With icy conditions, slick surfaces and freezing temperatures, technological innovation is especially important for the athletes and organizers of the Winter Olympics. From an all-weather torch to a souped-up bobsled, check out some of the many inventions the Games have inspired.
An All-Weather Torch
For the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, the National Research Council of Canada developed a special Olympic torch for that year’s relay (a tradition since 1936). It resembled Calgary’s most recognizable landmark, the Calgary Tower, and bore the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” Designed to be especially lightweight, the torch was powered by a special fuel in order to ensure that the flame would stay lit in all weather conditions during the 88-day, 18,000-kilometer trip across Canada.
Wind Tunnel Testing
When the difference between winning and losing an Olympic medal comes down to hundredths of a second, it’s all about aerodynamics. Canadian speed skaters like Catriona LeMay Doan (a 2002 gold medalist in Salt Lake City) used a 2- by 3-meter wind tunnel developed by Canada’s National Research Council to test the aerodynamic capability of their racing suits. When Canada’s alpine racing team–dubbed “the Crazy Canucks”–dominated the sport in the late 1970s, skier Steve Podborski used a wind tunnel to test his equipment; he won the 1980 bronze medal at Lake Placid.
The Triumph of the Metal Ski
In 1950, American engineer Howard Head introduced an aluminum-alloy ski that made turning much easier for recreational skiers. Emile Allais, a former world champion skier from France, used his knowledge of Head’s advances to design a riveted aluminum ski for Rossignol. At the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics in 1960, Frenchman Jean Vuarnet won the downhill gold medal on Allais’ ski, and the metal ski gained instant credibility among world-class racers, coaches and dealers. Head kept working on his ski in order to reduce vibrations in the metal, and earned international respect when the Swiss national team began using Head skis in 1963.
Introducing Large Ski Boots
Fed up with traditional leather skiing boots, Bob Lange of Dubuque, Iowa wanted to create a boot that would make things easier for amateur skiers like himself. In 1963, he introduced Lange ski boots, the first fiberglass boots with lace closures. Incorporating advice from the Canadian National Ski Team, Lange improved his boot and made it good enough for racers. At the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, five gold medals were won in Lange boots, and the company went on to dominate the ski equipment industry.
Instant Video Replay Debuts in Olympic Figure Skating
At Salt Lake City in 2002, instant video replay technology made its debut in Olympic figure skating. That year’s scandal involving judging misconduct in the pairs skating competition led to the replacement of the traditional 6.0 scale with the less subjective International Judging System (IJS). Under the new system, a “technical specialist” uses instant replay to identify and evaluate each skating element (for example, the exact foot position in takeoff and landing of a jump). Judges then review (if necessary) the video to confirm the technical analysis and come up with a final score.
The Arrival of the Zamboni
The 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley, California saw the first Olympic use of the ice resurfacing machines invented and produced by Frank Zamboni. After creating the ice resurfacer for his family-owned rink in 1949, Zamboni gained great exposure in the early ’50s, when Olympic champion skater Sonja Henie bought a machine to travel with her. Zamboni’s invention–still the standard for ice resurfacing machines–was able to shave a surface of ice, remove the ice shavings and wash the ice to create a perfect slick surface for Olympic skaters and hockey stars to strut their stuff.
Luge Star Gains Edge with Aerodynamic Footwear
Georg Hackl of Germany won a silver medal in his Olympic debut in Calgary, then went on to win gold in 1992, 1994 and 1998. In Nagano, Hackl turned heads with new aerodynamic yellow booties, drawing protests from the Canadian and American luge teams. Before the Salt Lake City Games–where he would attempt to become the first Winter Olympian to win four consecutive gold medals–Hackl teamed with chassis and aerodynamics specialists from German automaker Porsche to design a better, faster sled to aid him in his quest. This special sled proved not to be quite enough, as Hackl finished second to Italy’s Armin Zoeggeler.
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Revamped Clap Skate Leads to Faster Times
At Nagano in 1998, 18 speed skaters beat the old Olympic record (set in 1994 by U.S. skater Dan Jansen) for the men’s 1,000-meter event. Their secret? Clap skates, a revamped version of an old skate with a hinge that connected blade to boot and allowed for more speed. Dutch skaters–who drove the clap-skate resurgence and won gold and silver in the 1,000-meters that year–also attached adhesive rubberized strips to their racing suits in order to cut down on wind resistance, a bit of new technology approved by the International Skating Union only the week before the Nagano Games started.
The Games in Living Color
The connection between the Olympic Games and television began with the 1960 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, when CBS paid just $50,000 for broadcasting rights. The 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, were the first Winter Games to be broadcast in color. (The opening ceremonies of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo appeared in color, but little of the rest of the events.) From Grenoble, ABC also provided the most extensive satellite coverage of any Olympics yet, including some live daytime coverage and the rest same-day coverage.
Artificial Ice Transforms Bobsleigh Event
The 1964 Winter Games at Innsbruck, Austria marked the first time that artificial ice was used to construct the track for the Olympic bobsleigh event. The sport of bobsleigh, which began as a leisure activity for the rich, truly began its transition into an elite sport in the 1950s, when a key rule change limited the total weight of crew and sled. The transition from natural ice tracks to artificial ice (as well as the use of high-tech fiberglass and steel sleds) have made bobsleigh conditions more controllable and eliminated much of the danger that characterized early competitions.
Instant Replay is Born
During the men’s slalom skiing event at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, officials were uncertain whether one of the skiers had missed a gate. They turned to members of the CBS television team and asked if they could review a videotape of the race to confirm what had happened, inspiring CBS to invent the now-widespread “instant replay.” The Squaw Valley Games were the first Olympics to be televised–CBS paid $50,000 for the U.S. broadcasting rights–and the first to use computers to tabulate event results.
Advances in Olympic Timing Technology
At the 1948 Winter Games in St. Moritz, Swiss watchmaker Omega first used its cellular photoelectric eye to measure timing in Olympic events such as skiing; it was water-resistant and used infrared technology that was immune to the effect of the sun’s reflection. In 1980 at Lake Placid, Omega’s Game-O-Matic technology revolutionized the timing of alpine skiing by immediately calculating and displaying a skier’s current ranking as soon as he crossed the finish line. In Albertville in 1992, Omega introduced their Scan-O-Vision photo-finish system, which digitally measured time to the nearest one-thousandth of a second.
Canada’s Super-Powered Snowboards
Just in time for the Vancouver Winter Olympics, Canada’s snowboarders are getting new boards, developed by Apex Composites through Own The Podium, a program aimed at helping Canada become the top medal-winning nation in 2010. Carbon-fiber composite plates set between the new board and its bindings reportedly allow athletes to be more “in touch” with the snow and make cleaner turns, among other benefits. With faster-than-ever times leading up to the Games–including World Cup victories in all three men’s races, with six medals overall–Canada’s snowboard alpine team is hoping to bring home some hardware in Vancouver.
Automatic Starting Gates Debut in Olympic Skiing
The 1956 Winter Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy saw the Olympic debut of starting gates in alpine skiing events. Before that time, timekeeping had been a relatively simple affair involving two synchronized stopwatches, one at the start and one at the finish. The new starting gates used an acoustic sound (buzzer) and optical signal–similar to a traffic light, it changed from red to orange to green–to automatically trigger the official start time, and skiers were required to set off between a half-second before and one second after the acoustic signal.
Making Snow at the Olympics
Over the years, warm weather has threatened more than one well-planned Winter Olympic Games. (Faced with a lack of snow in Innsbruck in 1964, the Austrian police carved out mountain ice to build luge and bobsleigh tracks and carried 40,000 cubic meters of snow to form the alpine ski slopes.) The 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid saw the first Olympic use of machines to make artificial snow, in order to guarantee favorable conditions for all events. Artificial snow proved more resilient than natural snow, and held up better in rainy or warm weather. To prepare for the 2010 Games, Vancouver organizers used state-of-the-art equipment to turn 95.3 million liters of water into snow, then stockpiled it in nearby mountains (along with piles of natural snow) in order to have it on reserve.
The Biathalon Goes Wireless
In the Winter Olympic sport of biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, athletes count on the calculation of “split times”–how long it takes them to complete a short section of the race course–to find out where they stand in the race and help coaches strategize. Coaches used to take these calculations manually, by stopwatch. But in the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, the biathlon went wireless: Splits were beamed from a transponder strapped to an athlete’s ankle (similar to those used by marathon runners in the Summer Olympics) to a coach’s computer, where software instantly determined the split time.