Six-tenths of a second.
The difference between gold and silver in Olympic Alpine Skiing is less time than Italian silver medalist Christof Innerhofer spent imagining the sweet glory of gold before it was swept out from under his skis. To spectators, such a small fraction of a second seems arbitrary, but even just a millisecond changes the game in Olympic speed events.
What pushes the winners ahead?
The long-held belief is that intuition, talent and dedication turn a good athlete into a champion. But it is becoming increasingly clear that there is in fact some method to success, and the answers may lie in the scientific principles underlying body movement.
As the gap between winning and losing grows increasingly narrower, strategic athletes are pairing with research labs across the globe to tap into the power of science for enhanced performance.
It turns out that the science of making gold, silver and bronze is much more than just alchemy. From timing, to equipment, to attitude — a multitude of factors contribute to top-notch athletic performance.
Wired Magazine recently published an in-depth profile of Steven Nyman, a typically middle-tier American downhill skier whose comprehensive new training tactics elevated him to 9th place in Olympic practice runs.
Nyman’s main event, Men’s Alpine Skiing, has one of the most strikingly narrow winning margins of the Olympic Games. Therefore, Nyman has learned that it is just as important to know what to do as when to do it. His training regimen focuses on precisely timing the switch between aerodynamic tucks and drag-inducing acceleration.
Through constant stimulations in wind tunnel facilities, Nyman has learned to keep his hands forward and elbows tucked at all times to minimize wind resistance against his body.
Dr. Troy Flanagan, director of high performance for the U.S. Ski Team, believes in the promising future of sports technology. He claims that a scientific approach to sports will “change the nature of training from simply piling on more work to creating a system based on trial and error… to find what makes that 1 percent difference.”
Flanagan pioneered inertial tracking sensors, small devices that use GPS data and accelerometers to track movement of skiers down a course. Evaluating which paths winners take provides strategic insight that is customizable to certain climates and athlete body types.
Science is going beyond training and even revolutionizing the gear that supports athletes during competition.
Flanagan and his team have fitted alpine skiers with infrared cameras to analyze the degree of lateral slippage around a slope’s starting gate, offering these athletes a slight tactical advantage from the start.
However, not all sports technologies have been so popular. Team USA’s speed skating uniforms made media headlines these Olympic Games. Developed for over two years by scientists from defense contractor Lockheed Martin and Under Armour Innovation Lab, the Mach 39 suits were designed with the ultimate goal of increasing aerodynamics. The major obstacle to skater speed is friction, the force when the skater’s arms or legs rub against each other. Dr. Sarah Morgan, a professor of polymer science at the University of Southern Mississippi, says that the new USA suits boast a friction-reducing substance with small ridges to decrease surface contact between limbs.
The suits were widely hyped to give USA the final advantage after a promising practice season. But somehow, team USA has spent the last two weeks in Sochi suffering a dismal losing streak. Two-time Olympic gold champion Shani Davis was widely considered a shoe-in for a third speed skating gold, but he failed to even rank in the top five for the men’s 1000m event.
Did the latest technology end up holding us back?
It is hypothesized that the vents on the back of the suits that were designed to remove excess air could in fact have created drag. After six days of competition and no medals, the U.S. speed skating team opted to revert back to their old suits.
Unfortunately, even after the switch, no U.S. speed skater earned a medal. In fact, the team lost by such large margins that the Mach 39 suit alone is not a likely culprit. Even U.S. coach Kip Carpenter stated that “there’s not an athlete out there who is slowing down a second per lap because of the suit they’re in. What is it: a parachute on their back?”
Although the U.S. Olympic Committee lent their assurance that the suits were not to blame, some worry that the bad press surrounding these circumstances could mean that companies like Under Armour halt future investments in sports technologies.
That would be a shame. Sports science has a very promising future as it begins to draw from other disciplines such as fluid dynamics and psychology.
Ultimately it is impossible — even with science — to control the outcomes of the Olympic Games. Maybe if we take a lesson from psychology, we see that what matters more than the outcome is how we react to it.
Athletes undergo immense psychological stress during the Olympic training and competition process. There are mostly losers and only three tiers of winners: bronze, silver and the coveted gold.
Common sense would tell us that the gold medalists are the happiest with their win, followed by silver medalists and then bronze. But psychologists from Cornell University and the University of Toledo chose to dig deeper into footage from the 1992 Summer Olympics medal ceremony.
The researchers asked volunteers to rate the visual cues of happiness displayed by the three medalists. What they found was surprising: while gold medalists were understandably the happiest, those who won the bronze medal were much happier than silver medalists. These results have been replicated in subsequent Olympic Games by other researchers.
The scientists hypothesized that silver medalists were more inclined to compare their achievement to what they almost achieved but ultimately lost — the gold medal.
Perhaps America can take the scientific data as a silver lining to the fierce international competition at Sochi’s Olympics: regardless of how many medals we have accrued, our progress in the union of science and sports is a major accomplishment that will continue to serve us well in the long race.