One hundredth of a second – that could be the difference between Olympic gold and silver, or not finishing on the podium.
Olympic athletes have a team of coaches and medical professionals to help them prepare to win the most prestigious medal in sport. Add science and technology to the mix and it becomes a game changer.
The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has a long tradition of working with Canadian athletes to help them achieve their best in international competitive sports, including the Winter and Summer Olympics, and the Paralympics. For 50 years, NRC researchers have worked with athletes from many sports to help them test their equipment and optimize their aerodynamic positions so they are more efficient in their technique, thus making them go faster.
The science of gold — 50 years, 16 sports
The NRC has worked to scientifically enhance the performance of Canada's Olympic athletes in:
Speed skating — Long track
Speed skating — Short track
Dr. Annick D'Auteuil, research officer and sport aerodynamics expert, has been helping Olympic athletes hone their technique and maximize their advantage in equipment and clothing since 2005. "We have world-leading facilities and expertise in many disciplines, from aerodynamics to ice science and advanced materials, that can support high-performance testing," said D'Auteuil. "This is what makes the NRC an ideal partner."
Where it all began
Armed with the understanding of how wind affects structures like airplanes, bridges, buildings and vehicles, NRC researchers were able to use this know-how aerodynamic drag affects the performance of athletes.
The NRC's involvement with sport aerodynamics dates back to the late 1960s with downhill skier Betsy Clifford, who later tore up the World Cup circuit with multiple wins in the early 1970s.
By the late 1970s and 80s, the Crazy Canucks (Jim Hunter, Dave Irwin, Dave Murray, Steve Podborski, Ken Read) visited the wind tunnel on a regular basis. These visits paid off as the Crazy Canucks put alpine skiing on the map for Canadians, with Podborski winning Olympic bronze in 1980 and the team capturing multiple World Cup wins.
The science of aerodynamics
Why turn to science? Success in many sports depends on a mix of speed and skill. "As speed increases, the athletes have to use more energy and force to push against the air," said D'Auteuil. "This is what we call the aerodynamic drag force."
The NRC 2 metre x 3 metre wind tunnel can produce wind speeds of up to 400 kilometres per hour (km/h), which allows researchers to perform testing with athletes at the proper wind speed, i.e. 35 to 65 km/h for speed skaters and up to 130 km/h for alpine skiers. In addition, athletes are able to get real-time feedback on their positions. A monitor on the floor in front of the athlete shows the most important force, i.e. the drag, in real time. Athletes can focus solely on the impact of their body posture on the aerodynamics. They then work through a battery of structured tests that provide data on optimal body position, equipment and clothing. Even the slightest rounding of a shoulder, the shape of a helmet, or the texture of a fabric can make a difference.
Supporting many different sports
"In the lead up to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, we worked with Canada's ski jumping and bobsleigh teams, as well as Paralympians, to improve their results," said D'Auteuil. Multiple Paralympic medalist and celebrated "Man in Motion" Rick Hansen also came to the wind tunnel during this period to test the aerodynamics of his wheelchair. Branching out, NRC material scientists began to help the bobsleigh team by applying laser techniques to their bobsled runners to improve speed and reduce wear and corrosion.
Moving into the new millennium, the luge and speed skating athletes finessed their aerodynamic styles in the wind tunnel. Speed skaters Catriona Le May Doan and Jeremy Wotherspoon both did scientific workouts and tested numerous suits in the wind tunnel. A four-time Olympian, Le May Doan won gold and bronze in 1998 in Nagano and gold in Salt Lake City in 2002.
Working with Own the Podium
"Our activity really ramped up when Own the Podium was created in 2005 to provide more support for Canadian athletes with the goal of winning more medals at home in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver," said D'Auteuil.
The Canadian Olympic Committee, the Canadian Paralympic Committee and Own the Podium approached the NRC to bring more science to Canadian athletics. With this commitment to an extra technological push, NRC's work expanded to include other winter sports such as ski cross, snowboard, and para-alpine skiing, as well as to cycling and kayak for the Summer Games.
As the work accelerated, NRC's expertise broadened. New sports brought new challenges, with the opportunity to learn new lessons, as experts from different scientific and engineering disciplines combined their knowledge with the experience of the athletes and their coaches. Work with the kayak team — in the wind tunnel and the tow tank — brought an increased understanding of the interplay between aerodynamics, hydrodynamics and biomechanics in this sport that pushes against both air and water. Bobsleigh required knowledge of ice science, advanced materials and aerodynamics to get the recipe for success. And para-sports required a similar integration as NRC researchers helped athletes test and select their equipment, while perfecting their technique to achieve their best.
New partnerships with private sector companies and universities also helped the NRC to better serve athletes' needs. A collaboration with Bombardier in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics focused on computational configurations to improve the shape of the bobsleighs. The NRC also teamed with the Université de Sherbrooke to improve and test the mechanical functions of the para-alpine team's ski equipment. Working with suit suppliers such as Apogee Sports and Louis Garneau, innovative new fabrics were developed and integrated into speed skating suits and cycling suits that were faster than ever before. The snowboard team achieved success on the podium with suits that were customized and more aerodynamic, yet did not restrict movement.
"The payoff from working with athletes has been tremendous, and not just in terms of medal count and personal bests," said D'Auteuil. The NRC's researchers have been able to apply the knowledge they learned from working with the athletes to other fields and other clients. "Take the complexity of the aerodynamics of the moving human body. Understanding how the alpine skier's boot impacts air flow on the skier's leg invites a comparison with bridge cable and ice buildup. For example, the cylindrical shapes of the cables in cable-stayed bridges are much like those of the legs and arms of a speed skater, ski jumper, or downhill racer."
Harnessing today's technology
Today's activities take advantage of the latest advances in technology to make the process of testing equipment and technique more efficient.
In 2007, the NRC introduced a combination of 3D scanning and mannequin fabrication to its aerodynamics evaluations. Athletes are scanned in realistic positions. The mannequins allow NRC specialists to work on the development of suits and to achieve greater consistency in results.
Most recently, in 2016, NRC scientists helped the international curling community resolve a controversy over the introduction of advanced materials in curling brooms that could alter the trajectory of a curling stone. Fans and players felt these new brooms were changing the nature and fairness of the game.
"It made sense for the NRC to help Canada lead on this issue," recalled Dr. Christa Homenick, an NRC materials scientist and recreational curler. Realizing that she had the expertise to help, she contacted Curling Canada, as well as her colleague Dr. Louis Poirier, an ice physicist who had previously worked with the Canadian bobsleigh team.
Working with Curling Canada and the World Curling Federation (WCF), they organized a curling summit with elite international curlers to test almost 50 types of brooms. The NRC team installed trackers (sensors) that could measure the direction, speed, and spin of the stones, as well as the properties of the curling sheet. Sensors were also installed on the hog lines to measure velocity. The data revealed that the impact of the new materials in the brooms was dramatic. The sweepers could accelerate, slow down, brake, and significantly change the direction of the stone.
The NRC tests gave the WCF the empirical evidence it needed to develop new guidelines to govern the sanctioned curling competitions that feed into international and Olympic events. The NRC continues to act as a testing centre for the WCF, providing authoritative, confidential, third-party validation for new products.
Like all Canadians, the NRC research teams will be 100 percent behind Canada's Winter Olympics team as they head to PyeongChang.
"Putting this kind of research behind the efforts of our Canadian athletes is so important to their continued success at the international level," said D'Auteuil. New technologies continue to transform competitive sports, and the NRC hopes to continue working with Own the Podium to help Canadian athletes access the best equipment possible as technology evolves into the future.
"We are very proud of our relationship with Own the Podium and of our role in helping Canadian Olympians be at the leading edge of their sports," said D'Auteuil. "It's a way of giving to our country, but we also learn a lot for Canadian science and technology in return."