Ausgabe 7/2006

Winter Olympics Man and Machine

Athletes at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin are more dependent on their equipment than ever before. Whether they're downhill skiers, bobsledders or biathletes, hardly any aspiring medalists are competing without the input of scientists and engineers -- and some will fail for simply believing they're at a disadvantage.

By Maik Grossekathöfer, and

Austria's Hermann Maier passes a gate during the men's Olympic downhill race on February 12, 2006.

Austria's Hermann Maier passes a gate during the men's Olympic downhill race on February 12, 2006.

Downhill skier Marco Büchel is constantly plagued by the fear that someone might break into his hotel room. But in his nightmares it isn't money or credit cards that the intruder gets away with.

What really worries the 34-year-old from the tiny Alpine country Liechtenstein is that someone could make off with his ski boots, which Büchel always keeps locked in his hotel room closet -- be it at the World Cup race or at this year's Winter Olympics in Turin. They're bulky, more than two years old and give off a powerful odor, but as far as Büchel is concerned his ski boots are "without a monetary price."

He spent years searching for the right model. The boots Büchel ultimately found don't give way when the pro skier speeds through a curve at 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph). And yet they're soft enough to allow him to "feel" even the most hard-packed ski runs. In fact, says Büchel, his boots are one of the main reasons he's been so successful this season and has been considered one of the favorites for winning a medal at the Olympics.

"My career as a downhill skier would be in jeopardy" without his trusty footwear, says Büchel, who is so enamored of his boots that he's even considered keeping them in the hotel safe. Although some would say he's being paranoid, Büchel and almost every other athlete staying the Olympic village in the northern Italian city Turin are consumed by the same panic-stricken fear that something could happen to their precious equipment.

Unlike the summer games where sprinters, gymnasts and swimmers depend almost entirely on the strength of their muscles and lungs, most winter athletes are completely at the mercy of their respective equipment. Skiers, biathletes and bobsledders are all headed to the starting line outfitted with the latest in technology and materials perfectly suited to their individual needs -- if not, they don't stand a chance at the Olympics.

Many viewers might be largely unaware that a race can often depend on who has the fastest skis, the sharpest blades or the most aerodynamic outfit. But for the athletes, the often absurd behind-the-scenes competition for the right equipment represents an additional psychological challenge. According to Austrian skiing star Hermann Maier, anyone with even the vaguest of doubts about his equipment is likely to "collapse inside."

Complex sport, complex equipment

And the more complex an athlete's sport, the more varied the possibilities of failure become. All speed skaters have to do before a race is make sure that the blades on their skates are freshly sharpened. But things get a little more complicated for Nordic combined athletes, who have to deal with two different kinds of skis -- for jumping and cross-country -- before heading into a race.

Equipment concerns are especially difficult for biathletes, whose discipline involves alternating between cross-country skiing and shooting. Besides their skis, they need a gun that fits smoothly into their hand even when their pulses are racing, that never jams at icy temperatures, and that has a sight that's always perfectly adjusted. A single bad shot from an inaccurate rifle can immediately shatter a biathlete's chances of capturing a medal. Indeed, the gun is so crucial to a biathlete's success that it wouldn't be a stretch to say any medal's won by Germany's team at the Olympics owe thanks to their gunsmith Sandro Brislinger.

The 31-year-old Brislinger makes each rifle according to the individual's measurements and preferences. He polishes the barrels, precision-mills the weapons' mechanisms to shave away as little as a few grams of excess steel, spends three weeks carving and filing a block of wood to make the stock, and finally screws everything together. For German biathlete Michael Rösch, for example, who tends to shoot in rapid succession, Brislinger makes sure that his rifle can fire repeatedly as smoothly as possible. And when Martina Glagow, who took bronze in the in the 15 kilometer race this week and at 48 kilograms (about 106 lbs.) is one of the more petite competitors in Turin, asks him to build the lightest weapon possible, Brislinger keeps on tinkering until it weighs exactly 3.5 kilograms (about 7.7 lbs.) -- the minimum required weight.

Germany's Michael Greis lies at the shooting range while training for the 10km men's sprint at the Biathlon field during the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games on February 13 in Cesana San Sicario.

Germany's Michael Greis lies at the shooting range while training for the 10km men's sprint at the Biathlon field during the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games on February 13 in Cesana San Sicario.

The German biathletes are so grateful for his efforts that they sometimes pay him a visit in his gunsmith's shop at the military base where Brislinger, a professional soldier, is stationed -- just to ask him if there is anything they can do for him. On those occasions, he usually flips through a catalog and picks out some special tool he could use to make even better weapons for his athletes. Or he asks them for a donation to help cover the cost of a load of expensive walnut wood he's just bought from a Munich gunmaker's going-out-of-business sale -- wood, he says, that would make wonderful new stocks.

But making an optimal gun is less of a high-tech endeavor than a precision craft that requires both skill and experience. Athletes are so finicky when it comes to their rifles preferences that approaching the job from a logical standpoint doesn't always help a gunsmith. Sven Fischer, a 1994 and 1998 Olympic medalist, is a perfect example. For the past six years, Fischer has been shooting at competitions with an old barrel that was produced in the former East Germany, despite the fact that gunpowder began eating away at the steel long ago, and -- after more than 100,000 shots -- should be completely worn out by now. "It's a phenomenon," says an astonished Brislinger. "That barrel must be incredibly good-natured."

People like Brislinger won't be earning any medals in Turin. But without the preliminary work of a gunsmith or the efforts of those who prepare cross-country, Nordic or Alpine skiers' skis, the athletes might as well stay at home. Indeed, their work is so important that athletes sometimes place total faith in the abilities of their helpers.

Test pilot for athletes

Enrico Heisig, a slim, in-shape man in his mid-thirties, looks like an Olympic athlete at first glance. He did actually compete in ski jumping and cross-country until 1998. But then he jumped at an opportunity to become the German Nordic combined team's chief engineer -- essentially a test pilot for cross-country skiers.

At every competition, whether it's a regular race, the world championships or the Olympics, Heisig meticulously rubs his skis with three layers of wax that he's selected from more than 150 brands with names like "Jetstream Highspeed" and "Topspeed PF Wet." Then he grabs poles, goggles and shoes hanging on the wall of the wax hut, snaps on the skis he's prepared and makes the final choice -- usually together with the athletes.

Ronny Ackermann prepares for take-off in the Nordic combined event.

Ronny Ackermann prepares for take-off in the Nordic combined event.

If there isn't enough time between the ski jumping and the cross-country start, Germany's two-time world champion Ronny Ackermann simply grabs the skis Heisig hands to him. "I trust him completely," says Ackermann. Heisig is equally confident in his own abilities, saying that it's "extremely rare" for him to make a wrong decision.

But if Heisig does pick the wrong wax, Ackermann can give everything on the course and he'll still be beat by the competition. According to Heisig, the wax -- that mixture of paraffin and fluorine that's perfectly matched to any given combination of temperature and snow consistency -- "is about as important nowadays as the tires on a Formula One race car."

Technology is developing at a dizzying pace in just about every aspect of winter sports. Clap skates revolutionized speed skating in 1996. And in Alpine skiing today, performance depends critically on the combination of the ski boot, the binding and the binding position. Those who don't keep up with the equipment progress have already lost. That's why practically every ambitious athlete competing in Turin depends upon a team of scientists, engineers and craftsmen.

Working for German bobsled pilot André Lange is a job reserved for only the top echelon of engineers. Lange's four-man bobsled has become something akin to the Space Shuttle of winter sports. The speedy sled was developed by engineers at the Berlin Institute for the Research and Development of Sporting Equipment (FES). Planning for the 2006 model began right after the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics in an effort to shave off 0.2 seconds off the best time made by Lange's old bobsled. "That was a lot of wood," says Michael Nitsch, director of the bobsled project at FES, explaining the material-intensive trials.


© DER SPIEGEL 7/2006
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