In an age when image is everything, sports design is multi-billion- dollar industry.
ports haven't been "just sports" for some time, notes one of the contributors to Design for Sport, a

collection of photo-essays which examines everything from golf balls to sports bras "not simply as objects of art or science, but as persuasive documents of contemporary culture". Sport is now a multi-billion-dollar global industry, consumed via the media; it is participated in the streets, in health clubs, in the home (strapped to an ab trainer). Sport says a lot about who we are.

Akiko Busch, who edited the collection for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in America, part of the Smithsonian, analyses in her own essay how sport reflects our ambiguous and changing relationship with the environment. An apparently natural outdoor activity such as golf now relies on a course sculpted by bulldozers, maintained by elaborate irrigation networks, and controlled by intensive use of pesticides, destroying the very environment it seeks to enhance. Then there is the ubiquitous exercise bike which never leaves the the gym, the manufactured ski run, and indoor skydiving, which "efficiently reduces the risk of the sport by eliminating the need for the plane, the parachute, and even the sky". Such designs reflect how society seeks to insulate itself from the chaos and threat of the real world, says Busch. These designs are not the real thing but, like watching sport through the eye of the TV camera, can provide a more satisfyingly authentic, peculiarly post-modern, experience.

When it comes to the design of sportswear, nothing has acquired more cultural significance than the trainer: kids have killed and been killed for trainers, their Third World manufacture and First World consumption seem to define our collusion with colonial capitalism. Steven Langehough notes how influential car design has been in the styling of trainers, and how they have replaced cars at the heart of the American dream. "If the automobile captured the popular imagination of the Fifties, symbolising the new prosperity of that time, today the athletic shoe has become a more democratic symbol of identity and prestige in multicultural America." The trainer is the touchstone, in particular, for black aspiration: get the trainers and you, too, could be the next Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal. Get a comfortable bra, thought runner Hinda Miller in 1977, and women will be able to compete on a more level playing field, without discomfort or damage. She designed the first jog bra, the prototype - with rich symbolism - cannibalised from two jockstraps. In the first year of production, 25,000 were sold; 20 years later, in 1996, 41.6 million. Such a development reflects, say Diana Nyad and record-breaking swimmer Candace Lyle Hogan, broader societal changes; investment in women's sportswear design is now taken seriously.

The ultimate irony of sportswear design, as J Nadine Gelberg observes in her closing contribution, is that it is often antithetical to technological innovation: a design which makes a sport too easy risks being banned by the governing body. In sport, artificial inefficiencies are all, and there is a whole stadium full of products which are too clever by half and gathering dust, from golf balls so well engineered they would have made existing courses obsolete, to the table-tennis bat so brilliant, rallies lasted three seconds and fans couldn't see the ball. Then there was the Tear-Away Football Jersey in American football which came away in the hand of anyone who grabbed it - ie, a defender trying to stop an opposing player moving forwards. The problem was the volume and cost of jerseys destroyed during the course of a game, and the amount of time players had to spend getting changed into new jerseys: some went through 30 shirts in a single game. The ab-revealing Tear-Away was finally banned, in 1982

Design for Sport, edited by Akiko Busch, is published by Thames and Hudson, pounds 12.95