Canada, competing in the four-man bobsled competition in Turin in 2006, is working on ways to reduce friction between bobsled runners and ice.
Nearly a dozen years ago, as parabolic-shaped skis and speed-skating clap skates were significantly altering the landscape of two marquee sports of the Winter Olympic Games, a U.S. Olympic Committee sports science engineer jokingly mused about how far technology might go.
At least, we think he was joking.
“They’ve been asking me to conceal a motor in a bobsled,” Tim Conrad said. “For the moment, it’s too obvious with the smoke and the noise, but give me time, give me time.”
Without going James Bond and surreptitiously slipping into the sled house of the U.S. or German bobsled federations for a tear down, we can’t totally be sure that time isn’t now.
But setting aside the prospect of pull start, not push start, bobsleds that are quieter than your latest dishwasher, sport scientists – with the support of aerospace and military engineers – have never been so busy in the lab, on the ice, in the wind tunnel and on the slopes.
There might not be anything as visibly revolutionary as shaped skis and hinged speed skates unveiled at Vancouver/Whistler in 2010.
More stringent rule specifications from sport governing bodies mean radical changes to bobsleds, skates, luge sleds, biathlon rifles and skis just won’t happen.
But athletes around the world will benefit at the Games from highly advanced real-time video-analysis software, on-hill GPS monitoring, studies into the physics of ice-metal interfaces as they relate to skeleton and bobsled runners, and the latest in aerodynamic, lightweight, friction-reducing clothing.
Canada, of course, has been at the forefront with the top- secret component of its Own the Podium program, designed to put the country at the top of the medals standings. More than 30 research projects received priority funding.
One of those projects, developed by the Schulich School of Engineering in Calgary and disclosed by Alpine Canada in late 2007, had alpine skiers testing the course at Whistler outfitted with an ultra-light wireless timing device on the top of their helmet. Information relayed to a computer program would let the coaches and skiers know what type of skis ran fastest on which sections of the course and under which weather conditions and on different types of snow.
“Our video analysis has got a lot better; there’s a lot more detailed information than we had even two or three years ago,” said Max Gartner, Alpine Canada’s athletics director.
Canada’s luge, skeleton and bobsled teams have been using a detailed immediate feedback video analysis system that employs 25 cameras on the sliding track at Whistler. Luge head coach Wolfgang Staudinger says it is a camera system that no other country has.
Beyond that system and the skiers’ “little black box,” OTP has kept most of its other top- secret work under wraps. OTP director Roger Jackson says we’ll see and hear of some of those projects in
December-January, when it’s “too late for anybody to take advantage of what we’ve learned.”
“But a lot of the stuff we’ve been doing is related to training rather than necessarily competition,” Jackson added. “You may not see a brand-new bobsled that looks like a spaceship. … We have gone down certain roads and things haven’t worked out. And there are things that we are doing now that are going to be used. You’ll be seeing physical expressions of some of the equipment, clothing and other things that we’ve been working on.”
Many of the successes have come in the areas of high-speed video analysis, development of wax preparations and work directly related to athletic performance. That includes biomechanics, exercise physiology, psychology, sleep and recovery techniques, and nutrition.
The freestyle ski team, for instance, has for the last two years been using a bio/neurofeedback program run by sports psychology consultant Penny Werthner. Hooked up to electrodes and sensors that activate coloured charts on a computer screen in front of them, the athletes learn how to use the right breathing and focusing techniques to ensure they reach the optimal mental and physical state to perform at their best.
On the clothing side, it’s very likely that Canadian cross-country skiers, lugers and speed skaters will be wearing new race suits at some point during this World Cup season.
Darren Stefanyshyn, one of the world’s leading sports- gear researchers in the University of Calgary’s Human Performance Lab, says “we’re just starting to see the initial tip of the iceberg” in terms of racing apparel.
He says the banning of the controversial LZR swimsuit, which was responsible for a slew of records in the pool in 2008, wasn’t so much a setback as a redirection for researchers.
“It’s just like anything else,” Stefanyshyn said. “Rules are made, certain regulations are put in place, but smart people like research scientists figure out ways to still make improvements without breaking those rules.”
And that work fuels the ongoing debate about how far science, lab research and new technology should play in high performance sport. Even those involved seem conflicted.
“If it were up to me,” said Louis Poirer, a former national team bobsledder and now a University of Calgary physics PhD student who is investigating friction between skate blades and bobsled runners, “I’d rather see everything standardized and have it played out completely in the field. Best athletes win.”
Stefanyshyn says it’s an ethical question that will be debated “until we’re not here anymore.” He says he has no qualms about what he does.
“I don’t care what anybody says, basically life is not fair. Sports is not fair,” Stefanyshyn said. “Yes, I want the best athlete to win. At the same time, it’s not fair that some people are born 6-foot-2 and some are 5-foot-2.
“There are certain resources that certain athletes or countries have that others don’t. That’s not only true in the piece of equipment, but it’s also true in coaching. Some nations can afford better coaches and can hire coaches away from other countries. People seem to associate unfairness with pieces of equipment, but it can occur in many different facets of sports.”
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