What does an F1 car and a Bobsleigh have in common?
Not every country chooses, or can afford, to fund their Winter Olympic team particularly well. For example: Czech athlete Ester Ledecká, the gold medallist in Pyeongchang of the women’s super-G (a downhill ski slalom event) had to compete on skis she borrowed from American Gold Medallist Mikaela Shiffrin. But even between those who are competing with their own equipment, it is still far from a level playing field – with recent advancements going far beyond the introduction of carbon-fibre ski poles.
You may have noticed that more and more athletes have been wearing full-body suits this year, especially in disciplines such as skeleton and speed skating. These suits are similar in design to the full body swimsuits worn back at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and work by ‘smoothing’ the athlete’s body, which helps reduce drag and consequently allows them to go faster. The advantage provided by the full body swimsuits was enough that they became a necessity to be competitive in the sport, with American swimmer Michael Phelps considering boycotting future competitions where they were allowed because they were so anticompetitive.
At over £400 per suit, for something that would only be usable for a few races at most, is too hard to swallow for many nations and so in the end the decision was made in 2010 to ban these swimsuits from the Olympics. Currently, the suits worn by Winter Olympians are allowed, although there are some members of the sport beginning to argue that suits worn by some countries, including team GB, are far too good to be permissible.
Another example is the bobsleigh, a sport originally invented by strapping together two skeleton sleds to make an ice-toboggan, which has benefitted immensely from increased funding in the last few years. Bobsleigh manufacturers have used techniques and equipment ranging from aerospace wind tunnels to the high-tech data logging systems found in F1 cars, which allow the teams to amass a huge wealth of data as the sled moves down the track, such as the vibrations felt by the sled and the velocity it is moving at. This information is then sent wirelessly back to the team on the side, allowing for instant feedback for the team.
Such technologies are not allowed to be used during the Olympic events themselves, but most of the benefits would be made by using them during training anyhow. These systems cost millions of pounds to develop and implement, and the high-tech facilities that are used to make it possible cost even more. Relatively few countries in the world are able to undertake such research, let alone be willing to put forward the funding for it.
Is there something that could be done about this? In theory, the International Olympic Committee could standardise the equipment used, although this could prevent some countries from competing at their full potential. It may also be anticompetitive in the manufacturer space, as equipment options become greatly restricted, which would have an effect beyond the Olympics themselves. After all, why bother spending the time and money buying and getting used to expensive equipment from Company X if one of the largest competitions in the world does not even allow it?
A limit on the amount of funding allowed to be used on development could be implemented, but this would be very difficult to impose. It would likely be in the form of a means-tested funding system for nations that cannot afford it, which would either prove to be a large strain on the International Olympic Committee’s already limited funding, or require richer nations to essentially crowdfund their competitors’ teams.
The answer to this problem is not one to be taken lightly and is something that has been getting more and more attention in the last few years. Maybe by the time the Winter Olympics head to Beijing in 2022 there will have been some improvements in this area, which hopefully can increase accessibility to winter sports as a whole.