Later this week, amazing athletes from around the world will converge on Sochi, Russia for the 22nd Olympic Winter Games. Beyond practice and determination, what affects a gold-medalist's performance? The answer is simple—lots and lots of science.
What comes to mind when you think of the Winter Olympics? The sparkling skill of figure skaters, or perhaps the terrifying speed of downhill skiers? While skating and skiing get lots of attention, the Winter Olympics include more than a dozen different sports. Bobsledding, hockey, snowboarding, ski jumping, and yes, curling, are among the events that will be on display during the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, February 7-23.
Olympic athletes dedicate countless hours to perfecting their skills and building their strength. By the time they make it to the Olympic games, you might say that they've got their craft down to a science! The truth is, scientific principles are behind all of the jumping, spinning, shooting, and sliding that they do.
Competition on Ice and Snow = Speed
As you watch the Olympics, expect to see hockey pucks flying over the ice at close to 100 mph, downhill skiers travelling 80+ mph, and bobsledders flying down their icy tracks much faster than we are allowed to drive on the freeway! Where does all of this speed come from? In part, it is due to the loss of friction we experience when we find ourselves on ice, or on snow with the right equipment. If you have ever slipped on a patch of ice (ouch!) or tried out a sled (wheeee!), you have experienced this loss of friction firsthand.
Spinning and Sliding and Jumping, Oh My!
But there is more to the Olympics than speed. The various games involve balance, aerodynamics, gravity, and many other ideas that you might hear about in a science classroom. While we can't all be Olympic athletes, we certainly can explore some of the forces that affect an athlete's performance. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Twirls, Whirls, Spins, & Turns: The Science & Reflexes of Dizziness: Ice skaters and freestyle skiers perform intricate spins and turns in their quest for gold, but how do they avoid getting dizzy? Even without skis or skates, you can investigate how your eyes, ears, and brain interact when you spin.
- Think Fast!: With hockey pucks traveling at incredible speeds, goalies need to have excellent reaction times. Try this experiment to discover how fast your reflexes are!
- Slippery Slopes and Sticking Surfaces: Explore the Forces of Friction: Winter athletes get fast downhill rides on their skis and sleds. Can you guess what will give you a speedier ride down a slide? Test your hypothesis with this fun experiment.
- Tightening the Turns in Speed Skating: Lessons in Centripetal Force & Balance: Precise body positioning lets speed skaters navigate their turns safely and quickly. With ice skates or roller skates, explore hands-on the forces that skaters must balance in order to win a race.
- Skating and Angular Momentum: Fast spins add drama to a skater's performance. Grab a rotating office chair and a friend to discover how arm position affects rotation speed.
Where Science and Athletics Intersect
The Olympics offer a fun opportunity to cheer on amazing athletes. And as you enjoy the games, remember that from the physics of athletic performance to the materials science involved in creating and improving helmets, sleds, and aerodynamic suits, science is everywhere at the Olympics!