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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Kangaroo skin soccer boots test US democracy

David Beckham reputedly signed a $250 million deal over five years with the Los Angeles Galaxy. The former England captain and metro sexual idol is there to promote the round ball game in the States. High profile Becks and Posh are the toast of Tinsel town with close friends Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, forever at their ‘photo opportunity’ side. A couple of year ago David was the subject of relentless pressure from animal protection groups like Vegetarians International Voice for Animals (VIVA!) who campaigned vigorously to get him to stop wearing kangaroo skin soccer boots made by adidas. Graciously, at the 2002 FIFA World Cup , Becks switched to wearing soccer shoes made from synthetic materials. In the US and anticipating a boom in soccer, adidas continues to make quality kangaroo skin boots (estimated at 1% of their total sales) but have run into a problem in California. The company were subject of a court action successfully brought against them by VIVA! Apparently there has been a 36-year state ban on the sale of products made from various animal species, including kangaroos, and the recent court case has upheld this. The Californian case has still to go to appeal and meantime adidas will continue to sell kangaroo hide shoes in California. VIVA!'s spokesperson, Lauren Ornelas delighted at the court ruling claimed Beckham’s change of heart to promote shoes made from synthetic materials demonstrated to everyone that there was no need to use animal skins to be a good player." However this needs to be tempered with the statement ‘it is not the boot that makes the player, and never has been.’ Kangaroo skins have been used to make quality sports shoes since the middle of the 19th century. In the early days football boots weighed approx. 500 grams when dry and twice as much when wet. Once manufacturers recognised the boot was only in contact with the ball for about 10% of the game, they developed less heavy boots. Lighter footwear meant players were less exhausted and subsequently the overall speed of play, increased and made for a more enjoyable spectator sport. The soccer boot was streamlined with the ankle hugging component reduced to below the malleoli (ankle bones). At first this met with concerns about ankle injuries, but this proved ill founded. The traditional soccer boot was now a slipper or soccus. Leather soles were first replaced by moulded rubber, and then injection moulded PVC before eventually nylon and plastic prevailed. The new synthetic materials were waterproof, cheap to produce and substantially lighter than leather. The upper of the slipper became thinner improved treatment of leather with synthetic waterproof compounds contributed to the development of the new styles. The physical properties of kangaroo skin were recognised very early in the 19th century and most quality sports footwear has a naturally high strength-to-weight ratio. In the 80's, Australia Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation (CSIRO) under took independent tests which confirmed these findings and determined that, when shaved to 20% of its original thickness, kangaroo leather retains between 30% and 60% of its original tensile strength, as compared to a retention rate of 1% -4% for calf and bovine leathers. In a further study by the CSIRO, it was found that kangaroo leather was at least 50% stronger than goatskin gloving leather in tear strength and puncture resistance. Microscopically the hide displays high uniform orientation of fibre bundles in parallel with the skin surface. The skin of the kangaroo does not contain sweat glands or erector pili muscles, which would weaken the skin surface. The yellow elastic fibres (elastin) are evenly distributed throughout the skin thickness which gives the leather greater tenacity. These properties remain even when the leather is split. Tanning further enhances the leather's properties by un-sticking the fibre bundles thereby allowing them to move independently. Comfortable and supple kangaroo skin shoes require no break-in period and give the player a tight fit with optimal feel for the ball. Suitably treated kangaroo leather was favoured because of its high performance nature. In recent years polymer development has been able to replicate much of these desirable properties and whilst unnatural, the synthetic boots are as serviceable. Today's boots weigh less than 196 gms and the development of latex foam, meant the soccer shoe could be cushioned at no detriment to overall mass and new lightweight synthetics were stronger and harder wearing than traditional soles. It has been reported VIVA!, uphold the belief football boots underpin Australia's export of kangaroo products, provoking "the largest massacre of land animals on the planet. " In truth, reputable firms collect kangaroo hides during the Kangaroo Harvest. Commecial kangaroo and wallaby harvest quotas. The Australian Federal Government have an agency to regulate and control the harvest and manufacture of all kangaroo leather. Kangaroo culls are set at 15-20 per cent of the roo population, with four species i.e. the eastern grey, the western grey, the red and the common wallaroo, chosen. In the US, the federal government protects endangered species too but interestingly dropped the kangaroo from their list in 1995. More recently, the Bush Administration has also cut several iconic American creatures, such as the bald eagle and the wolf. This and the potential to drop others has alarmed environmentalists who see mounting threat to wildlife from climate change, habitat loss and other causes. Stonewalled by Federal Government activists are now fighting back using strict state wildlife protection laws. The Californian case has to go to appeal, but meantime adidas will continue to sell kangaroo hide shoes in California, in the full knowledge, the ruling is unlikely to be implemented.

Watch this space.

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