How Plastic Technology Infiltrated the Olympics

The 2016 Olympic Games started in Rio last week and we have a summer of great sporting achievements ahead. The Olympics at its purest is the triumph of human competition. Toned athletes compete to see who can run and swim the fastest, jump the highest, throw the furthest. However, away from the track and field and swimming pool are the fringe sports that make the Olympics such an eclectic display of sporting prowess. Plastic technology has played a role in the development of some of these sports. Let's see how plastic infiltrated the Olympics.

Table Tennis Balls

A table tennis bat with a ping pong ball resting on top of it

Table Tennis has its origins in the Victorian parlour game tradition. Nobody knows for certain who invented it, but various origin stories have been put forward. One story is that the game was first played with cigar tin lids for bats and a ball fashioned from a champagne cork. Another version says a golf ball was knocked back and forth over a "net" made from books. Everyone agrees that the game was vastly improved by enthusiast James W. Gibb. He introduced some novelty plastic balls he had found on a trip to America in 1901. The 38mm diameter celluloid balls became standard until 2000 when the diameter was increased to 40mm to slow the game down - much to the consternation of the Chinese who dominated the sport at that time with their lightning fast smashing technique.

Rowing Boat Hulls

A close up shot of a men's rowing tea, focusing on the oars and hull

The sport of racing boats is as ancient as boats themselves. The Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep competed in displays of oarsmanship in the Second Millennium BC. The hull of a racing boat is ideally long, narrow and roughly semi-circular in cross section. This shape reduces drag. It is also an advantage to be light. This is why traditional wooden hulls have been edged out by carbon fibre reinforced plastic hulls, while a double skin of this composite plastic over a honeycomb structure makes the hull light and strong. The International Federation of Rowing Associations enforces weight limitations to make sure that no team can give themselves an advantage by using the latest plastic technologies.

Paralympic Running Blades

A sprinter with an amputated leg that has been replaced by a prosthetic blade leaving the starting block

The Paralympics follow shortly after the Olympics and showcase the skills of the world's disabled athletes. Athletes with one or both legs amputated below the knee use carbon-fibre reinforced polymer plastic running blades. The blades are manufactured from between 30 and 90 sheets of polymer that are layered then autoclaved - this process fuses the sheets to form a solid plate. The method reduces the number of air bubbles that could cause breakages. After cooling and being cut into shape, the finished blade is bolted to a socket that straps onto the athlete's knee.

Everywhere we look we see examples of how plastic technology has transformed the world. Do you have an innovative design that you think could be realised using plastic technology? If so, email us at or call us on +44 1692 501020 and talk to our experts.

Spotted an interesting use of plastic at the Rio Olympics? Tweet us at @CodaPlastics.

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