Shoes made for running - in Calgary

By: Larry Tucker

When Australia's Cathy Freeman crossed the finish line of the women's 400-metre final, providing the defining moment of these Summer Olympics, there was a little Canada in her cleats. Calgary, Canada to be precise.

Sydney's Olympiad shows all the signs of a new millennium. Runners wear sleek, head-to-toe "swift suits". Swimmers don synthetic suits that resemble shark skin.

And sprinters, such as Freeman, are shaving milliseconds off their times, wearing shoes fitted with spikes made of materials intended for use in outer space. Spikes that were the brainchild of a University of Calgary engineering graduate David Grant, and the foundation of his successful Omni-Lite Industries, which today supplies cleats to virtually any athletic equipment company of size, worldwide.

More than 90 percent of track athletes, including those in Sydney, wear his company's cleats. Omni-Lite produces 15 million of them a year, when they aren't rolling out parts for nuclear submarines or Chrysler transmissions.

The company has gone from the $1,500 operation that came out of Grant's wallet to what he now estimates as an enterprise worth something in the neighbourhood of $25 million US. The head office remains in Calgary.

"Watching Cathy Freeman's race was probably the most emotional moment for us," Grant said from his production office in California. "When you design something like this for people, you're kind of part of it all. The last thing we want is failure."

That's what the space people had in mind when they first started mucking around with new materials. Strength was of obvious importance, since it can get ugly on Uranus when your wrench breaks. But weight was an equally critical factor.

Grant established his company in 1993, with $1,500 of his own money and a national research grant, joining the searching for commercial applications to these revolutionary composite materials. He found one.

"The Nike people told us, if we could come up with something workable, they'd be interested," Grant recalls.

They were more than interested. Omni-Lite's cleats were stronger than steel, yet less than one-third the weight. Further, the new cleats did not penetrate the new artificial tracks the way old pin spikes did.

That friction drag was eliminated, replaced by the spring benefit gained as the new cleats compress the track's artificial surface, providing a rebound effect beneficial to lower times.

Freeman, Johnson and Marion Jones have already won gold at these Olympics, wearing what Grant's company calls the "ceramic Christmas tree" designed spike.

Omni-Lite also did all the research and development of the new Adidas 'Z' spike worn by Donovan Bailey and Ato Boldon.

"We've had people call us, asking if the spikes were strong enough to meet the stress and strain these unique athletes could put on their equipment." Grant said. "We tell them they're meant to exceed anything like that. So, when you see Michael Johnson go out and run world record times, it's very satisfying."

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