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Nike's Olympic challenge: Making gear for gold medalists ... and for us

If you can't compete in the Olympics, the next best thing may be designing sneakers and apparel for Olympic athletes.

Tobie Hatfield, senior director for athlete innovation at Nike, is doing just that. For more than 26 years, Hatfield has been helping design and innovate products for some of the best athletes in the world.

"When they are going across the finish line, ... I feel like I'm going along with them," Hatfield told CNBC.

The designer has created key innovations for athletes, like decathlete Ashton Eaton, pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie, high jumper Erik Kynard Jr., triple jumper Christian Taylor and sprinter Allyson Felix.

When it comes to innovation, Hatfield takes his job very seriously and believes his product's performance can really make a difference. "In track and field for instance, really the spikes are the only equipment they have out there," he said.

Hatfield has the unique challenge of designing products that work not just for Olympic athletes but that also translate to the rest of us. Many of the items athletes are wearing are already available at retail.

Nike sneaker on display
Justin Solomon | CNBC
Nike sneaker on display

Most of the differences between athletes and consumer products are cosmetic, Hatfield said. "There are subtle differences in some of the athletes that we work with, and it's mainly because they may have some unusual size feet."

Having Nike products on display on a global stage, such as the Olympics, often translates into big sales.

In the London Games, Nike showcased its Flyknit technology, which has changed the way Nike designs sneakers. This year, the Beaverton, Oregon-based company is working with roughly 1,500 athletes during the games, and supplying performance products for 126 individual Olympic and Paralympic teams over 24 sports.

They are introducing their latest evolution of the Nike AeroSwift technology in Rio. According to Nike, it's designed to enhance overall human potential for speed and address the specific needs of each athlete and event.

Through hundreds of hours of wind-tunnel testing, Nike engineers sought to reduce drag and weight of its products.

In doing so, they have created aerodynamic, breathable bibs for the track and field athletes, 3-D printed adhesive tape with aeroblades built in, and new Nike Wing sunglasses that feature a single-piece, hingeless lens.

The AeroSwift technology is being used across track and field, basketball and soccer.


Between their Olympic advertising push and having the swoosh splashed across hundreds of athletes, it's tremendous exposure for the brand.

The excitement and increased awareness around the Olympics is often a catalyst to sports apparel companies, because watching the games inspires people to live a healthier lifestyle, according to a Barclays report.

The Olympics are not just good for Nike's sales, but historically it's been good for its stock price, which is down 9.2 percent this year from the same time last year.

But a pop could be coming. Nike's stock has jumped almost 6 percent on average during each of the eight summer Olympics since it's been a public company, according to Bespoke Investment group.

"By working with the best athletes around the world, it authenticates the product and then trickles down to the consumer," said Hatfield.

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBC Universal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics is the U.S. broadcast rights holder to all Summer and Winter Games through the year 2032.