Olympic secrets revealed

Maclean’s exclusive: An inside look at our high-tech, mind-bending plans to dominate the podium at the 2010 Games
Ken Macqueen and Nicholas Köhler

Olympic secrets revealed

In early December, Bob Joncas, the high-performance manager for the Canadian Snowboard Federation, boarded a jet for Switzerland. In the cargo hold, rolled into a heavy bag, was the result of three years of hush-hush research, development and testing. Joncas was bound for a mountainside factory in Braunwald to deliver a secret weapon of sorts, one of dozens of clandestine products and tactics that Canadian athletes will deploy in February at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games.

Joncas presented the bag’s contents to Hansjürg Kessler, considered by many elite athletes as the world’s best custom snowboard maker. Kessler was at work on a special Olympic order for the Canadian national team—tailored-to-measure boards with at least two significant modifications from any he has ever made. One was a super low-friction base, to be applied to the bottom of the boards from a 30-m roll of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene that Joncas carried from Canada. The other is a composite plate for bindings that is so revolutionary Canada’s boarders have hidden it under duct tape and MACtac during their frequent appearances on World Cup podiums this winter.

The base, which alpine boarders won’t use until Games time, cuts friction by 15 to 20 per cent compared to commercially available products, its creators say. “Small differences can be huge,” says Christos Stamboulides, the University of British Columbia researcher who formulated the product. Less friction equals more speed, and perhaps a podium finish, says project supervisor Savvas Hatzikiriakos, a specialist in fluid mechanics and friction. “In the last Olympics, Canada won a lot of fourth places,” he says. “Nobody remembers the fourth-place athletes.”

That quest for those small differences is what drives the aptly named Top Secret project—a five-year, $8-million technological arms race unprecedented in Canadian sport history. Researchers across the country have been breaking down the science of winter sport, looking for any edge in training, human performance and equipment. “To date, we’ve completed 55 projects, using 17 different universities and institutions,” says Todd Allinger, the Vancouver-based biomechanist who manages the program. “I think it’s been very successful.” Now, a month from the Olympic opening ceremonies, Maclean’s takes an exclusive inside look.

Top Secret is part of an ambitious shift in Canadian sporting priorities, a change born of the sad fact that Canada has never won an Olympic gold medal on its home soil; not in Montreal in 1976, nor in Calgary in 1988. To prevent a repeat of that humiliation, Own the Podium (OTP) was created—a $110-million program jointly funded by government and corporations designed to give Canada’s elite winter athletes the kind of financial, medical and technical support other leading sport nations take for granted.

With that backing comes great expectations. The Canadian Olympic Committee’s stated goal is to win more medals in Vancouver than any other country, and to finish among the top three in the gold medal count at the Paralympic Winter Games in March. “We dared to say we wanted to be No. 1,” says OTP head Roger Jackson. “Some of the Canadian reaction is—‘It’s so un-Canadian, why don’t we just host everybody and have a good time?’ ” For Jackson, a tireless competitor whose own Olympic efforts captured rowing gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, that’s simply not good enough. “If we’re going to do this, why should we say, ‘Yes, we’re No. 3’? Why don’t we try to do something really special? It’s so much more fun.”

The pointy end of the campaign for world domination is Top Secret. If the program’s covert, gadget-heavy mandate recalls the Cold War, that’s not an inappropriate image. Ask Allinger if other nations have similar programs and the first thing that comes to mind is Berlin’s Institute for Research and Development of Sports Equipment, known by its German acronym FES. Founded in 1962, FES became a key element in creating the formidable (if not always steroid-free) sports machine that was East Germany. So successful was it, that it was included in the treaty that sealed German reunification in 1990. Today, it continues to do for modern Germany what it did in its cloak and dagger days: scare the bejesus out of its sporting rivals.

Maintaining security this close to the Games is increasingly difficult. “So far, we haven’t had any breaches that we know about,” Allinger says. “At the beginning, all coaches and researchers had to sign a confidentiality agreement.” Athletes were also sworn to secrecy. If you have a boyfriend or girlfriend from another country, they were warned, “don’t talk in your sleep.”

The rationale for releasing the information now is part practical, part psychological. Athletes are currently out on the World Cup circuit. “If people can see it and it’s out in the open, what can you do?” asks Allinger. Top Secret also stretched its budget by partnering with universities, and academics must publish or perish. A requirement to keep findings out of journals or the patent office—standard practice for the secretive FES—would have doubled the cost of the research. Now that it’s too late for rivals to pinch the technology, it can’t hurt to throw a scare into the competition. “We want other countries to know we’re doing top-secret research,” says Allinger. That said, he admits that several projects remain under wraps. Jackson agrees: “There will be a number of things people have never seen before at the Games.”

If there’s a smirk behind the smiles of Canada’s alpine snowboarders during their frequent appearances on World Cup podiums this winter, it has much to do with their curiously decorated Kessler boards. Under all that fake wood-grain MACtac is a racing plate elevated above the board, and crafted from laminated carbon composite instead of the usual aluminum. “What it looks like is a skateboard sitting on top of a snowboard,” says co-designer Gerry Kavanaugh, president of Apex Composites Inc., a Canadian outfit that normally works in the aerospace and defence sector.

The plate is the 14th iteration of a concept by veteran rider Jasey-Jay Anderson. During a camp in Whistler last year, the design was tweaked daily. Kavanaugh would take athlete feedback to a condo with head coach Mark Fawcett to craft new prototypes in a makeshift workshop on the balcony. “We were baking the stuff on the barbecue,” says Kavanaugh. In the past, boarders’ feet were mounted directly to the board, bouncing and tilting with every turn and bump. “Now, largely the board flexes underneath their feet,” says Kavanaugh, “and their feet stay put.”

Those feet are often on the podium, but with so much team depth it’s hard to know what impact the plates have. “The system is definitely working, technically or mentally or both,” says Joncas, the high-performance manager. Rider Matt Morison gave a discreet nod to his camouflaged equipment after a World Cup win in Telluride, Colo. “My equipment is getting better and better all the time,” he said. “I knew everything under my feet was super fast.”

Next up are the new super-fast bases, already on some snowboard cross equipment. The Olympic courses are on West Vancouver’s Cypress Mountain, known for its volatile coastal weather. “Cypress,” says Joncas, “could be -15° C, it could be +15° C.” Each athlete has boards for both cold and warm conditions. If the snow is wet and sticky, warm-weather boards with the UBC’s hydrophobic (water-repellant) base should cut the friction.

It was a bit unsettling at first, admits freestyle aerialist Kyle Nissen, to be wired with electrodes and see your various brainwaves, alpha, beta, theta, dancing on a computer screen; and watching it track every shift in respiration, heart rate, body temperature, sweat levels and muscle tension. “I was a little bit skeptical,” says the 10-year member of the national team. It helped that he had a long, trusting relationship with the woman at the controls, University of Ottawa sports psychologist Penny Werthner.

It’s one thing to tell your sports shrink you are mentally focused and physically loose, quite another to prove it through Werthner’s bio (physical) and neuro (mental) feedback machines. “Sport psychology is about what we’re thinking and what we’re feeling and you can’t really see those things,” Werthner says. “I find it a really intriguing and useful tool to make things a bit more concrete.”

The process of “self discovery,” as she puts it, began three years ago, and includes both the aerial ski team and top mogulists Alex Bilodeau and Jennifer Heil. Discovery is only the first step: the aim is to control one’s physical and mental response, to gear up in the moments before a performance, and as importantly, to learn to mellow out afterwards. “The season can be a real grind, so it’s important to stay fresh out there,” says veteran boarder Warren Shouldice. “It obviously stresses you out to think, ‘I’ve got to go off this four-metre-tall jump at 70 km/h.’ So if I can not think about that, it’s a good thing,” he says. “Yes, I want to think about it, but that’s for the 30 seconds before my jump.”

He and Nissen have learned to take mini-mental holidays on the lift up to their next jump and to put a higher premium on recovery time. They once spent down time blazing away at video games like Call of Duty or Guitar Hero until they wired up the feedback machines and discovered that what they thought was mindless fun was leaving them highly stressed. “We’re competitive people,” says Nissen. Now, they spend maybe 15 minutes listening to audio of slow human breathing: “You could almost call it meditation.”

JAN HUDEC tests a helmet-mounted GPS that helps Canada’s alpine team find the best way to manoeuvre around gates and turns in downhill and slalom events

As a missile guidance system, the Honeywell HG1700 is governed under the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Those who work with the device must first undergo security clearance; Syrian, Iranian and Chinese nationals, among others, need not apply. Luckily for Gérard Lachapelle’s team at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, the HG1700 also fits in a downhill skier’s backpack.

Why equip a skier with a device that, as Honeywell’s promotional literature describes it, “has a performance range consistent with tactical missile and smart munition requirements”? Lachapelle needed to test that his new GPS unit was accurate enough to track a downhill skier’s progress to within five centimetres, even on steep slopes at 120 km/h.

It worked. The GPS STEALTH is small enough that it doesn’t hinder a skier’s mobility but hardy enough to survive frigid temperatures and high-speed spills. Yet it can deliver reams of data on everything from a skier’s speed to his turn radius. Tailor-made software later translates the numbers into a computer-graphic cartoon skier negotiating slalom gates, striving for the shortest route between A and B. Used only during training—including on the very runs to be used during the Olympics—the system can help guide coaches and skiers into finding the best ways of attacking gates and turns. “GPS enables us to dissect certain aspects [of a course] that we never had the ability to before,” says James Perks, technology guru for Alpine Canada.

The measurements provided by the GPS STEALTH are also helping zero in on a skier’s fastest equipment—even the best waxing technique for certain weather conditions. Alpine Canada and its Nordic cross-country counterparts use the GPS data, along with more traditional timing methods, as part of an equipment testing methodology developed at UBC. That work has contributed to a computerized database where the variables on any given day—temperature, snow condition, sun, etc.—can quickly determine what skis, waxes and base grinds will deliver optimal results.

Perks says the database takes some of the “voodooism” out of choosing the right materials for the right day; at the very least, it adds a scientific justification to the intuitive choices made by race technicians. “Especially in our sport, we’re down to hundredths of a second. We’re trying to reduce the equipment variables so that on any given day it comes down to the athletes,” he says. “You’d hate like hell to lose by a couple of hundredths and figure out later it’s the materials.”

World champion para-alpine skier Josh Dueck remembers well the first time he used it. “It felt like I was on a wild horse,” he says. “It just had so much potential, I knew it was going to take me a little while to harness all that energy.” Sit skis have long been ad hoc affairs, contraptions athletes had to tweak in their garages to perfect. They had obvious shortcomings: an Austrian sit ski was subtle and responsive enough for technical competition but became unwieldy at high speed; a U.S. model was swift but not nimble.

In search of a design that would give athletes “the equipment to win,” Denis Rancourt, a biomechanist at the Université de Sherbrooke, developed an articulated, adjustable sit ski that can fit all athletes for all events. “It’s basically the Swiss Army knife of sit skis,” says Dueck, “something that’s never been done.” By kicking the leg position up—“kind of like a recliner,” Dueck says—and adjusting the centre of mass, skiers gain the stability they need for speed in downhill. Knock the leg positions down and it suddenly provides the scalpel precision required for slalom and super-G events. A dual suspension system—one shock absorber for big bumps, another for more subtle, undulating terrain—borrowed from motocross and tweaked for winter conditions, helped round out the design.

The impacts of the new ski were immediate—three world championship titles last year between Dueck and fellow para-alpine skier Kimberly Joines. They sparked enormous interest among competitors. “They would swarm around our sit skis trying to get information,” says Dueck. “We didn’t want to be rude, but at the same time, we didn’t want to give away all those hard-earned secrets.”

CURLING LAB: Research into sweeping shows men raise the ice temperature higher than women; curler Lori Olson-Johns dons motion capture sensors. Multiple cameras track her every move.

Nolan Thiessen, 29, swears he can identify a curler’s home region by the way he or she throws a rock—little idiosyncrasies, the placement of a foot or a broom, that betray geography. Thiessen, originally from Swan Lake, Man., but who now lives in Edmonton, grew up lifting the heel of his sliding foot off the ice in a throw, gliding along on his toes in classic Manitoba fashion.

You won’t catch him doing that now (these days his gliding foot rests flush with the rink). Not after National Training Centre head coach Rob Krepps teamed up with University of Alberta’s Pierre Baudin to boil the art of throwing a curling stone down to its biomechanical essence. The work is some of the first scientific research into the sport of curling to take place in decades. “This is the biggest thing since moving from straw brooms to brushes 30 years ago,” Krepps says.

Krepps and Baudin have helped convert a single curling sheet at Edmonton’s Saville Sports Centre into a $100,000 permanent curling laboratory and research centre. Perched along the ice, front, rear and sides, sit 12 video and eight motion capture cameras, the latter used in conjunction with an athlete wearing reflective markers at each joint. The effect, once a performance is captured and loaded into a computer located just off the ice, is an articulated stick figure whose every movement can be dissected. The tool helps Krepps weed out inefficiencies and glitches (the team rebuilt Paralympian Sonja Gaudet’s throw from scratch), while multi-perspective instant replays give curlers quick feedback.

Other research helped answer the tantalizing question of what happens when curlers sweep the ice. For years it was understood that curling brooms, rigorously deployed on the rink before a gliding stone, briefly melted the ice to reduce friction, thereby smoothing the rock’s passage home. That was before Thomas Jenkyn, an orthopaedic biomechanist at the University of Western Ontario, trained his infrared camera on the rink. “What we found is—nobody’s melting anything,” says Jenkyn. Following the busy sweepers, Jenkyn’s camera captures the moment as a psychedelic swirl of colour, the ice heating to a warm red on the TV screen. Jenkyn has found that a curler’s sweep will momentarily raise the ice’s temperature one to two degrees (men heat things up more effectively than women), from around -5 to -3° C, reducing the surface friction enough to maintain the rock’s momentum and keep its journey straight—but not enough to convert the ice to water.

The finding has helped confirm a growing suspicion among curlers that they should frequently change their broom heads (in the old days a single head sufficed for the season) and avoid using wet brushes on the ice.

It was work that had to be kept under wraps, even if it did all happen at Calgary’s Olympic Oval, one of the busiest centres of international training in the world. The machine is still there, a mean, industrial-looking modified treadmill three metres long and 2½ m wide, big enough to accommodate an athlete on roller skis. The ramp can levitate into a 35-degree incline to simulate uphill climbs for Nordic skiers, or accelerate to a brisk 60 km/h to push speed skaters to their limits. Unforgiving, it forces athletes to keep up, whether they want to or not. “There’s no way you can slow down,” says Paul Dorotich, a performance analyst with Speed Skating Canada. “If you do, you’re off the treadmill.” A harness that can suspend the athletes from above rescues stragglers.

What’s the point? The oval already has an Olympic-standard track, cross-country skiers have the Rockies. Yet with mirrors, cameras, and projection screens set up around it, the treadmill is a laboratory of instant feedback and technical perfection. Here, the athletes don’t have to wait to view videos of their performances and try to recall directions given in the locker room. Coaches don’t have to catch glimpses of a blur zipping past at 55 km/h. “Lots of times, there’s a disconnect between what the athletes are doing and what they feel they’re doing,” says Dorotich. The treadmill, says speed skater Andrew Godbout, “lessens the gap between doing something and seeing what you’re doing.”

Godbout, rocketing across the ramp’s endless surface, can peer into a screen set up before him and watch his own body in profile, adjusting his position—lowering his head, bending his knees—at his coach’s direction. “It takes months to figure out what the feeling of going fast is—searching for the feeling of your best race,” Godbout explains.

Margins of victory at the Richmond speed skating oval are as thin as the skaters’ skin suits. Those suits, incidentally, are part of the inspiration for Allinger’s championing of the Top Secret program. Back in 2002, Allinger was living in Salt Lake City, attached to the U.S. Olympic speed skating team. He recalls sitting in the stands overhearing two discouraged top Canadian skaters. “We can’t beat those Americans,” one said. “Their suits are too fast.” Not good, thought Allinger. “Mentally, they had a barrier there.”

Not this year. Three years of fabric research, design and wind tunnel testing produced a suit that cuts air friction. Sports apparel maker Descente is producing the suits for exclusive Canadian use at Games time. “We know we’re going to have the fastest suit there based on what we’ve done,” says Allinger. Canada’s skaters have already had the benefit of one of the most exotic weapons in the Top Secret arsenal: the speed cable. Think of a human slingshot—or, as performance analyst Dorotich puts it, a water skier’s tow rope. Instead of a boat, there is a giant rotating spool.

Cornering at high speeds is one of the greatest challenges skaters face. Since their training doesn’t usually peak until Olympic Games time, they are often hitting corners then at speeds they’ve rarely reached before. A wobble costs precious fractions of a second; a fall is disastrous. Skaters start at one end of the straightaway and are yanked up to speeds as high as 65 km/h. Then they let go of the rope, get into their skating stride and hit the corner, allowing them to practise their technique time after time. The system has proven popular among Canada’s Olympic-level skaters, and lineups for the catapult are common, says speed skater Godbout. The cable solves a coaching challenge, says Dorotich. “It’s hard work to get up to that speed,” he says. “How do we train at high enough quality without over-training them physically?”

It’s naive to think Canada is doing anything different from the kind of R & D work other countries have conducted for decades. “In a number of these areas, we’re catching up,” says Jackson. “In two or three or four areas, we’re probably moving ahead.” FES has just rolled out a new bobsled for the German team with an advanced aerodynamic design. The Norwegians, based on decades of research, are experts in Nordic skiing technology.

But technology has a dark side. An argument can be made that the rash of injuries devastating the Canadian alpine team and several of its international rivals this season is due to ski technology that tests the limits of racecourse design and human physiology. “The skis are getting better,” Canada’s Manuel Osborne-Paradis said after winning his second World Cup medal of the season. “Knees and ligaments aren’t.” He blamed a combination of factors, including the extreme cold, for the injuries that knocked five Canadian racers out of Olympic contention by mid-December. “Our equipment is evolving faster than our human bodies.”

It’s a process of evolution that’s only picking up speed in international sports. Canada risks getting left behind if—as happened after Montreal and Calgary—we stop backing our athletes with the financial and administrative resources brought to bear in the last four years. “Where do we go after the Games—does all of this special funding that was created disappear?” asks Jackson. “If it does, we lose everything: we lose 150 positions of coaches and sports science people, the whole Top Secret program.” That could have a disastrous impact in two years. “We need to transfer a bunch of the knowledge to the summer sports, too,” says Allinger, who fears the will to finance elite sports programs may fade after the Olympics. “That’s a concern,” he says. “But I think we’ll end up being No. 1, and who’s going to want to turn the tap off then?”