Canada's high-tech effort to 'own the podium'

The host nation has spent millions of dollars over the past few years investing in technology it hopes will give it a better showing in the medals standings.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read

VANCOUVER, British Columbia--Determined to make a better medal showing on its home soil, Canada has spent millions of dollars over the past several years in an effort to "own the podium."

And a big part of that effort has been a "top secret" program that aims to give the country's athletes better uniforms and better equipment, as well as access to technology that can help them improve their performance.

In the past five years, Canada has invested $8 million exploring anything that might give their athletes a boost, including better materials for uniforms, putting athletes through wind tunnels, and using motion-capture software to measure body position.

In all, 55 projects were selected involving 20 institutions and 150 researchers from the National Research Council, universities, and private companies.

"It's pretty exciting," said Todd Allinger, the Ph.D. in biomechanical engineering who manages the "top secret" program. "We know we've made a bunch of gains."

Canada's tech effort to win gold (images)

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Begun in 2004, the Own the Podium program set the lofty goal of leading the overall medal count, an ambitious goal, considering Canada failed to win a single gold medal at the two previous Olympics it hosted, the 1988 Calgary Winter Games and 1976 Montreal Summer Games. Although things improved in more recent games, even athletes in the 2002 and 2006 games said they were out-gunned from a technology perspective.

"Some of athletes were saying, 'we can't beat the Americans because they have better suits,' or 'we cant beat the Austrians because they have better skis,'" Allinger said.

He co-authored a report that stated that Canada could capture the top medal spot, but only if it made significant investments in training and technology. The country stepped up, pouring millions of dollars to fund research and training efforts across the country.

Among the projects are several conducted at nearby University of British Columbia. There, professor Savvas Hatzikiriakos has led a team looking into ways of reducing both ice and snow friction.

A new base for skis and snowboards that can reduce friction by 20 percent already appears to be showing results. Canada led the medal count at the world championships last year and has won several medals, including two golds in snowboarding, both by athletes using the new base.

One way you can tell a Canadian snowboard racer is just by looking at the underside of their board. While other countries ride boards proudly showing the company that made it, Canada's are plain black, showing that they are using the base that Hatzikiriakos helped develop.

And while Hatzikiriakos worked in the lab, fellow UBC professor Sheldon Green took to the local slopes, studying which compounds performed best in which conditions.

"We ended up building a database consisting of a whole bunch of snow and weather variables that is used by ski technicians to give them some guidance," Green said. In the past, technicians have relied on trial and error and their own experience to choose the right ski waxes and grinds. While not downplaying the importance of experienced and knowledgeable technicians, Green said "instead of just memory that can be fallible, this gives people a scientific database."

Meanwhile, in another project, researchers used GPS to measure the effectiveness of different lines that skiers could take when tackling a particular slope.

"Sometimes the fastest way down hill might be a direct line, but there might be a faster speed that takes more distance," Allinger said.

Technology is obviously only one component, with the top athletes being the most important thing, followed by the right conditioning and training.

"We cannot bump someone from 20th place to the podium, but we can improve [them] a little bit," Hatzikiriakos said.

Allinger concurred but also noted that there is often a minuscule difference between medaling and missing the podium. For example, Allinger noted that Kelly Vanderbeek was fourth in the Super-G skiing event in Turin, Italy, finishing just three hundredths of a second away from the bronze. "We want to ensure that doesn't happen because of equipment or technology."

So how is it going? Well, Canada has already won three gold medals at the Vancouver Games, though it still trails overall medal leaders Germany and the United States by a significant margin.

However, the head of the Own the Podium program has urged people not to judge the program until the games are over, noting that some of Canada's strongest medal contenders compete toward the end of the games.

"Ostensibly, it may appear we are behind in the medal count, but in day by day analysis we have bested our performance in Turin," Own the Podium CEO Roger Jackson said in a statement to CNET. "Coming into these games, we knew we must be patient as our best chances for medals fall in the last four days of the competition. While we congratulate the other countries for their fantastic performances thus far, we remaining focused on our game plan."

While many of the "top secret" projects have proved fruitful, not all were ready for this year's games. Hatzikiriakos points to an effort to make a microscopic pattern on speed skates that mimics the water-repelling lotus leaf. The problem, he said, wasn't that it didn't reduce friction. It just worked a little too well, meaning skaters didn't have the control they needed in the turns. Hatzikiriakos' team did succeed in helping skaters choose better metals to use in their skates.

There has been some criticism that Canada has gone a bit over the top in its effort to win more gold, particularly in the way it has limited access of international athletes to venues like the Whistler Sliding Center where the luge, bobsled, and skeleton take place. Allinger rejected that idea.

"I know that the athletes have had more access to this track than any other Olympic track before the games," Allinger said.