It’s amazing to watch the athletes of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. It’s also fascinating to think about the Olympic Science that can help them win. The athletes march in the spot light at the top of their sport and turn out jaw-dropping performances as they seek the gold medal. We know behind the scene and before the Olympics, that a team of coaches and trainers are there day-in and day-out to support and guide our winter heroes. However, it is easy to overlook the science and technology that is an important part of the Olympic athlete’s dream. So, in celebration of this year’s games, SciBlip weighs in on the Medal winning science and technology pairs.
Winning the Gold Medal… Physics and Aerodynamic Engineering
If Sir Issac Newton was around to watch the winter Olympics, he would probably have a hard time picking his favorite sport. All of them demonstrate Laws of Physics that he helped to define. The effects of force, gravity, mass and acceleration – Newton’s Laws of Motion and of Gravity – are important to athletes that hurl downhill faster than the highway speed limit or who launch airborne off the slopes. Newton’s Laws are equally important to the ice skaters spectacular moves. While spinning, skaters move their arms toward their body to increase their spin or away to slow down – a great example of the conservation of angular momentum. The pairs skating Death Spiral illustrates Centripetal and Centrifugal forces. Friction is important to all the winter games, but just how little or much depends on the sport. In Curling, the sweeping action on the ice creates a lot of initial friction to improve the ice surface so that when the rock travels over the swept ice, it glides with less friction and travels further.
YouTube Video from Red Bull.
The influence of physics on the winter games leads athletes, coaches and trainers to look for advantages over forces that can help or hinder our athlete. Drag, the resistance or force of the air, can take precious seconds off race time, while lift, the upward force air applies, can improve jump distance. Aerodynamic Engineering, which developed out of physics, has taught scientists and engineers how to minimize drag on an athlete or their equipment. Today, athletes participate in in Wind Tunnel experiments to achieve faster speeds downhill. They test the downhill skier’s tuck position or the athlete with equipment, like the bobsled, luge, or skeleton. Ski jumpers are also using the wind tunnel to improve their body position and maximize lift so that their flight time and distance increases.
The Wall Street Journal has more on winter sport science at http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323951904578289903425932778.
The Silver Medal goes to Physiology and Bioengineering
The athlete’s body is at the core of his or her abilities. Physiology is the study of the living body and its functions. It can help us understand how an athletes size and shape effect performance and indicate what muscles are critical to a sport. By studying physiology, you also learn about metabolism, our body’s energy system, and how diet and breathing can change performance. Athletes often eat foods that can be converted into energy easily; during exercise or in competition, the athlete’s breathing supplies oxygen to the cells, which in turn generate Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP – the energy for the athlete’s muscles. The body’s energy system has challenges for sports like hockey or sprint skating which require short high bursts of strenuous activity. By-products from the energy cycle build up in the muscles and lead to fatigue. Coaches and trainers use training methods to help the athlete adjust.
YouTube Video from COSMED
Bioengineering uses the information from physiology to design athletic sport equipment, training equipment, and performance testing equipment. For Paralympians, high tech sport equipment designed for their specific disability enables them to compete with incredible speed and mobility. The luge and skeleton sleds are designed to match their riders physical shape. Coaches and trainers select strength and training equipment specific for the athlete’s sport. Performance testing equipment is used to monitor the body during exercises that simulate the sport, as shown in this COSMED video of a cross country skier.
The US Ski Team funded science studies to help their skiers – scientists studied the amount of nitrogen in the air and simulated conditions in Sochi. You can learn more about these experiments at the Wall Street Journal – http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323951904578289903425932778
And the Bronze Medal to Chemistry and Material Science
Without a doubt, one of the greatest changes in sports equipment comes about through the use of Chemistry and Material Science. New composite materials are stronger and lighter and they can be made flexible or rigid. Composites are typically made of a fiber blended with an epoxy, a glue-like resin or polymer. Polymers are large molecules made up of many smaller repeating units and they are used widely throughout the winter sports. The new USA bobsled by BMW is made with carbon fiber composite technology and is 50 lbs lighter than earlier Kevlar sleds. Back to Newton’s Laws of Motion, you actually want more weight to go faster. The design of the lighter sled allows you to place the weight where it will do the most good.
BMW Carbon Fiber Production – BMW Group on YouTube
Fiberglass, carbon fiber and composite materials also find their way into skis and poles, snowboards and sleds. Polymers help make up the wax on the skis and boards, equipment like helmets, goggles, and boots and the synthetic material of body suits used in skiing, ski jumping, speed skating and sledding. These suits were tested for aerodynamics in wind tunnels – just like other equipment. Even training has interesting uses for chemistry and material science. Ski jumping in the summer from a synthetic ramp and onto a synthetic landing offers year round training.
The National Science Foundation and NBC have posted a series videos on the Science of the Winter Games for the 2014 Olympics. These can be found on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/VideosatNSF/videos.
More great information from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics are at http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/olympics/.