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Weathering the Olympics: how science and sport meet on the bottom of a ski

Rain and slush are testing Olympic skiers as well as their technical gurus, whose choices of skis and wax can help make the difference between gold and anonymity.

By Staff Writer / February 16, 2010

Course slippers go down the downhill course at Whistler Creekside after the men's Alpine Skiing Super Combined event was postponed due to weather at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia Tuesday.

Mike Segar/Reuters

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Whistler, British Columbia

With unseasonably warm weather drenching Whistler in rain and slush, the men’s super combined race on Tuesday became the third of three scheduled alpine skiing events to be postponed due to poor conditions.

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But while Olympians here can’t count on their races being held as planned, one thing they can be sure of is that the X factor of their sport – the detailed science behind how skis and snowboards run fast on snow – just got a lot bigger.

Many of the athletes here have trained a decade or more. But their shot at an Olympic medal could be determined by a fraction of a second. And those fractions can be won or lost depending on something most spectators never see: the base of an athlete's skis or snowboard.

That is because the thing we casually refer to as snow is transformed by variables such as humidity, temperature, and density that significantly affect what will run fastest in a given condition. Warm, wet conditions have characterized nearly every day of competition so far at the Games.

"The more extreme the conditions, the more important it is what we do," says Knut Nystad, who leads Norway’s team of 22 wax technicians and ski testers – just for cross-country. "The equipment makes a huge difference. You can spend 10,000 hours training, but what we do can give you that extra 10 or 20 seconds. This is what makes the difference between the second-best and the best athletes."

450 pairs of skis for 12 athletes

Skis with a softer flex perform better in softer snow, while springier skis are needed in harder conditions; different base structures are needed depending on the water content and temperature of the snow; and then there’s the glide wax that goes on on race day. Skiers often have a quiver of 20 pairs or more of competition skis; the German biathlon team brought 450 pairs in Whistler for their 12 athletes.

So crucial is it for technicians to accurately adapt skiers’ equipment to the conditions that Nystad’s team spent six weeks here in Whistler in 2008 and again in 2009. The US team had someone living here for the past few winters, testing different skis and waxes, for the same reason. But no one has gone as far as the Canadians, who under the $8 million Top Secret program – a subset of their ambitious Own the Podium push – have had professors and PhD students from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver working full-time on the problem for 3-1/2 years.

Just before Christmas, they unveiled their secret weapon: a new base for skis and snowboards that reduces friction by 20-25 percent – a huge margin given that races can be won by a toenail. Snowboarders have already used it on the World Cup, but no one will say much about what the secret ingredient is, which was produced by UBC and hand-carried to manufacturers in Europe, who integrated it into their design.

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