Patents in Sports: Equipment Improvements

LZR Racer Swimsuit: British Patent No. 0715652.4

Hockey Helmet: US Patent No. 8191179

As multiple sports grew in popularity the improvement in the equipment being used grew with it. The goal of sports is to make an entertaining product for fans to enjoy and this has culminated in multiple sports changing the equipment that athletes use. This is done for a number of reasons. In some cases it’s to make the game safer for the players, or to make the game more exciting. Other times equipment is changed to make the sport more challenging or easier. Below are examples of equipment updates that have changed how a sport is played.

Hockey is a sport that has made numerous changes to multiple pieces of equipment, two of the most important ones being goalie equipment and helmets. The realization of the damage that is done by concussions to players has drastically changed how hockey is played. Rule changes have more harshly punished those who target the head, and helmets are being re-designed to help curb the number of concussions. However, hockey was slow to even acknowledge headgear as being important for hockey players. Helmets weren’t mandatory until 1978 and even then still allowed for players already going helmetless to be grandfathered in. A player wasn’t wearing a helmet as recently as 1997.

The helmet first came into hockey in 1928 when George Owen wore one. Wearing a helmet then came with the stigma of not being tough enough and many refused to wear any form of headgear. It would take multiple on ice incidents, including the death of Bill Masterson in 1968, for the stigma of wearing a helmet to cease. Now with head injuries being a major concern, it is clear that the addition of the helmet has saved countless players from concussions and the significant long-term health effects that accompany them.

With goalies have pucks fired at them at incredible speeds it made sense for them to have protective headgear on. Yet it wasn’t until 1959 after receiving a broken skull, jaw, nose and cheekbones that Jacques Plante donned his infamous goalie mask. It soon became standard goaltender equipment. Goalie equipment has also been the way the league has tire to modify the game by reducing the equipment of goalies, specifically the pads, thereby making it easier for players to score and making the game more exciting.

Golf clubs in general has undergone a vast change since the age of the wooden golf clubs; the putter though is one that has garnered a lot of attention recently. Starting January 2016, the rules of golf will forbid players from using a long shafted putter. This type of putter is one that allows for the top to be “anchored” to the golfer. This made putting easier as it required less hand, wrist and shoulder movement. This is the sport of golf trying to make the game of golf fairer.

Not jus the putter is being changed in golf as the game made another change to the equipment. In 2010, golf decided to change the groove dimensions on the face of the club. This was to make it more difficult for professionals when they’re balls are put in the rough. This equipment change is not going over well with many golfers. Many feel that this will negatively affect the 35 million amateurs who play golf regularly because this will become the normal equipment for them as well when it makes its way down from the professionals.

Another equipment issue is the difficult task of finding the right balance for equipment that can improve the sport but still make the sport about the athlete and not the equipment. This has come up in multiple sports including cycling where teams with advanced technology in bicycle designs are being warned by the International Cycling Union that they will punish those they feel are taking technological breakthroughs to far in their designs. Some believe it to be a form of cheating. Others believe that teams have a varying degree of access to the best training facilities and coaches so why not a varying degree of technology.

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Cycling can look no further than swimming and the LZR swimsuits created by Speedo that helped take down numerous world records and dominated the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Speedo estimates that 98% of medals won were by athletes using LZR swimsuits. Launched in February 2008 LZR swimsuits took down 93 world records by August 2009. It was finally banned in competition beginning in January 2010.

It once again raises the question of where is the line drawn in terms of what is just an equipment advancement and what is unfair. As shown above some equipment can make the game safer, more exciting, more difficult, and some make it easier, but the lines between acceptable and illegal are becoming more and more unclear and that looks to continue as technology becomes more advanced.

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