World Intellectual Property Organization

Striving for Excellence – An exhibition on IP and Sport

May 2005

Cross section of a modern pole vault.
Cross section of a modern pole vault.

What do world champion Stéphane Lambiel’s ice-skates, top tennis player Roger Federer’s racket, and world champion Sergey Bubka’s pole vault have in common? They all feature in a lively exhibition on sport and intellectual property currently showing at WIPO. “Striving for Excellence,” which opened on World Intellectual Property Day, offers a glimpse of the technological advances that have improved sport both on and off the track for top class athletes, for the millions who play sports for relaxation and health, and for the millions more who share the excitement from their television screens.

Intellectual property (IP) is a major factor in the success of sporting events. Not only does it play a key role in spurring technological developments to improve the performance and safety of athletes, it underpins the commercial opportunities generated by the massive interest in sporting events and in the athletes themselves. IP also fosters development in broadcasting technology, and is pivotal in enabling the public to follow their favorite events in the comfort of their homes.

New materials, new heights

WIPO’s exhibition traces the evolution of sports equipment and its impact on sporting performance. When pole vaulting, for example, emerged as a competitive sport in the late 1800s, vaulters used wooden (ash) poles, then bamboo poles with a sharp point. Improved technique and materials enabled athletes literally to reach new heights. The 1896 Olympic record, set with a bamboo pole, was approximately 3.2 meters. In 1957, a 4.48 meter record was set using an aluminum pole. This was upped to 4.80 meters in 1960 with a steel pole. Then came the fiberglass pole, revolutionizing vaulting techniques and breaking the record set with the steel pole the previous year. The current world record for men is 6.14 meters, set in July 1994 by the 6-times world champion, Sergey Bubka of Ukraine.

Other cutting edge technology featured in the exhibition includes:

  • Wilson’s patented nCode™ nanotechnology process, whereby tiny silicon oxide crystals are injected into the carbon fibers of tennis rackets to make them stronger and more resilient;
  • the adidas-1 “intelligent” running shoe, which contains electronic devices to regulate cushioning in accordance with weather conditions and running surface;
  • the Speedo® FASTSKIN FSII swimsuit fabric which, modeled on the skin of a shark, is designed to reduce drag and enable competition swimmers to gain those vital split seconds.

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The adidas RoteiroTM, used during Euro 2004, uses the latest design innovations and high-tech materials. (”adidas,” the adidas logo, the 3-stripe trademark and the Roteiro logo are registered trademarks of the adidas-Salomon group, used with permission.)

Golfers can learn about the evolution of golf clubs which, since the 1940s, have benefited from research into synthetic and composite materials, offering greater rigidity, lightness and strength. The golf ball is also a marvel of ingenuity. Many patents have been taken out for improvements including to the cover of the ball, the mesh or design of the cover. William Taylor of Leicester, England, patented the idea of dimple markings on golf balls in 1905. The dimple pattern maximizes lift while minimizing drag. After many years of aerodynamic research, this remains the design principle for golf balls to this day.

Measuring a hair’s breadth

At the top sporting level, every millimeter or every fraction of a second can make the difference between winning and losing. The first four sprinters in the men’s 100 meter final in the Athens 2004 Olympics all crossed the finish line within 1/100th of a second of each other. Minutely accurate measuring devices have become essential. Using the incentives built into the IP system, timekeepers have advanced from the stopwatch, to the electronic chronometer, to the slit video (an ultra-thin line, perfectly aligned with the finish line, and which scans 2,000 times every second to produce images recording athletes as they cross the line), to produce ever more accurate measurements.

Boosting revenue

The exhibition also looks at how sporting organizations and athletes use the IP system to generate income, be it through the protection and use of their trademarks to strike sponsorship, licensing and merchandizing deals, or through the sale of broadcasting rights. The Athens 2004 Olympic Games licensing program alone generated retail sales of over US$530.2 million and is expected to generate royalty revenues of US$86 million. Revenues from the sale of broadcasting rights represented 52 percent of Olympic revenue between 2001 and 2004.

In the 1930s when the Olympic Games were first televised, only a handful of terrestrial channels were available. Today, advances in communication technologies have revolutionized sports coverage, enabling billions of people around the world share the spectacle and excitement of major sporting events, and in turn generating new commercial opportunities. IP rights underpin the relationship between sports, television and other media. When these rights are traded, sporting organizations, commercial sponsors and the public can all benefit.

Sport, whether as big business or as one of life’s simple pleasures, shows multiple facets of IP in action: patent-fuelled technological advances, design innovation, trademark-driven merchandizing, licensing of broadcasting rights. – Food for thought next time we kick a ball, put on our running shoes, or sit down to watch a match.

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