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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.

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“The magic stuff that we put in the ski base is still [not known],” says UBC plastics expert Savvas Hatzikiriakos, who will say only that he experimented with additives normally used to help plastics slip out of molds. What is known for sure, though, is that the secret missiles work best on the suction-like snow found at the snowboard venue, Cypress Mountain, and up here in Whistler. “The new base works better in the warmer conditions, especially if the snow is wet … the wetter, the better.”

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The Teflon effect

That’s because the new bases act like Teflon, causing the water droplets to make tiny beads, instead of something like glass, which creates more of a pancake-shaped droplet, explains Sheldon Green, who oversaw a parallel research project at UBC.

The more skis and snowboards act like a Teflon pan, the more freely they can glide across the snow – especially in wet conditions, when they’re basically gliding on a thin film of water.

It’s a complicated study, admits Green, an expert in “microscopic snow friction” – in other words, the nitty-gritty science behind why snow creates drag on skis and snowboards.

Linguist Steven Pinker has written that Eskimos have a dozen words for snow, and there’s a reason why. "Snow" is everything from newly-fallen sharp crystals to rounded balls that have been frozen, thawed, rained on, and then baked by a sunny day. So Green’s task, along with his researcher, has been to figure out how to make a ski glide best in any possible condition. A key tool in that process is choosing the right glide wax out of hundreds of options.

Nystad, the Norwegian technician, knows that all too well.

“It's a fair portion of science and a good portion of gut feeling of what is going to run today,” says Nystad, noting that everything they do is secret, too. “We're not doing an exact science – it's very empirical.”

Indeed, for decades ski coaches have closely collected the results of their meticulous testing of both glide wax and kick wax, which keeps cross-country skis from slipping backward on uphills and must all be matched to the snow-crystal shape. Jotting down penciled notes in a daily journal with hands numb and dry from the cold, they develop a vast knowledge base that is highly prized by skiers and fellow technicians.

“I have the best [wax technician] in the world,” said US snowboarder Nate Holland ahead of yesterday’s event, in which he narrowly missed the bronze medal. “My board is never the problem. It's a freakin' rocket ship."

Teammate Graham Watanabe agreed. “Wax teching is an absolute art. He [USA team wax tech] has been killing it all year long.”

In cross-country, biathlon, and Nordic combined races, a bad wax job can cost even the best skier a minute or more, so it’s critical to find the right concoction.

But Green and his researcher have tried to take some of the guesswork out of the game with a database that allows technicians to type in roughly 18 variables and then spits out recommendations.

Still, it’s not going to be easy at the Nordic venues in Whistler, said US cross-country skier Kris Freeman ahead of the races: “It’s the hardest venue in the world to wax for.”

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Christa knows how important the right wax is – she trained fulltime for the Olympics from 1997-2002 in cross-country skiing. Follow her as she tweets throughout the Games.

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