OLYMPICS

BUILT FOR SPEED

Talent, desire, training—they mean nothing if you haven’t got the fastest suit in the world

JONATHON GATEHOUSE January 30 2006
OLYMPICS

BUILT FOR SPEED

Talent, desire, training—they mean nothing if you haven’t got the fastest suit in the world

JONATHON GATEHOUSE January 30 2006

BUILT FOR SPEED

Talent, desire, training—they mean nothing if you haven’t got the fastest suit in the world

OLYMPICS

DIGITAL RETOUCHING BY RICHARD REDDITT BY JONATHON GATEHOUSE • There’s not much you can do in a 10th of a second. Elite sprinters need about 1V2 times that to react to the starter’s gun. The blink of an eye lasts three or four times as long. Slamming on the brakes in a car requires a relative eternitytwo full seconds.

Olympic athletes live by a different clock. For a speed skater in the men’s 1000 m, a 10th of a second is 149 cm. On a downhill straightaway with a 15 degree slope, it’s three metres. Hurtling head-first down the skeleton track at 120 km/h, it’s 3.3 m. In the Winter Games, a 10th of a second is the margin between total failure and absolute victory.

The war with the stopwatch is obsessive, the

search for advantage ceaseless. It’s why athletes break down each element of their performance-starts, strides, turns, glides—and spend years practising to perfect them. It justifies the bags and trailers team technicians must lug, filled with equipment suited to every conceivable snow or ice condition. And it explains how Jeff Paine and the other members of Canada’s skeleton team have come to spend a fine wintery day locked inside an Ottawa wind tunnel. Taking 45-minute shifts, dressed in their racing suits and helmets,

the athletes lie face down and motionless on their sleds while a giant fan buffets them with 120-km breezes. Inside a control room dominated by a giant, Homer Simpson-style console, scientists from the National Research Council and the Canadian Olympic Committee watch the sensors and scribble notes. Each slider tries out multiple combinations of shoes and helmets for aerodynamics. After whispered consultations, they make minute adjustments to the angle of their trailing feet. Hands and arms, tucked against the sides of their bodies, are rotated ever so slightly. Toward the end of the day, the technicians inject a thin ribbon of smoke into the tunnel, as video cameras capture the curves and eddies flowing over heads, shoulders and backsides. All in the hunt for that fraction of a second.

Paine, the reigning world champion, thinks back over his 10-year sliding career and can recall at least three occasions where he has lost a race by 1/lOOth of a second. In his 2001-02 season, one of those tight finishes was the

difference between third and fourth place in the overall World Cup standings. (The closest-ever Olympic finish came in the women’s luge at the 1998 Nagano Games. Germany’s Silke Kraushaar won gold by two milliseconds.) For Paine, the wind tunnel tweaking is like a speed insurance policy—something he wants in his back pocket when he’s standing at the top of the track in Turin this February. “I’d like my potential to be a half-second better than anyone else’s, so if I screw up it doesn’t matter,” says Paine, who finished sixth in Salt Lake, 0.96 off the gold medal pace. “Because I’ve done 1,400 runs and none of them have been perfect yet.”

It’s a safe bet that not many Olympians— nor the journalists who cover them—have more than a nodding acquaintance with the

For downhill skiers, a 10th of a second means 3 m—more than the margin of victory

rules of physics. But ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of nature’s law. There are some basic limitations to how fast you can ski, skate or slide, and it all has to do with the relationship between power and speed. The bigger the object, the more power it takes to accelerate. And the faster you go, the more the forces working against you—friction, air drag— conspire to hold you back. Doubling your velocity, whether you’re running, driving a car, or cross-country skiing, increases the wind drag by a factor of four. And that means you

need to put out eight times the power to overcome the resistance and get to twice the speed.

Athletes who make it to an Olympic Games, and most especially the select sub-group with a shot at the podium, all create essentially the same amount of power. For them, being the fastest on a given day is often about getting the best start, making the fewest mistakes, and having the most efficient equipment. It can also be a matter of aerodynamics. At the rink, for example, a hockey player or speed skater expends 25 per cent of their energy fighting against the friction of the ice, and the other 75 per cent trying to cut through the air. Reduce the friction or the drag, even by the tiniest amount, and the athletes are suddenly getting more bang for their buckan energy advantage that could be equally

important in a quick dash for the puck, or a long grind toward a distant finish line.

“Conditioning and the makeup of the athlete are the difference between a winner and a loser, but tricks like aerodynamics add to the advantage,” says Chet Kyle, the man generally credited with launching the speed revolution in sports. In 1973, when he was a professor of mechanical engineering at California State University, Long Beach, he oversaw a student project that discovered that 90 per cent of the resistance to the motion

of a standard bicycle came from air drag. His imagination tweaked, Kyle set out to build a better mousetrap. His first effort-a bike with an bullet-shaped exo-shell—reduced drag by 80 per cent and shattered the world’s human-powered speed record. In 1984, he designed the bikes and uniforms for the U.S. Olympic team, which went on to win 12 medals at the Los Angeles Games, the country’s first cycling hardware since 1912.

But it was Kyle’s research on clothing that

has had the most farreaching effects. He realized that specially textured fabric on an athlete’s arms and legs could dramatically reduce wind resistance by creating what is known as a “drag crisis.” In the same way that a golf ball’s dimples help it cut through the air, these roughened surfaces make the flow around limbs more turbulent, leaving fewer eddies in their wake, and reducing the trailing forces. Nike noticed his papers and hired him as part of their Advanced Innovation Team in 1998. They tested more than 100 fabrics and special coatings for aerodynamics, eventually coming up with their patented Swift suits, high-tech patchworks—rough fabric on limbs, smooth on back and torsos—that are tailored to each sport, and in the case of speed skating, down to the event—sprint, middle or distance.

In Salt Lake City, where the U.S. and Dutch speed skating teams were outfitted by Nike, 16 of the 30 Olympic medallists were wearing the suits. The company says its athletes were, on average, one per cent faster. In Turin, the Canadian and U.S. hockey teams will be outfitted with Swift uniforms. So will most of the major shortand long-track speed skating teams—the U.S., Korea, China, Belgium, the Netherlands—although Canada will continue to use Descente suits. Other manufac-

turers have introduced their own drag-reducing fabrics mixtures, and the high-tech uniforms are popping up in all sorts of disciplines, winter and summer. Research showing that body suits are more aerodynamic than human skin (subcutaneous fat wrinkles as we speed up, even on the supremely fit) has made believers out of most swimmers and a growing number of track and field stars. “There’s not many skeptics anymore,” says Kyle. “As long as it’s legal, athletes will look for the best equipment available.”

Whether the advantage is real or imagined is still a matter of debate. The Salt Lake Games saw technical tweaks in almost every sport— Teflon-soled shoes for curling, specially edged snowboards, lightweight biathlon rifles. Most of them met with limited success and will have been replaced with yet more innovations in Turin. The psychological effect of new and improved equipment is something the Canadian Olympic Committee no longer downplays, however. Own the Podium, the COC’s $ 110-million program to help Canada rule the 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Games, will spend close to a quarter of its budget on technology and advanced training—an initiative dubbed “Top Secret.” “In Salt Lake City we had spent zero effort to ensure that we had the best clothing, equipment and training,” says Dr. Roger Jackson, who won a rowing gold for Canada in 1964 and heads the new program. “Most Canadian athletes didn’t believe we had the best stuff, and it showed.” Although this country was producing a lot of medal hopefuls, they were reaching the podium only half as frequently as contenders from other top Winter Olympic nations.

Top Secret has drawn up a list of what the Canadian team needs to flourish in 2010: faster speed skating suits, new composites for skis and snowboards, research on opponents’ racing strategies, and more. Some of the deficiencies—a dearth of full-time coaches, a shortage of physiotherapists and sports psychologists—have already being addressed with additional funding. Closing the technology gap (at the start of the program it was estimated that Canada was three years behind countries like Norway and Austria, and who knows how far behind the Americans) will take longer. That’s why most of the preTurin efforts are being focused on aerodynamics—it’s relatively cheap, and the improvements can be dramatic.

“The goal is to look at every piece of equipment an athlete wears and figure out how we can reduce drag,” says Len Brownlie, a Vancouver-based sports aerodynamicist who works with Nike, and is currently consulting for Own the Podium. “If they want a 10th of a second, I can give them that, and more.” Brownlie points to his experience with Lance Armstrong. Over the course of four Tour de France races, the Nike team came up with modifications that reduced his drag by more than 10 per cent: incremental improvements that gave the cyclist the equivalent of a 24 second advantage in a 55-km time trial the first year, 43 seconds more the second year, an additional 77 seconds the next.

Canada’s skeleton team, which will boast several strong medal contenders in Turin, may already be seeing the benefits. An initial session in the Ottawa wind tunnel at the end of August led most of the sliders to change helmets to more aerodynamic models. Both the men’s and women’s team are now ranked No. 1 in the world. Melissa HollingsworthRichards has made the podium in every World Cup race so far this season. “There was one helmet that really stood out for me, but there are a lot of things different this year,” she says. Lindsay Alcock, the 2004 World Cup champion, says the added financial and technical support has finally put the team on an even par with countries like the U.S. and Germany. “I just imagine how much better we could have been if we had done this earlier.” Todd Allinger, the man overseeing Top Secret, hovers in the background while Al-

Rough surfaces make air flow more turbulent, leaving fewer eddies and reducing drag

cock and the other athletes talk. He’s worried that someone is going to spill the beans and give away a new hand position or bodysuit modification. For an Olympian, the technology is “the last five per cent,” he says, but it doesn’t make it any less important. Allinger worked in a similar role for the Americans in the lead-up to Salt Lake City, a Games where the U.S. won 34 medals, almost tripling its previous Winter best. He knows that other countries are working on new suits, new skis, curling brooms, and everything else imaginable to provide their athletes with an advantage in Turin. The tweaks will be unveiled only at the last minute, for maximum psychological effect, then put away immediately after the Games in hopes of preserving the advantage. Does Canada have something up its sleeve? There’s a long pause. “Probably,” is all he’ll say. But there’s a grin that leaves you thinking that, for some lucky athletes at least, that crucial 10th of second may already be in the bag. M jonathon.gatehouse@macleans.rogers.com