It’s all downhill from here
After the worst winter for 47 years, the snow has finally gone. I miss it already and now I’m looking forward to virtual winter from the comfort of my armchair courtesy of the BBC and the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Britain is not best suited for winter sports since we only get decent conditions once in every blue moon. GB have only gained 15 medals in the history of the Winter Olympics but we do seem to be getting better with 9 of them in the last 4 decades compared to 6 in the first four. Our best ever performance was a gold, a silver and a bronze way back in 1936 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
So, not a record to worry the likes of Canada, USA and Germany then; countries in which budding Olympians can ski before they can walk. How can we possibly hope to compete and even get close to our best ever result of 3 medals?
Interestingly, many of the sports at the Winter Olympics involve sliding from the top to the bottom of a hill in some fashion; on skis, a snowboard, in a bobsleigh, on a luge or on a skeleton bob. The latter usually provokes the cliched ‘skeleton bob, who’s he?’ Most commentators describe skeleton bobsleigh as sliding head first down a hill on a tea tray (‘sliders’ grimace politely if you say this) making it one of the more dangerous Olympic sports (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Andy Wood sliding in the Winterberg World Cup Skeleton race, Germany, Feb 2007.
The potential to win
Siding sports such as skeleton involve converting potential energy to kinetic energy via a 50 m sprint start. Once the athlete is on the sled gravity takes over to propel them down the slope with the least energy loss. Any touch on the side or with the feet can shave off hundredths of a second which are all it often takes to differentiate between gold and silver.
Figure 3. Skeleton bobsleigh simulation using ANSYS (formerly Fluent) CFD, and Ensight software. Skeleton and slider model created from 3D laser scanning and surfacing with Geomagic Studio (simulation by John Hart of the Sports Engineering Research Group).
Bobsled designers use exactly the same technologies used in cycling, Formula 1 and other technical sports; engineering design using wind tunnels and computational fluid dynamics (Figure 3). The ruling body of the sport (FIBT) is pretty clear on what you can and can’t do with strict rules on runners and the shape of the sled so not all innovations are allowable no matter how good they are.
Predictions for GB in Vancouver 2010
Of course all technological improvements are confidential so you’ll have to wait until 18th to 20th February if you’re that way inclined. And how will we do? GB’s golden couple in skeleton, Shelley Rudman and Kristan Bromley, have timed their recent performances perfectly with good results in the World Cup at St Moritz, finishing the season 2nd and 6th respectively in the World rankings. Amy Williams finished 5th in the World rankings and has a big chance of a medal while Gillian Cooke and Nicola Minichiello as current world champions in the 2-women bobsled are sure to attract the attention of their competitors.
Predictions are fraught with danger, particularly with the likes of Canada’s Mellisa Holingsworth in fantastic form. Mind you, the Canadians have apparently never won a gold medal at a home Olympics, so my (educated?) guess is? – I think we’ll do at least as well as our best medal count of 3 in 1936.
The Sports Engineering Research Group is a UK Sport Innovation Partner.