From old-fashioned physical exercises to an intelligent running-shoe insole: More dramatic progress has been made in sport in recent decades than in almost any other area of society, and these developments have helped to shape our modern world.
By Klaus Mergel (Messe München Magazin 01/2018)
The right equipment, the right performance: sport continues to develop.
They look as exotic as the first mountain bikes and snowboards did in the early 1980s. And it still causes a sensation when a skateboarder with an electric board appears in an empty parking lot. Or when a surfer on a local lake powers through the curves using an electric motor, but no waves or wind. There is still only a niche market for the electric surfboards made by Bavarian company Waterwolf, while by contrast, Evolve, the electric skateboard market leader, has already sold 5,000 boards in Europe. They travel at a speed of up to 29 miles per hour and in some cases can even go off-road. They are not yet registered for road use, but that is probably only a question of time. It seems as if sport is once again ahead of society as a whole.
For many years, sport has been much more than a mere leisure pursuit. It is a benchmark for social change and for industrial innovation. This is truer now than it has ever been before. Sport allows people to test their limits and the goalposts are moving. Skateboards have become electric vehicles, while in the endurance field, the marathon, once considered a tough discipline, has been joined by ultra and wilderness runs over distances of more than 60 miles. The sports industry is benefiting from all of this and becoming a pioneer in the field of new technologies. From intelligent textiles and electric mobility to digitization, innovative trends are being tested in the sports sector by what is still an elite, wealthy target group and are then moving into the mass market.
Fitness and health are more important than ever. Physical activity, which was once considered a working-class preserve, now stands for success and achievement. Winston Churchill famously said “No sports,” but nowadays, Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, poses for photographs during his morning run. And Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, revealed that he competes in triathlons as a way of demonstrating his political stamina. In the world of corporate management, too, the distinguished gentlemen who exuded an aura of prosperity and authority have become a thing of the past. Modern managers run marathons.
The character of sport itself has also changed. The physical exercises of the postwar years that called to mind military drills were replaced by the fun factor of the hedonistic 1980s and 1990s, but now sport has become a personal quest for meaning in extreme disciplines. People push themselves to their mental and physical limits, even on an amateur level. Marathons, once regarded as a discipline for a few endurance specialists, have growing numbers of participants of every age. The organizers of the Munich marathon are expecting 20,000 runners to take part in 2018.
The highest mountains also belong to everyone. In the past, they were the preserve of great mountaineers such as Hans Kammerlander and Reinhold Messner, but now almost anyone can climb them, thanks to specialist travel companies that organize trips to Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount McKinley, and Mount Ararat, for example. They make mountain climbing possible even for people with a visual impairment. Every year, around 400 mountaineers reach the summit of Mount Everest. A license to conquer the highest mountain in the world costs only 9,000 euros.
This is an extreme example, but anyone who wants to compete against themselves does not have to travel to Nepal. These days, many men between the ages of 40 and 50 have a long-distance triathlon on their bucket list. Pushing yourself to your limit or achieving a personal best: This approach to sport is quite different from the 1970s, when Germans were happy with fitness trails and ski gymnastics in front of the television with Rosi Mittermaier and Christian Neureuther
While work has become less and less physical over recent decades, the body has become valuable capital. Simply staying fit is no longer enough. The aim is to improve your performance. It began with jogging, gyms, and aerobics. Today, the focus is on self-improvement, and one’s inner approach to life plays a part in this. Today’s social trends, which include the search for meaning and gamification, environmental awareness and mobility, individualization and the event culture, may seem contradictory. But they all promote an interest in sport, and sport in turn reinforces the trends.
Electric mobility is just one example. While electric cars are still a new phenomenon on German roads, sport has made greater progress in this area. Alongside the boom in electric bikes—600,000 were sold in Germany in 2016 alone—electric power is becoming increasingly important in sports and games. There are already three German manufacturers of electric surfboards, which use a propeller motor or a turbine to transport you across the water. At ISPO 2018, the exhibition for the sports industry, one company put on show a SUP board (stand-up paddleboard) with an electric motor. But not only that. It also has a photovoltaic system to give you full autonomy. Also on display at the fair were e-scooters, the Onewheel motorized off-road skateboard, which has been lauded by the press as the “latest sensation from the land of unlimited opportunities” (bergwelten.com), and electric skateboards from many other manufacturers. “Since we first came to the event in 2012, we have been joined by around 30 competitors,” says Evolve CEO Jens Haffke.
Sport has become more differentiated. On the one hand, there is elite sport, which has an enormous market value and huge sponsorship contracts. And then there is extreme sport, which is always chasing after new records and telling new stories. Like that of the Spaniard Kilian Jornet, son of a mountain guide in the Pyrenees and star of the ultra running scene. He won the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 104-mile ultra marathon with an altitude difference of nearly 30,000 feet, three times before he climbed Everest in 2017. On May 20, he set off at 10 pm local time from the traditional base camp near the historic Rongbuk Monastery and reached the summit of the highest mountain on earth, which is 28,029 feet high, 26 hours later, at midnight, without oxygen or fixed ropes.
Surfing and skateboarding are long-established sports, yet they are also becoming further differentiated. Some boards are now propelled by an electric motor.
Or the South African Mike Horn, who journeyed around the equator by hang glider, paraglider, sailboat, and kayak and circumnavigated the Arctic Circle on foot and on skis. The story of Slovenian cyclist Jure Robic is a tragic one. He won the nearly 3,000-mile Race Across America five times before being killed during a training session.
On the other hand, there is mass sport, which meets the need for individuality and independence, together with the age-old longing for a sense of community. The slogan of Waterwolf, the Bavarian manufacturer of electric surfboards, is “Make your own wave.” The technology makes it possible.
he sense of community, for example in team sports, is still the most important argument in favor of mass sport. In 2017, 23.79 million Germans were members of a sports club. That’s not only almost 30 percent of the population, but also half a million more than in 1999.
Thomas Alkemeyer, a sports psychologist at the University of Oldenburg, does not believe that individual and team sports are “in competition with one another.” He says: “Individuality is undoubtedly a feature of the modern age,” but, he explains, “individualization is primarily taking place in our cities.” In the country, the village soccer club is still the most important way of bringing local people together, alongside the volunteer fire service, but more and more people are living in cities.
Individuality is undoubtedly a feature of the modern age.Thomas Alkmeyer, Sportsoziologe
This leads to a deep-felt need to take part in sport as a counterbalance to work. The consequence is that sports that previously took place primarily in a natural environment have developed urban variants. City canals are used for kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding, buildings for climbing, and parking lots for e-skateboarding. Even skiing is possible in cities. Although indoor snow centers are few and far between in Germany—they can be found in only six locations—in the flatter landscape of the Netherlands, there are already around 50. Dry ski slopes, which consist of an endless band made of mats, manage without snow at all and can fit into an area of 750 square feet.
But this type of technology is analog and now almost outdated. One striking feature of ISPO 2018 was that sports articles are becoming smarter from one year to the next. They allow you to use your body as effectively as possible, reduce the risk of injury, and increase the efficiency of physical activity. This area of the exhibition is known as “Wearables and Devices,” in other words, aids to help sportspeople. The “ISPO” Sports Evolution Report 2017 shows that 61 percent of people who take part in sport have a device of this kind, while 47 percent of people who are not active also own one.
With the technical support of a smartwatch and a fitness tracker, amateur sportspeople can become experts. By accurately measuring and monitoring your own performance, you can produce perfect training plans. You can identify when you need new incentives and when some recovery time is required. Sequences of movements can be improved, for example using a golf club with sensors. This makes it easy for anyone to optimize their physical performance.
In 2016, more than 150 million digital training aids of this kind were sold worldwide. Heart rate monitors, which have been on the market for 35 years, are still the most common type of device. But as well as measuring your heart beat, they offer a number of other features and no longer require an irritating chest strap.
Sports laboratories have always worked toward improving physical performance and have tried out technologies that would have been disregarded in other fields.Thomas Alkmeyer, Sportsoziologe
The intelligent insole produced by French manufacturer Digitsole can provide interesting performance data. This includes the number of steps, calorie consumption, and distance covered for runners and efficiency and riding style for cyclists. All the data is sent via Bluetooth to an end device. The insole also includes a thermostat that allows for individually controlled heating.
Digitization has also brought a number of benefits for indoor sports. Kettler, which has an annual turnover of around 145 million euros and is far from being a start-up, has turned the exercise bike into a virtual experience. In the past, grinding away on a clunky bike of this kind was not a particularly pleasant experience. Today’s indoor bikes from the “Racer” range are the equivalent of modern road bikes. They are almost silent. In addition, Kettler’s own Kettmaps app guides riders on a tablet through a tour of the Pyrenees or up the legendary L’Alpe d’Huez stage. Cyclists can upload their own videos of routes and measure themselves against other riders. It goes without saying that the app is also available for treadmills and rowing machines.
You don’t even need an exercise bike. Instead, Zwift software is very popular with cyclists. Using the smart turbo trainer, which has pedaling frequency and speed sensors, you can take part in virtual races with friends at any time of the day or night. Gamification comes to performance sport.
The sports industry picks up on all the latest trends and this is by no means a new phenomenon. For example, the studded soccer shoe developed by Adi Dassler is still seen as the secret star of the “Miracle of Bern,” the German soccer team’s victory in the World Cup nearly 70 years ago. The sports sector is also introducing trendsetting innovations in the field of functional clothing with membrane materials that have been developed to meet a need. Fabrics for everyday clothes must look good and wear well. In sport, the combination of sweat and cold outdoor temperatures brings quite different requirements.
The sports psychologist Thomas Alkemeyer goes one step further. “Sports laboratories have always worked toward improving physical performance and have tried out technologies that would have been disregarded in other fields.” On the other hand, we live in an “age of breathtaking innovation.” “The development cycles are becoming shorter,” says the researcher, “which is probably why this is so noticeable.”
It’s a different playing field. Products that in other areas of life would still be undergoing testing and overcoming obstacles have already proved their value in the sports world. This is true of electric mobility. “Our customers buy the products for use in sport and discover that they’re a great way of getting around. It’s more difficult to find that out about a car which weighs a couple of tons and is significantly more expensive,” says Evolve CEO Haffke.
E-skateboards are not yet allowed on German roads, because it isn’t possible to insure them. But the government has committed to promoting electric transport. In 2016, the German parliament called on the government to introduce the necessary legislation. Haffke is convinced that “they will be made legal, probably with a top speed of 25 kilometers [16 mph] per hour. The government doesn’t want to turn people into criminals.” These small devices would be an easy way of introducing electric transport onto Germany’s roads.
In 2012, Samuel Groth was recorded as having the fastest serve in tennis, at 163 mph. The women’s record is held by German player Sabine Lisicki, at 131 mph.
Although our city streets are still full of cars and not e-skateboards, the boards have played a role in sport for some years as part of a competitive discipline. The annual Dirt Track championship has been held every year since 2014 in the German town of Hassloch. There is even a world cup competition.
Once again, a sporting innovation has developed into a completely new type of sport, in the same way as the mountain bike, which came to Germany from the USA in the 1980s. Mountain biking has been an Olympic sport since 1996. Another similar phenomenon is the snowboard, which is now a familiar feature on the ski slopes. SUP is a relatively new development. The inflatable SUP board, which can be deflated and easily transported in a car, has led many people to move away from bulky windsurfing boards.
The question is, what makes different types of sports popular? In cycle racing, which was already popular before Jan Ullrich won the Tour de France in 1997, the trend has survived the downfall of the star and has developed further into a mass sport. For example, there are now cyclocross and gravel bikes, which are similar to earlier off-road models. Technology plays a major role in this area, too. Gear-shifting and brake systems are becoming lighter and more accurate, while carbon has long since replaced aluminum as the most popular material for frames.
Despite all the doping scandals surrounding it, cycling is an established sport that continues to evolve. Examples range from the electric bike for pensioners to the ultralight bicycle.
However, it is important for a new sport to prove itself. Not all trends are long-lasting. One example is longboards, the cool skateboards that became a mainstream phenomenon. They disappeared after only two years or so. Rollerblades were hugely popular only a few years ago, with “blade nights” involving thousands of skaters bringing cities to a standstill on a regular basis. The skates are now stuffed into the back of cupboards. However, it is in the large cities that the new trends develop. Stand-up paddleboarding, previously seen only on lakes and rivers, is becoming popular in Paris, Berlin, and Hamburg. In Berlin, you can rent a board and paddle down the Spree River. There are rental centers all along the river as far as Lake Wannsee. The Nautic SUP Paris Crossing is the largest international SUP competition, with around 600 participants. It is held in December every year in France’s capital.
Many trends flourish without heroes or new equipment. Pilates and yoga are good examples. They have long since replaced the fitness movements of the 1980s, such as aerobics and bodybuilding. Gentle, healthy forms of exercise, which do not put any strain on the joints, are needed, not tough, impact-based training. Techniques from sports physiotherapy, including fascia training, for example, are moving into fitness courses. Alongside health considerations, diet and mindfulness are also growing in importance.
This is in part because sport has become a philosophy which involves a certain attitude, as well as physical fitness and fun. Sports psychologist Thomas Alkemeyer believes that people fall into two camps. In one, they focus on the appearance that can be achieved by taking part in sport: having a presentable body. “In the other, it is more about the internal effect and this is where mindfulness is more important.” He believes that this phenomenon is limited to “the educated classes in an urban environment where there is a greater emphasis on physical activity and health.”
Yoga, which 20 years ago was regarded with skepticism as a form of meditation performed by Indian gurus, is now an important means of relaxation for city dwellers. It is no longer purely the domain of women. Many world-class soccer players use yoga to stay supple. Yoga has also given rise to additional equipment that allows users to integrate it into their everyday lives. The yoga board made by Strobel & Walter, for example, introduces instability to work the deeper muscles. It is manufactured in Würzburg from local beechwood and costs the not insubstantial sum of 369 euros.
Yoga is all about controling your body—and itʼs about mindfulness. Sociologists talk about the ʻinternal effectʼ on the body.
Intensity, awareness, and mindfulness: The demands are changing and resulting in new approaches, from reduced yoga to the extreme experience of an ultra run. Sustainability has become an important sales tool, in particular in the high-quality premium segment. Manufacturers of outdoor clothing are highlighting their corporate social and environmental responsibility, because this is where they see the demand. The developments in high-tech fibers in terms of weight reduction and breathability have to a certain extent reached their limits, but now wool has been rediscovered as a natural fiber and manufacturers are supporting small producers in development projects.
There are also considerable incentives for key German industries. The fibers used to make clothing have to be spun and woven and shoes need soles. All of these processes require machines. The machine manufacturer Desma, for example, is fully committed to Industry 4.0. Its computer-controlled, fully automated soling machines produce sports shoes in a number of countries using low-noise and low-emission processes. The company’s goal is for its machines to produce shoes at short notice in a size, design, and color that match the individual requirements sent in by customers from their smartphones. Desma’s experience shows that it is on the right track. In 2015 alone, it sold 428 injection molding machines with a value of around 80 million euros.
The most striking changes in financial terms involve the sportspeople. While Franz Beckenbauer earned 400 deutschmarks a month in his early years as a professional soccer player and Gerd Müller worked part-time in a furniture store at the start of his career, nowadays Cristiano Ronaldo is paid 21 million euros a year. The World Cup prize money has doubled since 2002 to 330 million euros. FIFA funds this from the fees for broadcasting rights. In 2018, the two German television stations ARD and ZDF will pay 218 million euros for the rights to show World Cup games.
Sports goods manufacturers earn their money from both mass and elite sport. Nike’s turnover in 2016 amounted to more than 30 billion euros. But consumers are becoming more demanding and expecting shorter development cycles and a perfect fit. In the adidas Speedfactory in the German town of Ansbach, sports shoes are being produced using a 3D printing process, a concept that aroused a great deal of interest at ISPO.
In the past, it took 18 months between the initial design and the shoe reaching the shelf in the store. In future, only a few hours will be needed. Customers can create the design at home on their computers. The shoes will no longer have to be transported for weeks by ship, causing significant environmental damage. At the same time, the digital transformation is creating new jobs in Germany, not for sewing machinists or shoemakers, but for IT specialists and customer service agents. adidas’ competitor Nike is also investing in computer-aided design and 3D modeling.
And what about the retailers? If they do not move into the digital world, they will go under. But Forecasts show that bricks-and-mortar retailers who offer a more individual customer service and a special shopping experience involving virtual reality will be the winners. Stores are already experimenting with interactive changing rooms, because not everyone wants to buy their running shoes online. Instead they value the expertise of the salesclerks at the point of sale. Because that’s ultimately what it’s all about. The shoes must not rub when you’re running a marathon and must help you show what you can achieve. Even with the best material in the world, you can’t run well with blisters on your feet.