When 1964 Tokyo Olympian, Andras Toro, rummaged through his decades of Olympian memorabilia with me last month, he uncovered his number. At his last Olympics representing his native Hungary as a canoeist, Toro wore the number 79, blue font on white material.
What caught my eye was that on the back of the material were the unmistakable pads of velcro. The reason it drew my attention is that I had always been bothered by the way athletes, particularly track and field athletes, have their numbers or names attached to their jerseys. They are sporting sleek, high performance jerseys, and yet their names or numbers are commonly printed on paper, and quite sloppily attached by safety pins. It’s not a big issue. It just doesn’t look cool.
There has to be a better way.
At every Olympics, organizers are always looking for better ways to do things. Perhaps someone deep down in one of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics planning teams thought that velcro was a better way to help identify athletes.
Velcro was developed in 1941 by a Swiss electrical engineer named George de Mestral. The iconic story is that on a walk with his dog in the woods, he came home with burrs stuck to his pants, which made him wonder. When he looked at the burrs closely, he noticed that the burrs had tiny hook-like tendrils, which somehow caught themselves in the tiny openings of his pants material. Out of that insight, de Mestral patented the fasterner idea called velcro, which is a combination of the French words “velours” (velvet) and “crochet” (hook).
Velcro was seen as a light, flexible, non-metallic way to attach or seal things. In 1968, NASA used velcro in their space suits, sample collection bags and on their lunar vehicles, increasing its geeky cool cred.
So attaching name and number plates to uniforms with velcro makes sense, initially. Why are we not using that space-age technology today? My guess is that using velcro is a bit of an operational pain because it requires two to tango – you need to place the “vel” on one thing and the “cro” on another. Toro’s number plate had the “vel”. I can’t imagine the organizers at Lake Sagami requiring all canoeists to wear a special jersey that had the hook pads…but I suppose they did.
And so, the old-school pin fasteners…now they’re beginning to make sense.
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