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Natalie Keir investigates the influence new technology is having on equality in this year’s Winter Olympics.

It is often said that behind every great athlete is a great team, but this year the US speed skating team has taken that sentiment to new heights.

In their search for the perfect race apparel, the team turned to US aerospace and defence firm, Lockheed Martin. The engineering firm came up with a design process that was incredibly complex, which is unsurprising when you consider that they are essentially rocket scientists.

The Olympians donned suits adorned with motion capture sensors before racing around a rink. The motion capture sensors were similar to those used in the production of the film Avatar, where actors wore them to ensure the movement of the animated characters appeared as life-like as possible. Once the engineering team had accurately tracked the motion of the speed skaters’ bodies throughout a typical race, they produced mannequins positioned in a range of common speed skating stances. The mannequins then faced quite an ordeal; they were dressed up in a huge range of potential race outfits and placed in a wind tunnel for hundreds of hours of wind tests. After years of research, the holy grail of speed skating suits was produced and, unsurprisingly, its specifications are very highly guarded.

Another area in which advanced engineering has played a significant role is in the development of skis for alpine skiing. The US alpine skiing team have utilised carbon nanotubes for the production of their state-of-the-art equipment. The tiny tubes, which have found applications in a huge number of industries, from computing to medicine, are incredibly strong and light-weight. This is the perfect combination for the underside of an Olympian’s ski, which undergoes a huge amount of stress as the athlete navigates the icy and often uneven terrain of a racing slope. The nanotubes also work well as shock diffusers, dampening the vibrations induced as the skier hits unexpected bumps.

Although it is inevitable that science will continue to produce ever more advanced materials for sports equipment, it is important that the integrity of the sport is constantly considered. One question that arises from the rapid advancement of race equipment is whether the technology will soon become more important than talent. It seems that skiing and speed skating may be following the same trajectory as sports such as Formula 1. It is often said the tragedy of Formula 1 is that the quality of engineering has become more influential than the talent of the driver. The sport has become a competition fought behind the scenes, making the race itself more predictable and less exciting.

As the races so far in the Sochi Olympics have shown, mere fractions of a second can stand between golden glory and going home empty-handed. While the advancement of sports science is necessary and hugely fascinating, it is important to bear in mind that the sport should primarily depend on the talent of the individual, rather than the talent of the team behind the scenes.


Natalie Keir


Image credit: Lite