How Innovation Has Changed The Winter Olympics

Bobsled from 1910

Photo: Flyout

We like to think that success in the Olympics is all about athleticism, talent, and hard work.But using the right gear is also a huge part of the equation. Innovation in the design of athletic equipment has completely transformed many Olympic sports, in some cases forcing major changes to the strategy or even rules of the game.

We’ve highlighted some of the most dramatic ways in which innovation impacts the sports in the Winter Olympics.

Click here to take a look at how innovation has changed the Winter Olympics →

Speed Skating: Then

Until the mid '90s, most speed skaters wore skates that weren't all that different from what casual skaters use.

The blade was firmly attached to the heel and toe of the boot. The only thing that really stood out about the speed skate was the great length of its blade.

Back then, the major area of technological competition in the sport was bodysuit design, as in so many other sports where it is important to be aero- (or aqua-) dynamic.

Speed Skating: Now

Clap skates -- which allow the heel to rise up from the blade, with a hinged connection at the toe -- have been around for over 100 years. But until very recently, they weren't considered serious equipment for competitors.

Clap skates allow racers to keep their blades on the ice longer, leading to longer, more powerful strides. After seeing a handful of junior skaters successfully put this theory into practice competitively, the Dutch women's national team adopted the technology in 1996. By the time of the 1998 Nagano Olympics, clap skates had been widely adopted.

At Nagano, the world records for all five distances for both men and women were broken, many of them more than once. The Dutch, with the most experience on the new skates, took home 11 of 30 medals, including 5 out of 10 golds.

Alpine Skis: Then

Skis have had 'sidecuts' -- where the middle of the ski is narrower than the nose and tail -- since 1808.

But until a little over 20 years ago, they were very subtle -- skis were basically long, straight objects.

Ski technology was certainly not stagnant, but for a long time, advances were focused on construction material, weight, and flexibility, rather than shape.

Alpine Skis: Now

In the late '80s and early '90s, ski manufacturers started working on skis with radically more dramatic sidecuts. 'Parabolic' or 'shaped' skis allow for quicker, sharper turns, and also allow the use of much shorter skis.

The trend blew up after the 1996 Junior National Championships, at which a young Bode Miller dominated the competition with a set of then-outlandish K2 Fours. Shaped skis became a mainstream staple overnight.

The rise of shaped skis has led to much greater specialisation in ski manufacturing. Slalom skis have a very dramatic sidecut, while downhill skiers use longer, more subtly shaped skis, much closer to what existed before the shaped ski revolution.

Ski Jumping Suits: Then

Developments in equipment once played a dramatic role in ski jumping.

The most dramatic impact of technology on the sport came from the bodysuits used in the '70s. While bodysuits in most sports are designed to be as aerodynamic as possible, so as to maximise speed, ski jumpers found that wearing looser fitting and less permeable suits could be an advantage. The extra wind resistance slowed a jumper's fall, extending the length of his flight.

Ski Jumping Suits: Now

Today, official rules restrict the room for innovation in ski jumping very narrowly.

Starting in the late '70s, jumpers were required to wear standardized, form-fitting bodysuits. These suits must be made out of materials with at least a minimum level of permeability.

Further restrictions have been put in place banning skiers below a sufficient body mass index, to discourage unhealthy weight management, as being light is obviously an advantage.

There is still room to innovate within certain bounds in the quality and design of skis, but for the most part, the most important recent innovations in the sport concern technique, not technology.

Bobsleigh: Then

Bobsled: Now

Bobsled is probably the most technology-driven sport in the Winter Olympics.

Experts estimate that sled design, the opening push, and steering each account for around a third of a team's performance. As a result, a massive amount of expertise and effort is brought to bear on the problem.

For the Vancouver Olympics, the U.S. team worked closely with the Exa Corporation, evaluating potential bobsled designs with computational fluid dynamics. This involves running 3D models of the designs through simulators running on supercomputers to evaluate how aerodynamic they are.

The team also worked with a bevy other companies and academics, including a group of NA SCAR engineers, and this Southwestern professor:

Hockey Sticks: Then

The most obvious difference between a modern hockey stick and those used in the early days of the game concerns the building material: today most sticks are made out of graphite, as opposed to the wooden sticks that were the only option for most of the sport's history.

The most significant difference, however, lies in the shape of the blade. Until the 1960s, stick blades were generally completely straight. While a handful of professionals still use wooden sticks, absolutely no one plays with a straight blade anymore.

Hockey Sticks: Now

Pros first started playing around with the curved blade in the late '50s. By the early '60s, NHL players -- notably Bobby Hull -- discovered that extreme 'banana curves' put unpredictable spin on the puck, confusing goaltenders (and endangering them, as they were not yet wearing face masks).

This extreme curves were soon banned, but slightly curved blades, which give players more control over the puck, and allow them to impart spin more easily.

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