Letting the Inner Athlete Shine, With a Techno-Boost

For Olympians, there’s interplay between natural athletic ability and suits that provide that extra edge.

Skis: check. Ski boots: check. Goggles: check. Helmet: check. Uniform: check. Sewing machine: check.

Out of all the equipment an Olympic ski jumper might need before competition, a sewing machine probably won’t spring to mind. But it’s a necessary part of competition preparation, U.S. men’s ski jumping coach Clint Jones told SciFri during a trip to Park City, Utah, this past January.

“It’s pretty important for all the athletes to learn how to use a sewing machine,” he said. “When we’re traveling around Europe [for competitions], if you lose a couple pounds or whatever, then you need to constantly be checking on your suits and make adjustments if you need to.”

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That’s because in ski jumping rules—as well as rules for every other Olympic sport—govern practically every aspect of an athlete’s equipment. A ski suit that’s even one centimeter too big could mean disqualification, said Jones. The International Ski Federation (FIS) has more than nine pages of rules on ski jumping alone in its official equipment handbook, covering everything from the amount of space allowed between skin and fabric (no more than 1 cm in some areas of the body), to the placement of the zipper (the center of the front of the suit), to the air permeability of the suit material (“the unstretched fabric must show a medium air permeability of a minimum of 40 liters per m2/sec with 10 mm water pressure”).

Teams keep rules like these in mind as they adopt new technologies and techniques—from 3D suit simulations to new fabrics—to enhance athlete performance. “One of the main things that we try and do with all of the technology development is develop it within the spirit of fair play and within the rules,” Troy Flanagan, the high performance director at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (U.S.S.A.) and a sports scientist who helps design the suits for the U.S. alpine ski teams, told SciFri in Park City. “We definitely don’t want to break any rules, because that’s no different than doping athletes.”

The idea of “technology doping”—when technology confers an unfair competitive advantage—gained media attention with the infamous “high-tech suit,” a type of full-body swimsuit worn by Michael Phelps and other top swimmers in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The most popular suit was Speedo’s LZR Racer, a polyurethane-based design that was developed by Speedo’s Aqualab in collaboration with NASA. After more than 100 world records were broken in just under a year and a half of the LZR Racer’s debut, according to The New York Times, the international swimming federation (FINA) ruled to ban the suit.

According to Jan-Anders Månson, who was recruited by FINA in 2009 to lead the investigation into the swimsuit, there were two main issues with the suit: its extremely strong elastic forces, which conferred a fish-like shape to the swimmer and over-stabilized the muscle vibrations that normally cause turbulence in the water, leading to little resistance; and its plasticity, which restricted the amount of water passing through the suit, and therefore created air pockets along the swimmer’s body that could provide more buoyancy.

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The tech suit had originally passed FINA’s regulations, but after the investigation, the federation ruled that the technology was overpowering the athlete, Månson told SciFri during a phone interview. FINA voted that swimsuits can no longer extend from shoulder to ankle, and that every suit in professional competition must be made out of textile materials that allow for permeability at 80 liters of air per m2/sec, said Månson, who is a professor specializing in composites at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

Since FINA’s ruling, the rate at which swimming’s world records are broken have returned to pre-tech-suit levels—a rate that might not be as impressive, but one that’s better for swimming’s image, said Månson. “In any sport where the athlete is not in the center due to his equipment, it’s, for me, a shame to the athlete,” he said. “The athlete wants to be the main reason that he’s good, and not the technology.”

In the case of skiing-related sports, the FIS relies on the teams and manufacturers to present the equipment and suits in May every year, and then the association administers tests to evaluate their safety and fairness, according to Jenny Wiedeke, communications manager for the FIS. Teams and manufacturers generally choose not to veer too far from previous designs but rather improve upon them, Flanagan told SciFri.

Flanagan agreed that the athlete’s ability should be the most important factor in winning competitions. “At the end of the day, you still have to have a great skier in the suit who can get down the hill,” he said. “Olympic gold medals are won with blood, sweat and tears, and this [suit science] stuff is icing on the cake.”

They do spend a lot of time on that suit science stuff, though. The U.S.S.A. sport science team used a combination of wind tunnel technology, computational fluid dynamics, and Flanagan’s aerospace engineering background to design the alpine suits that they took to the Olympics in Sochi this year. They also used 3D video game technology to create avatars of their athletes, and ran simulations on how well their suits withstood drag or friction. Flanagan said that it took a total of four years and 108 wind tunnel tests to get to the final prototype.

The experimentation led to promising results. “The suit material that we actually discovered in the end had a 17 percent reduction in aerodynamic drag compared to last year’s suit,” Flanagan said. “To the best of our knowledge, we’ve produced the most aerodynamic suit we’ve ever had, but whether that translates into a whole bunch of medals, we’ll see.”


For more on how technology is being used to help athletes perform, check out these SciFri episodes: “Olympians Look to Science for a Competitive Edge,” and “Can Technology Build a Better Athlete?

Thanks to KUER for their help on this Olympic series.

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About Chau Tu

Chau Tu is an associate editor at Slate Plus. She was formerly Science Friday’s story producer/reporter.

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