Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Joyous Danger: Winter Olympics--Speed and Flying

The Winter Olympics offer more danger than the summer Olympics—not from terrorists, but from friction coefficients. This danger couples with the joy from speed and height that organically grows from the lowered kinetic friction enabled by ice, snow and inclines. All the unique danger and joy derives from the drag coefficients enabled by playing on ice and snow.

The danger to athletes does not come from explosive mass+force collisions as in American football; nor does it arise from torque that plagues knee or ACL destruction in soccer or basketball.

Cold and heights lie behind it all. Cold permits ice and snow while mountains permit incline and speed. Combine these with launches and jumps and the Winter Olympics provide spectacles of race an speed, and beauty and air borne distance and play. All the sports depend upon the low drag coefficients permitted by ice and air. Nothing close exists in the earth bound sports of the summer Olympics.

Let’s start with flying.

People fly in the winter Olympics.

How cool is that? People fly, sometimes it is only for .5 seconds in ice skating to 6-7 seconds in ski jump to a series of explosive aerobatic jumps and airborne gymnastics in the half pipe or slopestyle.

The combination of inclines plus the speed and power permitted by ice and snow enable men and women to launch themselves into the air. In ski jumps they push off and head down inclines reaching speeds of 60 miles per hour, then head into the air, battle the wind and cold and visibility and snow to find perfect aerodynamic positioning and soar. Airborne skiers project a serene beauty that hides the continuous micro-management of their body and core to adapt to the wind, snow and other winter surprises.

Then they land. The landing involves endless adjustments to avoid crashing into snow, spiraling out of control or destroying ankles and knees.

Skiers fly soar through the air getting as aerodynamic as possible to maximize distance. Every scintilla of friction is fought from weight to the ultra-sleek and space age materials of their uniforms. Everything is designed to maximize force and lift and flight.  Skiers concentrated upon achieving a perfect balance of power push, launch and aerodynamic position as well as weight shift to maximize the distance they could achieve in 2-4 seconds. It was magnificent and inspiring and sometimes felt a bit boring, although spectators did not see the endless accommodations to wind and sight and snow required to maintain that form in the air.

Snow boarders changed all this. Born on snow play grounds, they pushed and played and discovered how being freed from the ground coupled with the launch coefficients of snow released them to play in the air—three  dimensional play. Only for seconds, even microseconds, but they experimented with moving their bodies, flipping their bodies and boards, twisting turning. Much like dunks on a playground they challenged each other and tested the limits of their bodies in the air on slopes unfettered by rules and norms and forms. Friction and drag coefficients in the air are different and permit wide and wild variations as well as pushing board and ski developers to maximize launch speeds, aerodynamic and landing stability.

The boards maximize time in the air both with the advantages of momentum in the launch but also the distance travelled horizontally so the “hang time” far surpasses anything earth bound and earth launched athletes can achieve. The half pipe maximizes these advantages and permits multiple points of launch and landing to build momentum but also the new or innovate spins, flips and twirls. The sport feels like a cross between ballet and gymnastics driven by thrust and imagination.

Skiing now emulates snow boarding with free skiing and both sports permit the energy and lift of boards to serve as platforms for experiments in motion in space. All push boundaries and create much higher dangers for those who fall or land from a distance where a boarder is doing three full body rotations in the air. Crashes carry far more force and vulnerability given the three-dimensional poses struck as well as the sheer impact falling from height.

In addition the ice and incline on mountains permits a natural based, albeit groomed, challenge not available in non-winter sports. The speed permitted by snow and ice sking especially when coupled with thoughtful ski design and immense training regimes permits Alpine skiers to reach speeds of 70 to 90 miles per hour on the slaloms far surpassing anything possible with earth bound friction coefficients.

The courses are laid out with tight or wide curves and gates and moguls depending upon the slope, but they require immense discipline and speed. It is not unusual for one third of the field to not finish the race. The crashes and spills can lead to terrifying spirals out of control with horrible injuries for participants. It sometimes feels like a NASCAR run waiting for a crash.

Being in the air lowers friction and generates greater speed and height from which to move one’s body. It also creates a three-dimensional world in which to act. Unlike the very time limited world of gymnastics, the snow boarders perfected art of launching into the air and then spinning, touching, twisting and flipping as they moved forward. They deployed momentum and energy and low friction coefficients. In the air vertical and horizontal distance combine to maximize hang time. The combination of moving forward and kinetic energy but also movement, board construction and use of one’s body and ski or board for lift offers unique challenges and opportunities.

Even land-bound actions get huge lifts from the reduced drag of ice. A skater can experience up to 3 to 4 G force on his or her body during a spin. Angular momentum generated by ice speed permit ice skaters to press dangerous and beautify boundaries of shape and speed. Ice dancers possess the same capacity to integrate angular momentum with beauty and form combined with the speed and momentum of tosses and leaps.

The last reason I enjoy the winter Olympics is that they give nature a much strong say in the challenge. The quality of snow on trails and jumps differs from day to day and hour to hour given sun and temperature and wind. The wind at higher altitudes demands far greater thought and adaptation when a person is soaring at 60 miles per hour or moving in fog and snow at 90 miles per hour. Snow bedevils and blinds and dare athletes under all the conditions. Wind, snow, snow conditions and nature extract a cost and surprise from folks. 

As in the beginning nature has her say in winter Olympics like no where else. Yet the athletes defy and work with nature for speed, and danger and flight as in no other competitions.