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U.S. Olympic rowing team will wear suits designed with antimicrobial features

The sexy unisuits are also environmentally friendly

(CNN) —  

The U.S. Olympic rowing team will appear in seamless unisuits when they hit the bay waters of Rio de Janeiro this summer. Though many viewers will notice only the second-skin fit, these innovative suits will also be providing much-needed protection against the foul waters of Guanabara Bay. The unisuits are knitted with antimicrobial material, their designer said.

“The new unisuit and other apparel are finished with a general antimicrobial to control exposure to most bacteria that rowers may come in contact with in the water,” said Mark Sunderland, a textile engineer at Philadelphia University. Not only are the suits wearable technologies, they are environmentally friendly, as the manufacturing process for each suit produces less than a gram of waste: not even the weight of a piece of paper, Sunderland explained.

The new U.S. Olympic rowing team unisuit.
The new U.S. Olympic rowing team unisuit.
PHOTO: Courtesy Boathouse Sports

Last year, scores of dead fish appeared in the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, where the Olympic rowing and canoe sprint events will take place.

After racing in the Olympic test event in August, Erik Heil of the German sailing team said he was forced to undergo urgent treatment for multiple infections to both his legs and his hip. The team’s website describes how the infections, which were caused by a multiresistant germ, needed to be scraped out of his skin.

Heil believed the origin of the infection was Rio’s Marina da Gloria, where the Olympic sailing competitions will take place.

“Untreated sewage is allowed to flow into the bay,” he claimed at the time.

Recently, PBS “NewsHour” verified his claims. The June 17 report said Guanabara Bay waters contain raw sewage, trash and industrial refuse containing toxic metals. Slick with oil, “the water has been proven to carry dangerous viruses and bacteria with devastating consequences.” Local families told “NewsHour” that some swimmers have become severely sick and been hospitalized for weeks. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science noted, “The clean-up of Guanabara Bay was one of the commitments made during the selection of Rio as the venue for the sporting event, however, not much progress has been made.”

It seems Olympic athletes risk illnesses serious enough to make competing in the Games impossible.

Though Heil proposed only that his team wear plastic covering their shoes, the U.S. Olympic rowing team will arrive at the Games clad in specially designed unisuits, tights and sports bras to help protect them from contaminated water.

“A rower could still be exposed to bacteria through parts of their bodies not covered by the rowing apparel,” Sunderland said. He added that he does not know of any statistics about how often rowers and other watersport competitors are affected by bacterial exposure.

Everyday people, though, are commonly exposed to foul water. According to National Geographic, every day, 2 million tons of human waste are disposed of in waterways around the world.

“In 2009, we introduced a new unisuit and continue to evolve the suit today,” explained John Strotbeck, founder and CEO of Boathouse Sports, in a video on his company’s website. Strotbeck himself competed in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics in the sport, so he understands the athletes he dresses. Before producing the new unisuit, Boathouse Sports outfitted the 2012 Olympic team.

Based in Philadelphia, he conducts his product development with Sunderland and his team at Philadelphia University. Unfortunately, the City of Brotherly Love is home to the polluted Schuylkill River, described as having “a hydro-carbon odor” and ranked as Pennsylvania’s third most polluted river by the environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment.

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Among the features of the new unisuit is a double-layered construction that enables rowers to forgo underwear for more comfort.

Strotbeck said he hopes to introduce suits that will monitor rowers – “essentially, by measuring the distance between the chest and the back of the athlete in front of you” – and send messages (via LEDs) to rowers, telling them whether they are in sync with the person in front of them. It’s the ultimate wearable technology for rowers.