At winter Olympics, science wins the day

In sports like bobsled, luge, and snowboarding, where fractions of a second make a difference, it's not only athletes who are crucial. Hundreds of technicians work behind the scenes to help teams adjust to conditions that change by the day, if not the hour.

Edgar Su/ Reuters
Chris Mazdzer of the U.S in action at the men's singles competition in luge at the Olympic Sliding Center in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Feb. 11.

Chris Mazdzer of the United States shook up the luge world order Sunday night, becoming the first non-European to podium in the Olympic men’s singles event.

“This is validation for everything I’ve done,” said Mazdzer, who won silver. “All the sacrifices, it’s worth it.”

It took 16 years of training, and came down to a fraction of a second. Had he been just .207 seconds slower, he would have missed out on the medals entirely.

In sports events that are won by such wafer-thin margins, it’s not only the athletes who are crucial; equipment plays a critical role too.

Laboring behind the scenes are hundreds of mechanics and technicians preparing skis, snowboards, and sleds. Think pit crew – with a shoestring budget and a track that changes by the day if not the hour.

Their ingenuity, innovation, and precision are every bit as Olympic as the athletes’ performances, and their schedules are sometimes even more grueling.

“We work half a day,” jokes Richard Laubenstein, a former race car mechanic who now tends to America’s bobsleds – often in damp, unheated parking garages. And by half a day, he means 12 hours. 

These geek squads – which sometimes include the athletes themselves – are intimately familiar with the difference between a sharp snow crystal that squeaks underfoot and the rounded shape of snow that has thawed and refrozen. They notice whether the ice on the bobsled track is crystal-clear – the sign of hard, fast ice – or the milky kind that is liable to get chips and bumps as the race wears on.

They use space pens and waterproof notebooks to record testing results in all sorts of weather so that when they know the precise conditions on race day, they have a log of what works best.

“Wax technicians need to be meteorologists,” says Alex Deibold, who served as a wax tech at the 2010 Olympics and won bronze in snowboard cross as a competitor at the 2014 Sochi Games. “You have to look at the weather and be like, it says it’s going to snow – but it’s said that for the past four days. Maybe I’ll prep one extra board, just in case it does.”

From pine pitch to fluorocarbons

At the 2015 snowboard cross test event in Pyeongchang, there was no snow in the forecast. But Deibold’s wax tech Andy Buckley woke up in the middle of the night and noticed it was snowing outside. So rather than going back to bed, he went down to the wax room at 3:30 a.m. and spent nearly three hours rewaxing Deibold’s snowboards, as well as those of his teammates, Nick Baumgartner and Nate Holland.

Holland won gold, Baumgartner bronze, and Deibold was fifth. “I think you can attribute that to the fact that our wax tech took a little bit of extra time and rewaxed our snowboards,” says Deibold.

Gone are the days of smearing sperm whale oil and pine pitch on skis; today’s techs select from a wide array of chemical compounds – some as costly per ounce as caviar. Taking into consideration the temperature, humidity, and the relative freshness of the snow, the techs concoct the mixture that will enable the bases to glide across the snow with as little friction as possible.  

Skis and boards are also put through stone-grinding machines that imprint textures designed for warm or cold snow, and wet or dry snow. Cross-country skiers can travel with 20 or more pairs of skis, each suited to a specific set of conditions. Diebold brings five snowboards with different grinds to his competitions.

Sliding sports don’t have that luxury; they generally have one race sled, but there’s still plenty of prep involved.

First, there’s the off-season work: designing sleds, building them and testing their aerodynamics in wind tunnels. Then there’s finding the right balance between speed and control for any given track and the ice conditions that day.

On luge sleds, for example, you can gain more control by tilting the runners, known as “steels,” more sharply into the ice, or by changing their relative angles. But such techniques sacrifice speed. And speed is of the essence when 0.007 seconds is the difference between a silver medal and nothing.

Sliders can squeeze a few more thousandths of a second off their time by polishing their steels. They start with low-grit sandpaper wrapped around a file and work up to 2500-grit sandpaper, finishing off with diamond paste until they can see their reflection.

“When we’re done…I would be comfortable shaving off of it,” says Tucker West, who finished 26th  in Sunday’s race. 

'You're riding on your pinky'

Where exactly does one get a bobsled or a skeleton sled? After all, it’s not as if they’re lined up next to the Flexible Flyers at ACE Hardware. American teams have set about making their own.

“If you’re going to be competing at the top level you don’t want the standard thing that everyone can buy,” says skeleton racer Matt Antoine, who has been a driving force in a new sled-building program that began in 2009. “You can be the best pusher, the best slider, but if you’re bringing crappy equipment to the race it doesn’t matter.”

It has cost more than $2 million for USA Bobsled to design, prototype, and build new four-man bobsleds. One of them will be in competition for the first time in Pyeongchang, and it hasn’t even had the opportunity to go through the usual “aero-tuning” tests.

But the team has learned a lot from testing other sleds in a wind tunnel in Mooresville, N.C., when the sled is suspended slightly off the ground to have its drag coefficient measured. While they are about it, the team tests its helmets, suits, and different athlete positions for maximum aerodynamic efficiency.

Then in training runs, the athletes, coaches,  and team bobsled mechanic Laubenstein experiment with different runners – wider ones for more control, narrower ones for more speed. The runners, which cost $6,000 to $12,000 a pair, are not like ice skates but perfectly rounded and smooth – and about the width of a finger.

“I always tell people – that’s what you’re riding on: your pinky,” says Laubenstein. Before a race, he uses razor-thin shims to align the runners to .005 of an inch accuracy, or about the width of aluminum foil.

“Richard is fantastic,” says Steve Langton, a member of the bobsled team. “Having someone doing stuff that we don’t have to do (gives us) time that we can sleep or recover.”

Laubenstein’s wife has an important role to play too; she has taken the team under her wing, baking them treats.

“After the race, we’re like, just take us back to the garage,” says driver Justin Olsen. “Once we’re in the garage, we’re like, where are the sweets?”

By the time they’re done, the baking pan is bent.

Just one more thing for the mechanic to repair.

Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct Mazdzer's margin of victory in the luge competition. 

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