Science, not muscle, driving many Olympic wins

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 13, 2014 at 11:01 am •  Published: February 13, 2014
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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Nineteen-year-old Slovakian luger Josef Petrulak competed in the Sochi Olympics in a 22-year-old sled. That's right: His sled is three years older than he is. His German rivals get a new sled every year, designed by BMW and calibrated to whoosh faster, smoother and smarter every season.

It's not hard to guess who won the doubles gold at the Winter Games this week.

Much as we'd like to, no one today can pretend that the Olympics — or any sport, for that matter — is just about exceptional physical ability anymore. It's about the marriage between exceptional humans and exceptional technology, a union in which technology is increasingly the breadwinner.

Every advance in the ever-accelerating juggernaut of sports technology threatens to widen the divide between Olympic haves and have-nots. Well-sponsored teams and rich governments pay top-end scientists and engineers to shape their skis, perfect their skates, tighten their suits, measure their gravitational pull. That brings home medals, which in turn brings home new attention, new sponsors, new money to invest in the next race.

"Absolutely every little thing you can do counts, when a sport measures to the 1000th of a second," says American luger Matt Mortensen. "The suit, the shoes, the helmet, good position, aerodynamics, everything."

The tech factor goes all the way down to the wax used by Olympic skiers — 500 different wax products to choose from, and special technicians to apply them.

The U.S. luge team, less well-funded than more popular sports like snowboarding and without the government funding that some other countries' teams enjoy, had been falling behind in luge before Dow Chemical recently stepped in with money, expertise and a willingness to redesign some key elements of their sleds. And the U.S. bobsled and skeleton teams have reaped benefits of a relationship with BMW North America in recent years.

Ferrari infuses money and research to Italy's speedskating, skiing, bobsled and luge teams. Britain's skeleton team gets money and advice on aerodynamics from McLaren, better known for its Formula One racing prowess. Lockheed Martin helped design the U.S. speedskaters' suits. BMW has special wind tunnels for athletes' training.

Don't press for too many details, though. Teams and companies keep them secret to maintain their edge.

To keep things from getting too skewed toward corporate connections, sports federations and Olympic officials try to level the field.

—The International Olympic Committee takes poorer athletes under its wing and supplies them with more cutting-edge training and equipment.

—The International Ski Federation banned parabolic skis that turn too sharply, to the indignation of U.S. skier Ted Ligety, world champion in super-combined and a leading contender in Friday's competition.

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