Faster, higher, stronger: Science and engineering behind the Olympic Winter Games

"Citius, Altius, Fortius"—translated as "faster, higher, stronger"—is the motto of the modern Olympic Games. This phrase could also sum up the goals of scientists, engineers, and other inventors working with athletes to develop new and improved sports equipment, clothing, and even technical skills. In the Olympic games, viewers around the world see the latest science and technology in action as skiers, skaters, and sledders take to the slopes, rinks, and tracks in Sochi, Russia, to compete for quadrennial Olympics glory. Monica Smith, the exhibition program manager for the museum's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, shares her innovation-based perspective on the games. 

Citius, Altius, Fortius; Faster, Higher, Stronger
Citius, Altius, Fortius; Faster, Higher, Stronger

To enhance your TV watching from the couch, check out this great series of free short videos about Science and Engineering of the Olympic Winter Games 2014 produced by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in partnership with NBC Learn.

As summarized in the introduction, "this enlightening 10-part video collection, narrated by NBC Sports' Liam McHugh, delves into the physics, engineering, chemistry, design and mathematics behind the 'world's foremost sporting event.'" The videos feature U.S. Olympians and Paralympians whose names you may know, alongside scientists and engineers whose important research has been funded by NSF. Complementary educational materials are provided for the budding scientists and engineers in our lives.

A poster from the first Winter Olympic Games which were held in Chamonix, France in 1924.
A poster from the first Winter Olympic Games which were held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Personally, I am fascinated by the Winter Olympics, the first of which was held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. Generally I favor the figure skating and alpine skiing part because I've experienced the pain and pleasure of trying them myself—so I played those videos first.

Skating is all about physics, which Olympic hopefuls like Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner make look easy as they gracefully jump and spin on the ice. The skiing video features Julia Mancuso, who has won multiple Olympic medals including a bronze in Sochi, and Heath Calhoun, an Iraq veteran and 2010 and 2014 Paralympics contender. Also stars are the scientists and engineers behind them, like Dr. Kam Leang of the University of Nevada, Reno, who uses nano-scale carbon tubes to help reduce vibration in skis.

A commemorative stamp for the 1932 Winter Olympic Games held in Lake Placid, New York, U.S.A.
A commemorative stamp for the 1932 Winter Olympic Games held in Lake Placid, New York. It is in the collection of the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum.

Of course, during the Olympics TV marathon, I often end up watching less popular sports, too, that are sometimes ignored in the U.S. during intervening years. The video about the engineering behind bobsledding, featuring U.S. team members Steve Holcomb and Steve Langton, raised my interest in watching that more carefully. I didn't realize that bobsledding is one of the most dangerous sports, and the video illustrates numerous issues about weight, stability, speed, and drag that engineers must address to meet the sport's official requirements.

Bonnie Blair's speed skin from the 1990 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.
Bonnie Blair's speed skin from the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France

Check out Shani Davis' cutting-edge speed skating suit in the video clip "Engineering Competition Suits." Perhaps one day, he will donate his suit to the museum to join Bonnie Blair's speed skating suit from the 1992 Olympics, which was cutting-edge in its time. We also have a pair of Apolo Anton Ohno's speed skates among other great Olympics-related objects in the museum's sports collections. Doubtless NBC Olympics coverage will mention more than once that Blair and Ohno are the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympic athletes, with six and eight medals respectively, while Davis has won two gold medals at the last two Olympics and is competing in Sochi for more.

Shaun White's outfit and snowboard
Shaun White's outfit and snowboard

The short video about the physics of snowboarding featuring Shaun White reminded me a lot of skateboarding, which the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation featured during Innoskate 2013, albeit on a much smaller, temporary half pipe built simply as a demonstration stage. Interestingly, White is both a medal-winning skateboarder and snowboarder and competed in the latter sport in Sochi. I should note that the museum's sports collection includes a Burton snowboard donated by White as well as an accessible snowboard invented by then-students Nathan Connolly and Matt Capozzi, who were featured in the Lemelson Center's Invention at Play exhibition.

An accessible snowboard invented by then-students Nathan Connolly and Matt Capozzi, who were featured in the Lemelson Center’s Invention at Play exhibition.
An accessible snowboard invented by then-students Nathan Connolly and Matt Capozzi, who were featured in the Lemelson Center's Invention at Play exhibition

If this year's NSF-NBC video series just whets your appetite, be sure to watch their previous collaboration, the "Science of the Olympic Winter Games 2010," with informational segments about the science behind skiing, ski jumping, ice skating, and more.

We can thank Baron Pierre de Coubertin for reinventing the Olympic Games starting in 1896. An aristocratic French educator, he was inspired by ancient Greek culture and also the opportunity to use sports as a way to encourage intercultural communication and trust. The three core values of the Olympic Movement are Excellence, Respect, and Friendship, the latter defined in part as "build[ing] a peaceful and better world thanks to sport, through solidarity, team spirit, joy, and optimism." Hopefully this year's games in Sochi will live up to these values that helped spawn this international sports festival 118 years ago.

U.S. stamp commemorating the centennial of the Olympic Games.
U.S. stamp commemorating the centennial of the Olympic Games

Monica Smith is the exhibition program manager for the museum's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and the project director for the upcoming exhibition, Places of Invention. You can see more of our winter Olympics collections in this post

Posted Date: 
Monday, February 17, 2014 - 00:15
Posted at 10:03 am EST in From the Collections,Invention & Innovation

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