SI Vault
Liz Smith
September 27, 1965
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September 27, 1965

Sport Moves Into The Plastics Age

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These purists, however, are fighting a losing battle. In some sports, synthetics have made inroads of up to 80% or 90%. Boating experienced its boom precisely because synthetics placed easy-to-care-for, all-but-indestructible fiber-glass boats, Dacron sails and plastic water gear within the reach of a new group of Americans—those millions with approximately 4,000 free hours a year for fun and games. Sixty-five million pounds, 20% of the overall volume, of fiber glass were sold to pleasure-boat manufacturers in 1964.

The advantages of fiber glass as a boatbuilding material are almost endless. Besides being impervious to rot and the other afflictions of wood, it has opened the door to variations and refinements of design and manufacture either impossible or prohibitively expensive with other materials.

Ocean Racer Bruce Kirby says Dacron changed sailmaking "from 90% art and 10% science to 10% art and 90% science." According to Kirby, racers discovered that Dacron would stretch but would also return to its original shape. "The result has been a degree of sail control undreamed of a few years ago."

Surfing, or at least today's unprecedented popularity, was created by the new lightweight boards so easily handled by men, women and children. The urethane-foam surfboard weighs 30 pounds, 80 pounds less than the big wooden boards of Duke Kahanamoku's day.

The fiber-glass vaulting pole, which spread the heat and light of its controversy over other track and field events, was not track's only synthetic innovation. Padded lightweight hurdles and featherweight track shoes, regulation batons of plastic, plastic-coated shots and discuses are all a part of every school's equipment. There are also new synthetic tracks and courts of Tartan and Neo-Turf that give a faster, surer, more uniform surface, require no maintenance, resist dirt and scars and have equal resilience in all temperatures. Placed indoors under synthetic domes, these artificial floors are producing a new generation of athletes who can train in all seasons, undeterred by mud, sleet and snow. Tartan tracks are also being used for horse racing and trotting.

Warm in their neoprene wet suits, hundreds of otherwise nonheroic citizens are taking up scuba and skin diving. "The wet suit has turned sissies into tigers," says Diver Lamar Boren.

Thanks to synthetics, today's football players are wearing five pounds less armor. Synthetics do not absorb moisture and are used in hip and thigh pads, shoulder pads, cleats and uniforms. As University of Pittsburgh Trainer Howard Waite avows, "Football players love all this new equipment, and it gives them great confidence."

Only the protective football helmet, which takes a continuous pounding and is hard to fit, has turned out to be the Frankenstein's monster of synthetics. Many professionals argue that, more than any other factor, it has changed the nature of the game. While some say it reduces injuries, others argue that it causes them. Boston Sporting Goods Dealer John (Bucky) Warren points out: "Many of the plastic innovations in equipment have led to the use of other pieces of equipment. Football went for the plastic helmet because it was light. But what happened? Suddenly there was a rash of facial injuries. To guard against this, the face mask was devised." Now some equipment managers, such as Stanford's Jake Irwin, advocate letting football be more like Rugby. "Those guys wear no protective equipment," says Irwin. "Know why? Because the other team wears none either."

When the equipment-makers of a sport turn to synthetics, you can be fairly sure one reason is that they have discovered enough potential for sales to warrant expensive testing and manufacture. This explains why many "prestige" sports have held out against synthetics. The horse world, for instance, is still associated with a moneyed upper class and does not have enough consumers to attract synthetics manufacturers to any great degree.

If you walk into a conservative but well-known horse supplier, such as M.J. Knoud on New York's Madison Avenue, the delicious smell of good expensive leather definitely produces an ambience of one-upmanship to shopping. Owner David Wright claims, "People like the flexibility and adjustability of leather and canvas. There is a certain feel to leather you can't get in any other substance. You know that a saddle will shape to your own knee pocket if you use it often. There is nothing like leather on leather." However, some members of the horse world are testing plastic products right now, unbeknown to themselves. Numbers of saddles made of Du Pont's Corfam are being used by riders who think they are sitting on real leather. Corfam is also gaining popular acceptance in golf shoes. The synthetic leather is apparently unaffected by moisture, weighs up to a third less than leather, keeps its luster or nap with a wipe of a damp cloth, retains its flexible shape throughout the life of the shoe and does not have to be broken in. Bowling, track and ski footwear is also being made up in Corfam.

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