There is one material that is unique in how and where it is used: it is called tartan and it covers all athletic tracks. It is so distinctive that sometimes it can be enough to see a small portion of a runway photographed to know what it is even just by the color, surface texture and stripes that mark the lanes. But where does this particular finish originate? Why does it have that color? What material is it made of?
Let us go step by step, starting with the story.
When it was invented
The history of tartan is relatively recent: in fact, it was first used at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. Before that time, the tracks were made with a mixture of asphalt and rubber and before that with ash. It has since been universally adopted and is said by many to be partially responsible for the world’s greatest records. It may sound like a paradox, but because of its special mechanical and elastic characteristics, it can provide a kind of mechanical doping to athletes. In fact, it is not a passive material: when it is crushed by the athletes’ soles, it develops energy that returns to those who run on it, as if it were composed of a bed of micro springs.
The definition of “mechanical doping” is a bit strong, but it indicates that it is not an inert surface: once mechanically stressed by the athlete’s action it “reacts” by returning energy. Moreover, since every competitor runs on the same track, it is actually an eventual “democratic doping” because it helps everyone’s performance, without distinction or benefit to anyone in particular.
What it is made of
Tartan is a material composed of polyurethane with special elastic qualities. It is laid in layers, also to ensure its other peculiarity: being composed of grains (or, if you prefer, a fine “polyurethane gravel”) that make hollow cavities between them, it also manages to be draining, that is, able to quickly dispose of any rain, without changing its mechanical characteristics and being similar in performance to when it is dry.
The colors of tartan are the characteristic brick, light blue, dark blue or even yellow but it is the exposed surface that is the most important. In fact, its texture and response to light are designed to reflect the sun’s rays as little as possible, thus avoiding glare or annoyance to athletes.
To prevent its delicate surface from also being damaged by the shoes of those running on it, the maximum length of cleats allowed is less than 9 mm.
The origin of the name
The first to produce this material was, for the Mexico ’68 Olympics, 3M, which simply gave it the name “Tartan.” The reference was to the distinctive fabric of Scottish kilts, just as another 3M product-namely, duct tape-is also known as “Scotch.” The same can be said of “Post-it,” which went from being the name of a product (again, by 3M) to universally denoting sticky notes for taking notes or marking shopping lists to stick on the refrigerator.
3M has not produced tartan for a long time, but the term has stuck and identifies exactly what is used in athletic tracks. In short, let’s say that if you call it tartan anyone who follows athletics knows what you are talking about, even if it would be more appropriate to use others. Also because now you will find out who is the world’s leading manufacturer of athletic tracks.
Who is the largest producer in the world?
Italian Mondo of Alba in the province of Cuneo is the official supplier of the tartans for the athletic tracks at the Olympics. Its magic formula applied to athletics (Mondo-named after that of founder Edmondo Giovanni Stroppiana-also produces technical surfaces for many other sports) is based on the use of a mat of several layers with an exposed surface of vulcanized rubber. The underlying layers are cellular honeycombs with hexagons elongated in the direction of travel, which is the honeycomb shape that most helps the athlete run in comfort, maximizing his or her efforts.
Another curiosity inside the curiosity is that Mondo is the same company that produces Super Santos and Super Tele, i.e., two of the most famous soccer balls, with which millions of children and young people have played and are playing (me too, 8 centuries ago).