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Winter Olympics 2014: Science verses nature

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Hot. Cool. Yours is the motto of the 22nd Winter Olympic Games, taking place in Sochi, Russia this year. Showcasing 98 sports across 15 different disciplines, the games are set to be a spectacular battle of man versus nature. Two weeks of gravity-defying acrobatics, heart-stopping races and mesmerising dance moves awaits. For the past four years, athletes from 88 countries have been training tirelessly, preparing for the event. And they haven’t been the only ones. Behind the scenes, teams of scientists and engineers have been developing cutting edge technology in an attempt to give competitors that extra millisecond advantage over rivals.

A notable example of these advances is the new speed skating suit worn by Team USA, called the Mach 39. To make the suit, designers used a 3D image scanner to construct a computer representation of athletes skating. Coupled with motion capture technology, they used the information to build fibreglass mannequins in the various poses adopted by skaters during a race. After testing hundreds of suit designs, they found a winning combination. The final suit contains strategically placed strips of polyurethane on the forehead, calves and forearms, which blocks airflow and reduces drag on the athlete. Another material, called ArmourGlide, was added to the thighs of the suit to reduce friction. For speed skaters, who face margins as tiny as one hundredth of a second, such innovations could mean the difference between a gold or silver medal.

The sliding events – bobsled, luge and skeleton – use incredibly sophisticated, high-tech equipment to propel athletes down an icy track. Four years ago in Vancouver, Britain’s Amy Williams took gold in the skeleton, sparking a new national interest in the sport. A skeleton race begins with the athlete sprinting for the first 40m, before jumping head first onto a sled. The sled is made from a carbon fibre frame with steel runners. It has no steering, but the frame is adjustable. This allows the athlete to change position easily. The rider controls the sled from where they lie in a custom-made saddle, using spikes on their shoes. With this simple set-up, athletes can reach speeds of 140 km/h and experience g-forces up to 5g.

This year, Team USA is set to reveal a brand new set of sleds for their sliding teams. A group of world-class engineers, including designers from BMW, used a combination of fluid dynamics, motion capture technology, 3D modelling and wind-tunnel testing to develop state-of-the-art equipment for the two-man bobsled, luge and skeleton. The challenge was to build a sled both lightweight and flexible enough to overcome the curves in the track, while still being sufficiently stiff to withstand the high g-forces acting during the race. Although they have not disclosed the exact material composition of the sled, the main component is known to be carbon fibre. They hope that this new design will help to replicate the golden success of their four-man bobsled in Vancouver 2010.

The new technology in the bobsled event doesn’t stop there. For the first time, a unit will be added to the bobsleds in the Sochi games which beams real-time data about speed, acceleration, g-force and track positioning during the run. The unit has been developed by Omega, the official timekeepers of the 2014 games. Similar technology is already in use in Formula One, but this will be the first time the equipment has been used in bobsled racing.

No area of the Sochi games has been left untouched by technological innovation. Over the past few years, dedicated teams around the world have worked diligently to prepare the equipment, clothing and protective gear necessary for man to push the limits of physical extreme. Together, human athleticism and inventiveness will combine during the Winter Olympics to beat the elements, to take on the mountain, and provide the greatest show on Earth.

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