The motto of the Olympic Games, "Higher, faster, stronger," is the essence of true athletic competition: the desire to achieve. The nature of competition has spurred the development of better and more efficient athletic equipment in all sporting disciplines, since the time of the ancient Olympics more than 2,700 years ago. The footwear used by modern athletes is a most prominent example of technological progress in sport.
Since the late 1800s, athletic footwear has moved from the custom product of an individual athlete who made modifications to seek a competitive advantage, to its modern status as a branch of sport science. High-quality athletic shoes are essential to athletic success, a product that represents an intersection between research and real-life applications. In some disciplines, the footwear is referred to as a "shoe"; in many parts of the world, there is the soccer and rugby "boot"; in the United States, football "cleats" is a common term; in track and field, athletes will refer to their specialized footwear as "spikes."
The evolution of specialized athletic shoes can be traced to unconnected events in England and the United States. The "plimsoll," (so named for its color), which resembled the plimsoll line on cargo sailing ships (the mark placed on the hull to show where the loaded ship would be riding in warmer or colder saltwater oceans), was the first mass-produced canvas, rubber-soled shoe. As tennis became more popular in the later part of the nineteenth century, the plimsoll became the first English all-purpose sport shoe.
The plimsoll concept was a motivation for the development of the American "sneaker," named for its quiet wear ability, and patented as the Keds brand in 1916. The sneaker in turn led to the development in the late 1930s of an iconic basketball shoe, the Converse "Chuck Taylors," made with a canvas upper supported by a thick rubber sole.
When the game of soccer was in its early stages of development in England in the 1880s, players usually wore durable work boots, weighing approximately 1.1 lb (500 g), without modification. Wet playing fields in England inspired the development of lighter, cleated boots, often constructed from supple kangaroo hides. In the 1930s in Germany, Adi Dassler, the founder of Adidas, began to experiment with a more functional soccer boot; Adidas later became the first soccer shoe manufacturer to employ a system of removal cleats. Modern soccer shoes, constructed primarily of synthetic materials, weigh less than 0.5 lb (250 g).
Athletic shoes, irrespective of the discipline for which they are designed, have four basic components: the upper, the insert, the midsole, and the outsole. Each component has a specific function in the overall efficiency of the performance of the athletic shoe. The upper serves to hold the shoe together, as well as to secure and protect the foot. It is designed to be as lightweight as possible and yet perform its function. The insert is the support mechanism for the foot, particularly the arch. The insert may also be designed to accommodate an orthotic, a specialty structure used to correct misalignment in the foot or legs. The midsole is the
The chief purposes of any athletic shoe are the combined objectives of stability, flexibility, protection of the foot, and maximum traction on the running surface. To achieve these purposes, athletic shoe research in the past 50 years has emphasized the utilization of ever-lighter materials, and designs encouraging efficient movement. The thin, hard rubber of the original plimsoll sole evolved to one of molded rubber, and then injection molded PVC (plastic) by the 1970s. The modern athletic shoe sole, no matter what the sporting discipline, is now generally constructed of lightweight plastic and nylon materials.
A corollary development in the athletic shoe industry has been the popularity of many types of athletic shoes with the general population that use them for casual street wear. The attraction of these products is tied to the marketing of the shoes and the fashion appeal, as opposed to their performance characteristics.
The study of human movement, known as bio-mechanics, has featured prominently in athletic shoe research since the 1970s. Studies and development as to how to make the athlete most functional have been directed toward two general areas: the control of motion of the foot, known as pronation, that rolls the foot inward upon impact with the surface, which reduces running efficiency; and the effective cushioning of the foot without sacrificing weight or control.
Virtually every sport in which running or lower body stability are important has benefited from the development of a specialized type of footwear; shoes are now further specialized for use in different events within the same discipline. The track spikes worn by a 100-m sprinter will have a very strong sole, to withstand the explosive power applied when the sprinter leaves the sprint blocks; the shoes worn by 1,500-m runner may appear similar, but will often employ flatter soles and shorter spikes. American football cleats for use on natural grass surfaces employ a cleat at the toe for better pivoting; the shoes worn on artificial surfaces tend to employ a greater number of shorter cleats; a large football lineman, who will weight as much as 325 lb (147 k) or more, will wear a high-topped shoe that emphasizes stability and protection of the ankle. A smaller, faster receiver will often wear a lighter, low-cut shoe that permits greater flexibility, consistent with the position played.