Will Greener Shoes and Uniforms Bring Nike More Olympics Gold?

Nike hopes to win both green and gold at this summer's Olympics in London.

On Tuesday in New York City, the sporting-goods giant unveiled a new line of sportswear designed to help Olympians go faster, farther and longer. Nike is manufacturing its 2012 Olympic kits using less material -- and more recycled plastics -- than in the past.

The announcement came as part of a series of "cutting-edge, lightweight performance innovations designed for the track, the basketball court and beyond for this summer," CEO Mark Parker said.

To me, the most visibly different ecoinnovation is Nike's Flyknit shoe design.

Instead of the conventional assembly of fabrics, rubber, leather and other materials, the Flyknit comprises a single piece of a flexible mesh knit, a strong yet pliant fabric that fits like a sock over a wearer's foot.

Eliminating so much material cuts each shoe's weight by approximately 20 percent to about 160 grams. That may not sound like much, but multiplied by the 40,000 steps it takes to run a marathon, that totals about the weight of a car -- a ton or so -- that elite marathoners will no longer need to lift, said Martin Lotti, Nike's global creative director for the Olympics.

U.S. Olympic team members Carl Lewis and Abdi Abdirahman discuss Nike's Flyknit shoe.Less material also means lower environmental impact. It's an example "that sustainability can improve performance," Hannah Jones, Nike's vice president of sustainable innovation, told me.

Nike is rolling out two versions of the Flyknit: a racing flat and a training shoe. Athletes from Great Britain, Kenya, Russia and the U.S. plan to wear the Flyknit at the games. At the event this week, 10-time gold-medal winner Carl Lewis spoke with 2012 Olympic team member Abdi Abdirahman (both pictured at right) about the Flyknit shoes.

A similar idea helped shape the company's new line of Olympic uniforms. Here, Nike has boosted its use of recycled polyester to produce lighter fabrics for a variety of shorts and tops – and even a wearable racing skin called Nike Pro TurboSpeed. It's basically a speed suit that's covered in dimples, which act like the surface of a golf ball, reducing drag by creating a thin layer of turbulence as an athlete cuts through the air.

By making the fabrics from discarded plastic bottles, the recycled polyester fabrics cut energy consumption by roughly a third compared with virgin materials.

Next page: How recycled plastic helps athletes as much as the environment