Team USA in Sochi: High-Tech Gear Spurs High Hopes
While it takes years of training, determination and really good genes even to get a chance to compete in the Olympic Games, the difference between making the podium or not can come down to milliseconds in some events. At this year's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, new advances in fabrics, materials and designs are giving the athletes an edge as they go for the gold.
It isn't just sporting goods manufacturers that are now developing the technology being used by the competitors. Auto makers such as BMW and aerospace pioneers including Lockheed Martin have helped design equipment that is lighter, faster and more streamlined.
Speed skaters for years have relied on skintight uniforms to reduce drag. For the 2014 games, Team USA partnered with apparel maker Under Armour and Lockheed Martin to create a skinsuit that could help skaters get to the finish line just a little faster.
The Mach 39 was developed by Under Armour with the aid of high-speed cameras that captured skaters' movements and positions. The development team then turned to Lockheed Martin engineers to analyze the air flow.
It was found that a single type of fabric didn't work all that well when it came to air flow, so the developers opted to use different materials for different parts of the body. The new suits also utilize "flow molding." Though it seems counterintuitive, aerodynamic shapes and bumps attached to just the right spots to disrupt the air flow can enable faster speeds.
"The technology and resources that Under Armour put into this suit are unprecedented and can be felt from the very first moment you put on the suit," Patrick Meek, an American Long Track speed skater who is competing in Sochi, told TechNewsWorld.
"It sounds weird, but you just feel fast. I expect this suit to be a game changer," he said.
"What is revolutionary is that we were able to devote so many resources into one suit," Meek added. "There have been no technology breakthroughs that came about because of this suit. The wheel was not reinvented. But what UA was able to do was combine the latest technology in aerodynamics, compression, fluid dynamics, human physiology and biomechanics all in one suit."
In addition to clothing that will help reduce drag, athletes are using compression apparel on the slopes. For the 2014 Olympics, many competitors will don the latest in 2XU's compression tights and socks.
The clothing's usefulness isn't limited to competition, however. Some athletes took advantage of it prior to their arrival in Sochi, as it has been shown that compression can improve circulation during long travel times.
"Athletes at this level of competition understand the importance of utilizing compression in their training, recovery and injury rehabilitation," Fred Hernandez, 2XU director of marketing, told TechNewsWorld.
While the American bobsled and skeleton competitors will be donning Under Armour skinsuits, they'll also have the advantage of advanced sleds developed with help from several corporate giants.
The United States hasn't won a gold medal in bobsled racing since 1936. For the 2014 games, the team turned to BMW, which helped design a new bobsled that is made of carbon fiber. Developed for its electric cars, this advanced composite polymer has been proven to be far stronger and much lighter than the fiberglass shells used just four years ago.
BMW's engineers provided adjustments to the sled's aerodynamics and weight distribution through included computer-aided modeling, computational fluid dynamics (CFD), full-size wind tunnel testing, on-track testing, and even athlete scanning.
"We were truly excited by the opportunity to work with the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and saw it as a natural fit to transfer our approach, technology, and design resources to the development of the two-man bobsled," Michael Scully, creative director of global design for BMW Group DesignworksUSA, told TechNewsWorld.
"The two-year development process in collaboration with Team USA has been an intense, exciting and rewarding one, and we're all looking forward to Sochi," he said.
The same level of commitment went into the development of the luge. Dow Chemical re-engineered the single-person sled bodies and incorporated lighter materials and design features that improved performance, while Saint Gobain worked with U.S. Steel to completely redesign the sled's runners.
"Previously, Team USA bought the runners from an Austrian firm," said Brad Johnson, vice president at Saint Gobain.
"The team never felt they were getting the most consistent steel, so we worked them to develop a recipe that U.S. Steel than produced," he told TechNewsWorld.
"Saint Gobain also provides some of the most advanced coated abrasives to polish the runners, but this isn't the typical sandpaper you'd find in a hardware store," added Johnson.
"This is actually used in the production of automobile and aerospace technologies, and this can be used to polish and shape even hard steel," he explained.
This is important, because just as athletes are drug-tested after they compete, the luge sled is tested for consistency.
"The temperature has to be within a range, or the effort was all for nothing," Johnson noted.
Head Above the Rest
For snowboarders, it isn't just speed that matters. A new snowboarding helmet developed by Giro could help prevent concussions and other head injuries.
"The Combyn is designed and built to better manage low-energy impacts, while still able to manage high-speed impacts like traditional EPS (expanded polystyrene)," Giro spokesperson Benny Cruickshank told TechNewsWorld.
"This is achieved with Giro's patent-pending liner made with dual-density Vinyl Nitrile and the flexible outer-shell material. VN differs from EPS in that it is able rebound after an impact," he pointed out.
"For the rider, the VN liner provides a more durable helmet that can better manage those low- and high-energy impacts, while the flexible outer shell allows the helmet to be more comfortable by flexing to fit your head," Cruickshank added.
Skiing Without Snow
Russia's goal in bringing the games to Sochi was in part to transform what was typically viewed as a summer resort town into a winter destination. That presented challenges, because many of the slopes are completely new and thus unproven.
Skiers must train year round, even when there isn't snow. SkyTechSport's virtual training technology addresses both issues. The company, which has created snow sports simulators for a number of teams, allows athletes to experience being on the slopes even during the off-season months.
"Skiers and snowboarders mostly run and do other exercises in the off-season," Alex Golunov, project manager at SkyTechSport, told TechNewsWorld. "Our machines replicate the experience on the slopes. We draw on the physics they would experience and recreate the exact terrain."
For the 2014 games, SkyTechSport completely recreated the courses even as the runs were built and then provided them to the teams, allowing them to get a feel for Sochi before ever arriving there.
"There are three parts to this: the machine that simulates being on the slopes; the virtual reality system where the scanning technology recreates the terrain; and the physics," said Golunov. "This allows the user to get the feel of heading down the mountain in Sochi."