Over the past couple of decades, few things have contributed to the achievement and satisfaction of the casual athlete more than his gear. Sports equipment has been dramatically reimagined, ushering in a so-called "techno-physiological evolution" in performance. Which, at the very least, has heightened our belief that the racquet we're swinging or board we're riding gives us some irrefutable advantage. These are the Gear Decades. From Speedo's polyurethane full-body suits that had swimming records falling faster than the Berlin Wall to big-headed golf clubs that have tripled the size of the sweet spot, the athletic-gear industry has adopted aerospace-derived R&D and synthetic materials that are lighter, stronger, and harder.
Throughout the sports world, there has been more innovation in the past few years than in the half-century before. The steel-framed bikes that dominated the Tour de France through the 1980s wouldn't have looked out of place in the 1950s. Carbon fiber, barely on the radar in 1992, is now in everything from skis to sails to the legs of sprinter Oscar Pistorius. Even the hoary baseball glove is being reinvented: MLB has quietly approved a microfiber mitt 10 ounces lighter than leather. French sports-medicine researcher Geoffroy Berthelot argues we may be reaching the limits of human improvement in athletics: More than 60 percent of track and field records haven't changed since 1993. Perhaps that's why we're increasingly seeking more competitive advantages from our stuff. To better explore MJ's history, we chose to examine our gear – and the steady march of progress that keeps us interested every year. We visited three companies who, in 1992, were making an iconic product (bike, jacket, running shoe) to make sense of where our gear has been and where it can go.
Golf Drivers: The Evolution of the Supersized Club
Twenty years ago, Callaway's Big Bertha – named after a WWI German howitzer – had both the size and power to justify the comparison. Founder Ely Callaway recruited engineers to develop a more forgiving, longer-hitting club, and the result proved to be a smash with both pros (by 1994 it was the number one driver on the PGA Tour) and amateurs. It took Callaway from $55 million in sales in 1991 to $557 million in 1995. "Until the Big Bertha, the driver was the most-feared club in the high handicapper's bag," says Luke Williams, Callaway's senior global director of woods and irons. "That was Ely's eureka moment – to make the game more enjoyable for the average player. And it didn't hurt that the aerospace industry started to ramp down in the Eighties. Engineering talent made its way into the golf industry and enabled breakthroughs that we continue to refine to this day." Their latest: the RAZR Fit, which uses a carbon composite developed in tandem with Lamborghini to help the club produce the desired high-launch, low-spin ball flight.
Credit: Stan Badz / PGA Tour / Getty Images