Exploring the Science Behind the Sochi Winter Olympic Games

While watching this year’s Winter Olympics, have you noticed how large the halfpipe is, how steep the ski jump is, or how perfect the ice is in the speed skating rink? Or have you marveled at the way Olympic skiers and snowboarders pull off such incredible tricks in the air?

If not, you’re not alone. While many don’t think about it, a lot of science and engineering goes into creating the perfect winter sport venues, and here is how you can turn these Olympic Games into a learning opportunity.

Creating Olympics-worthy venues and courses is no easy task

At an estimated cost of $51 billion, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics seem to have far surpassed the cost of all previous Olympic games (China spent roughly $40 billion for the 2008 Summer games in Beijing).

While this figure includes hotels, roads, and other infrastructure in the Sochi area, significant investments have been made into the world-class Olympic venues that athletes are competing in, and on, today.

With all the money spent and years of preparation, Russia has attempted to produce venues that let this year’s Olympic athletes skate faster, jump higher, and turn harder than athletes in any previous Winter Olympic Games.

To do this requires using the latest engineering and technological advances, which most people don’t think about as they watch the games.

Consider the weeks and months required to simply plan a venue ahead of construction. Some of the most talented engineers in the world have worked together on this and previous Olympic Games to produce the most ideal competition surfaces, whether snow or ice, so we can watch the greatest athletes in the world do what they do best.

Fun fact! Team USA curler Brian Anderson is an engineer, but did not work on the Olympic venues (he works for Xerox).

Also, think about this: ice isn’t “just” ice when it comes to Olympic sports. In fact, in the video below, you’ll learn how something as simple as ice thickness affects temperature, and how the temperature affects performance in different events. Impurities such as silt in ice also affect how skates cut and glide, so the water is highly filtered before being frozen.

[embedvideo id=”_9EueLI8MJI?rel=0&vq=hd720″ website=”youtube”]

The thicker the ice is, the greater the distance between the freezing brine and the ice surface, so thicker ice means a warmer – and softer – surface.

What this all adds up to is the fact that the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are a great learning opportunity for students interested in STEM subjects, or on the path to being a scientist, engineer, or even athlete when they grow up.

In addition to the video above, NBC Learn and NBC Sports, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, have created a great website with many valuable resources for learning about the science, engineering, and technology behind this year’s Winter Olympic Games.

You can also learn more about these 2014 Winter Olympic Games at the links below:

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