- Olympians use lots of high-tech gear to boost their speed, since a single millisecond can mean the difference between a gold and silver medal.
- But they also turn to psychological tools.
- At the Pyeongchang Games, some Olympic teams are abandoning traditional colours in favour of those that are considered “faster.” Others are sporting patterned outfits that may help mask wobbles.
When a single millisecond can mean the difference between a gold and silver medal, any opportunity for a small (legal) boost in speed is prized.
Olympians at this year’s Pyeongchang games in South Korea are using all the typical tricks, from aerodynamic racing suits to jackets and pants that deflect distracting light and sound. But they’re also embracing some quirky new ones, like racing in blue suits and wearing camouflage patterns.
The Norwegian and German speed-skating teams will be racing in blue this year instead of their traditional bright red and green suits – a shift that appears to stem from a belief among some of the teams’ sports scientists that blue is a “faster” colour. Evidence doesn’t suggest that the colour blue is actually faster physically; it’s likely all psychological.
In a December interview with the New York Times, Havard Myklebust, the Norwegian sports scientist in charge of the team’s suits, declined to comment on whether colour could affect a material’s aerodynamics. He merely said, with a smile, that “our new blue suit is faster than our old red suit.”
That said, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that psychological factors like confidence can have drastic impacts on athletic performance, and colour is one visible characteristic that tends to have a lot of psychological sway.
But research linking blue colour with better athletic performance is mixed at best.
In one somewhat contradictory finding, British evolutionary anthropologists Russell Hill and Robert Barton tied the colour red (Norway’s old uniform colour) to higher athletic performance in combat sports like boxing and wrestling. They chalked up the outcome to a tendency to equate red with dominance.
For their 2005 study published in the journal Nature, Hill and Barton studied athletes wearing blue or red uniforms in the 2004 Olympic Games. Among the competitors they studied, there was a consistent and statistically significant link between winning and red uniforms – not blue ones.
That said, we still seem to tie the colour blue to positive outcomes like innovation.
Participants in a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles rated the colour blue as one of the most “pleasant” of all the colours. Other research has tied the colour blue to creativity, calmness, and openness.
The bulk of this research is inconclusive, though, and some studies suggest that the brightness or intensity of a colour had more to do with people’s reactions to it than the colour itself. Again, it all comes back to confidence as the real determinant of performance.
“They said [the blue] skates a little faster than red, so I like to believe that,” Hege Bokko, a Norwegian Olympic skater, told the Times.
The US Moguls ski team appears to be playing with colour psychology as well.
Their suits, designed by Columbia Sportswear, feature fabric patterned with what the company calls “snow camo.” According to a press release, the white and grey pattern is designed “to help mask body movement – a key judging component- for Moguls skiers.”
Still, competitors are required to wear knee markers for judging, so it’s unclear how much the so-called camouflage will help.
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