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Olympic technology

February 17, 2010

Winning the coveted gold, silver and bronze medals at this year's Winter Olympics in Canada often comes down to not just athletic ability, but also the technological enhancements of the equipment athletes use.

David Moeller of Germany celebrates his silver medal finish during the final run of the men's singles luge competition
German technological knowhow is a key part of Olympic sled racesImage: AP

On February 20 the Olympic bobsledders will begin their downhill runs in the Canadian town of Whistler, just outside Vancouver. Since its creation in the Swiss mountain resort town of St. Moritz in 1897 as a way for the rich to get their kicks, the sport has evolved in leaps and bounds. And by 1924 the four-man bobsled was so popular that it became one of the official events at the inaugural Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France.

These days the sleds themselves are pieces of aerodynamic machinery bound only by the specifications handed down by the International Bobsleigh and Tobogganing Federation (FIBT). They are built of fiberglass and steel, ride on four highly polished runners, and can reach top speeds of more than 135 km/h (84 mph).

Computer simulation of a bobsled
The FES optimizes all their sleds using computer simulationsImage: FES

Alpine nations have long held the top spots in the field, and that includes Germany. The sleds for the national team are developed and built at the Institute for the Research and Development of Sporting Equipment (FES) in Berlin. They use the latest in computer and design technology in a process that would give Airbus and Boeing a run for their money.

FES Deputy Director Michael Nitsch said that of the three main factors involved in a successful run - weight, speed and aerodynamics - weight is the only one that can be easily altered. However, there are minimum and maximum limits set by the FIBT.

A light sled is easier for the team to push down the first 50 meters of ice before they all pile in, which makes for a faster start time. Many coaches swear that it is the start that makes or breaks the race and, by some estimations, a one tenth of a second lead at the start turns into a three tenths of a second advantage at the bottom.

On the other hand a heavy sled is more susceptible to the pull of gravity and will accelerate faster as it whips around the various curves. A heavier sled is also more likely to maintain a straight course, which results in a better run.

Skeleton controversy

The FES designs and builds much of the specialized equipment used by athletes representing Germany in all international sporting events, both summer and winter. That includes the skeleton, a perhaps unfortunately named sled that shares the bobsled's Swiss origins, though it was technically created by an Englishman.

Last week the German skeleton team rejected accusations of cheating after Canada's Olympic skeleton silver medalist Jeff Pain suggested that an electro-magnetic material in the German sleds was giving the team an advantage.

Team spokeswoman Margit Denglar-Paar told Deutsche Welle that the accusations "are total nonsense," adding that she had "never heard anything like that" before.

"Our sleds constantly have been monitored by the material commission of the FIBT and were found to be accurate," she said. "All German skeleton sleds were checked during the World Cup season [at the end of last year].”

A German athlete on a luge in a wind tunnel
The Germans put all their sleds through wind tunnel testsImage: FES

Michael Nitsch from FES was also confused as to how magnets would help the German team cheat, though he refused to speculate.

According to the FIBT, although a few natural ice tracks are still in use today, most competitions take place on concrete-based tracks with artificial ice surfaces. While concrete is often supported internally with a network of steel rods, it would probably still be difficult to rig a magnetic field that would successfully pull a sled down the track, even if electro-magnets were utilized.

In addition skeletons, like bobsleds, are made of steel and fiberglass and have to conform to FIBT regulations concerning size and weight, and electro-magnets with enough power to pull a sled would require more electricity than batteries could provide.

Perfecting the slalom

Of all the sporting equipment being put to use in Vancouver over the next few weeks, nothing is quite as prevalent as the ski. In fact, of the 15 official sport categories at the Games, six of them involve skis.

Currently the Swiss, Scandinavian countries and the United States are leading the skiing sports, from the men's downhill to the lady's freestyle. And while German athletes are not making the leader boards, German skis are playing a big role, and have found Olympic fans from several different nations, including Finland and Austria.

Slalom world champion Austrian Manfred Pranger skiing down a course
Reducing friction is key to a quick and successful slalom runImage: Völkl / Gepa Pictures

The current world champion slalom skier, Austrian Manfred Pranger, will take to the slopes on February 23 using skis designed by Volkl, a company based in Bavaria. Volkl spokesman Christian Geib told Deutsche Welle that successful downhill skiing is all about reducing friction.

Volkl has developed a ski called the Speedwall, which, according to Geib, takes critical advantage of more of the ski surface. Racing down a slalom course involves a lot of rapid twists and turns, meaning the sides of the skis come into contact with the ground just as much as the bottoms do.

"So the sides of the Speedwall ski is made of the exact same material as the base, which extends the running surface above and beyond the edges," he explained.

Geib also pointed out that because the sides and the bottoms share the same material, the sides can be waxed just like the base. Wax reduces friction and means more speed.

Technological advancements are not just limited to winter sports. Just about every piece of sporting equipment -- from running shoes to kayaks -- goes through extensive research and development. And the more they are improved, the more impressive athletes' performances will become.

Author: Mark Mattox
Editor: Sam Edmonds