Thursday, February 13, 2014

Innovation and the Winter Olympic Games

by Mary Faller

Winter Olympic Games - InventHelp Innovation Blog
The Olympic Winter Games will take place from February 7 through February 23, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. The Olympic Games have been around since the late 1800s in Athens, Greece. Each year the summer and winter Olympics showcase the talents of thousands of athletes from all over the world. It is a joining of cultures and athletic competition that never fails to excite viewers from all walks of life. The Olympics have come a long way since their introduction centuries ago. So how has innovation changed the way athletes perform and viewers watch the sports within these exciting games?


The opening ceremony has been an iconic display of traditions with the most memorable being the carrying of the torch which began in 1936. In 1988, during the Calgary Winder Olympics, the National Research Council of Canada developed a special torch that would be lighter in weight and was powered by a special fuel to withhold any weather condition during the 88-day, 18,000-kilometer trip across Canada. This improved torch displayed the Olympic motto: “Faster, Higher, Stronger.”


Of course, many of the innovations of the Olympic Games came with the sporting equipment used by athletes. In 1992, former Daytona 500 champion Geoff Bodine developed an improved bobsled using the technology of the NASCAR circuit. It was a lighter version that allowed athletes to generate greater speed. This resulted in improved suspension and joint with optimum steel runners. This new bobsled was debuted at Lillehammer in 1994, and ultimately helped team USA win silver and bronze in the four-man competition and gold in the women’s in 2002 at Salt Lake City.


An aluminum alloy ski was introduced in 1950 by American engineer Howard Head. This improved ski made turning much easier for recreational skiers. Former world champion skier, Emile Allais used Head’s development to design a riveted aluminum ski that would be used during the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics in 1960. These innovations lead Frenchman Jean Vuarnet to win the gold medal or the downhill ski competition. The buzz from Head’s design made others curious as to how to improve the metal ski further and ultimately, Head continued his improvements to reduce vibration in the metal earning his skis international respect when the Swiss national team began using his skis in 1963.


Sporting equipment and active wear for athletes have evolved over the years and continue to evolve with innovative improvements. This year, improved performance active wear could mean the difference of a finishing time, or improved safety. The US hockey team will utilize high performance socks to protect their feet and lower legs from cuts as a result of contact from skate blades. Several manufacturers have produced high-tech socks using Kevlar and copper materials to protect calf muscles, Achilles tendons, and feet. Some players are hesitant to try this new material as it can generate more heat in the skates and its heavier than traditional knit socks, but in the long run it could protect players from serious injuries.


As athletes continue to improve their speed and endurance, active wear companies continue to make innovations to serve the athletes they clothe. Under Armour, a Baltimore-based sports apparel company, has been working on a speed skating suit that will be more aerodynamic than conventional suits. Speed skaters can reach speeds up to 40 miles per hour with just a thin blade of metal on the slick ice. The innovation team of Under Armour has tested over 100 textiles in 250 configurations, adjusting seams and changing the location of zippers. Ultimately, they settled on a suit comprised of five fabrics, each with its own function and purpose.

According to the Washington Post, “The air vent on the spine, for example, allows the body to release heat. And the slick fabric on the inner thigh cuts down on friction as the skater crosses his legs on turns. Perhaps the biggest alteration is also the most counterintuitive. The slickest fabric didn’t always result in the fastest suit. In fact, engineers found a rougher textile that disturbed air flow performed best both in the wind tunnel and on the ice.” Of course, the folks at Under Armour will feel validated only when the athlete wearing their innovative suit is standing on the medal podium.


Innovations come in all categories of the Olympic Games. Perhaps the most important of these innovations are the improved technology used to judge the athletes within the specific sports being played. Instant video replay is by far the most innovative of technological advances in the Olympics, ultimately giving judges the ability to fairly judge an outcome of a sport. In 2002, at Salt Lake City, instant replay technology was debuted during the Olympic figure skating competition. According to, “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.” After all, a fair judgment and outcome makes for the best results in sporting events. Instant replay capabilities also provide viewers at home the chance to see a photo finish, excellent display of sportsmanship, or athletic ability within a split-second play.


Technological advances in the Olympics also come in the form of timing. As many of the sports within the Olympic Games involve timed finishes, the advances in technology have allowed judges to more accurately clock the athletes’ performances.

According to, “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.” This improved technology has been in use ever since, creating a fair judgment on athletes performing in the Olympic Games.


Perhaps one of the biggest innovations with regard to the Olympic Games (especially the winter games) is the creation of snow and ice to create an area for athletes to perform their given sporting events. In 1964, the first use of artificial ice was at the winter games at Innsbruck, Austria. The bobsled sporting event which began as simply a leisure activity for the rich turned into an Olympic sport in the 1950s. With the restrictions to weight and materials used in the sleds, using artificial ice was a more controllable aspect that eliminated much of the dangers that came with bobsledding on natural ice.

Depending on the location that is chosen for the winter games, weather is another issue that must be addressed. In 1964, game makers were faced with a lack of snow in Innsbruck, resulting in Austrian police having to carve out mountain ice to build a luge and bobsleigh tracks. They transported 40,000 cubic meters of snow from the alpine ski slopes. The Lake Placid Olympic Games of 1980 marked the first instance where machines were used to make artificial snow. As a result, artificial snow proved to be more resilient than natural snow and held up better in rainy and warmer weather. In 2010, organizers for the Vancouver Olympics used machines to transform 95.3 million liters of water into snow then combined it with real snow in a nearby mountain range for reserve. Technology is really amazing in this fact that if the world doesn’t provide snow, we’ll make it ourselves.


The Sochi Olympics are expected to be the most innovative games in history according to Russian Radio. They reported that, “Unique technological solutions were introduced at the design stages and during the construction of Olympic facilities. All this creates conditions for a safe and comfortable environment for athletes and spectators.” Sochi constructed 380 Olympic venues including sports facilities located in the mountains and coastal clusters, hotels with over 25,000 rooms, energy generating facilities, and transportation infrastructure. By using the most advanced technology from the beginning, the construction of these venues is by far the most innovative compared to past game venues.

According to Russian Radio, “During the construction, particular attention was paid to energy saving structures. There are no traditional bulbs at the Olympic venues. In all places, LED’s have been installed with virtually zero power consumption. And some sports facilities are installed with a unique lighting system”.

The Olympic Winter Games will come to an end on February 23, 2014. At that time, athletes from all over the world will either head home with a winning medal or with a feeling of defeat. No matter the outcome, each athlete will take with them the experience they gained during the games with a goal of further improving their athletic ability for the next Olympics. And engineers and other workers will begin brainstorming new innovations for next year.

“Winter Olympics Technology,”
“Hokey Players Going High-Tech with their Socks,”
“Sochi Winter Olympics: Innovation in Action,” Russian Radio,

1 comment:

  1. it's interesting to see how many devices and products were made to make the Olympics easier for some. I'm not saying easier, but better. It's all about innovating products to work better. Other countries probably adapted and built better bobsleds or other such things. Everything gets better as we constantly innovate.