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How STEM powers the Winter Olympics

February 10, 2022

Written By:

Vanessa Nelson, Vice President, External Relations at Let's Talk Science

Johanna Busch, Educational Specialist, Digital Development at Let’s Talk Science

Trevor Zaple, Web Content Assistant, Digital Development at Let’s Talk Science

Did you know that when you watch the 2022 Winter Olympic Games you’re watching science in action? From the surfaces on which athletes compete, to the equipment they use and even the mental and physical preparations they need to be ready on game day – science is at the heart of each competition!

Inside the Athletes’ Brains

While we often think of the physical training and skill required for peak performance in sport, high performance athletes also rely on extensive mental training to get them to the finish line and onto the podium.

One example of this is the use of visualization. Visualizing an action helps athletes build the connections between neurons in their brains allowing neurons to fire more quickly, achieving better results. In fact, one study compared skiers who visualized at the top of a slope right before a race to skiers who did not. The skiers who visualized – imagining themselves moving through the course before they kicked out of the gate - had faster finish times.

And what about nerves? Have you ever felt nervous or worried before a big competition, test, or performance? Athletes also experience a lot of stress during the Olympics. When you’re stressed, the hypothalamus region of your brain tells your body to react. Athletes train their brains, using strategies to remain calm and focused. They can do this because of the prefrontal cortex, which is the command centre of the brain. The prefrontal cortex tells the hypothalamus that you are not in danger. This helps to reduce an athlete’s stress response.

Even the toughest of athletes face mental health challenges. Recently, athletes have been speaking more openly on this topic. Just like the rest of us, athletes need to make sure they are mentally and emotionally healthy. Taking care of themselves allows them to achieve greatness.

Physics for the Win

Many winter sports are great lessons in physics. Think of the sheer strength and energy required to propel a bobsleigh, or the incredible precision required to skillfully maneuver a skeleton or luge sled down a run? Not to mention downhill skiing – another great example of Newton’s laws of physics at work!

When a racer leaves the starting gate at the top of a giant slalom run, they are relying on Newton’s Second Law of Motion that states that a force on an object produces an acceleration.

Once out of the gate other laws of physics come into play! First, gravity takes over taking the skier down the hill at incredible speeds! And to minimize air resistance - when the gas molecules that make up air slow down a moving object - skiers hunch down to make themselves more aerodynamic. Other athletes use different techniques to increase speed. Snowboarders, for example, will pump their legs and figure skaters will pull their arms in to speed up rotation, or spread them out to slow down.

Did you know?

Your body uses more oxygen when you exercise. Your lungs need to pull in up to 15 times more oxygen than at rest to keep up.

Measure your own air capacity with this hands-on activity.

Gold Medal Engineering

In addition to great physical feats from the athletes, there is an incredible amount of engineering that makes many of the sports we watch possible. In ski jumping, the ramps need to be perfectly shaped to maximize a skier’s ability to gain speed on the downhill ramp and then launch themselves into the air. Some fly as much as 100 m from the base of the jump! Similarly, for halfpipe snowboarding and skiing events, the height and angle of the pipe has a huge impact on the potential jump height of the athletes.

And did you know that chemistry allows athletes to skate across the ice? Many of us know that water is made up of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule (H2O). The hydrogen end has a positive charge. The oxygen end has a negative charge. The opposite ends attract other water molecules and attach with hydrogen bonds. As water is cooled to make ice, the molecules slow down and the hydrogen bonds remain attached, forming a crystal lattice - keeping the ice hard.

Ice Crystal Structure and Liquid Water
The graphic above shows the molecular arrangement of water molecules in ice and in liquid water.

But how do hockey pucks and ice skates glide across the hard surface? The hard lattice only forms beneath the surface leaving a thin layer called pre-melt on top that acts as a lubricant. This semi-frozen ice is perfect for gliding objects!

Read more about the science behind ice rinks.

The Science of the Win

While gold medal performances are the result of hard work, training and commitment, they are also dependent on an understanding of science in a number of contexts. From the physical capability and mental stamina of an athlete, to the conditions of the rink, slope or track they are on, and their choice of equipment, science plays a key role in many aspects of an athlete’s Olympic dream. So next time you are wondering how a skater makes that jump look easy, or how the skeleton rider looks so calm, consider the science at work behind the scenes.

Learn More

How fast can you react?

Olympic athletes need super-fast reflexes to excel at their sport. Test your own reaction time with this hands-on activity from Let’s Talk Science.

How Fast Can a Skater Turn in the Speed Skating Short Track?

This article from Wired examines the physics behind the speed skating event and calculates what the maximum speed of a skater might be.

Science of the Winter Olympics - Downhill Science

This video (3:59) from the United States National Science Foundation examines the physics involved in the sport of downhill skiing.