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.
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.
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.
Read Part Two
Pricier than a Porsche
The engineers used computer programs to fine-tune the new sled's braking and steering characteristics and then spent two years welding and bolting the prototype together. Afterwards came time trials, tests and improvements. The plans for the undercarriage of Lange's bobsled alone filled two ring binders. The sled is 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) long and weighs 210 kg (464 lbs.). The push handles are incorporated into the exterior casing and all edges and gaps have disappeared. The sled cost about €100,000 to make, or about as much as a Porsche Cayenne Turbo.
Five of the six German bobsleds racing in Turin were designed at the FES laboratory. For the first time, engineers at the lab simulated flow patterns using software normally used by Formula One design teams. The program, which calculates resistance down to the very last screw, essentially eliminates the need to measure air resistance in a wind tunnel. FES Director Harald Schaale calls it "a quantum leap."
Bobsleds used to be clad in sheet metal, and later in fiberglass. But now the sleds, sometimes referred to as cigars, are made of a mixture consisting of carbon fibers, ceramic and resin. Today's four-man bobs fly through the ice channel at speeds of up to 140 kilometers an hour (87 mph) -- and yet there's still room for improvement.
"A four-man bob design is so complex that there's still plenty that can be modified," says FES engineer Christof Kreuziger. The Berlin team, which is also responsible for the sleds used by Germany's luge and skeleton teams, will begin working on the model for the next winter games in Vancouver as soon as the Turin Olympics are over.
It's quite possible that the 2010 bob will be even another 0.2 seconds faster. But what the FES engineers cannot influence, of course, is the human factor. That's because only those athletes who essentially merge their bodies with their sled are truly capable of getting optimal performance out of it.
Some compare an athlete's sensitivity to their equipment to that of a violinist with perfect pitch. André Lange can sense whether one of the sled's runners is sliding faster than the other, and he can hear whether the bob is properly positioned on the ice. Even when racing down courses that have iced over to the point of being rock-hard, professional skiers can sense when the angle between a shoe and a ski changes by as little as half a degree. Biathletes have the stocks on their rifles filed down a millimeter at a time until they feel they have exactly the right grip. When Dutch speed skaters tested new racing uniforms during European championships in mid January, they complained that the new model felt like a "braking parachute." Tests proved the athletes right. It turned out that the suits had been sewed together incorrectly, causing unnecessary drag.
At the beginning of the season, American downhill skier Bode Miller was having problems with his goggles, which were constantly fogging over. An engineer tested the goggles in a wind tunnel and discovered that Miller's new helmet was causing the problem by creating unfavorable air currents. Now he's racing with an old helmet in Italy.
To avoid such problems, Thomas Bürgler, the US ski team maintenance man, starts his ski season in May. Bürgler, an Austrian who works as a ski engineer for a company called Atomic, periodically travels to the southern hemisphere, where he has his top athletes -- including Miller and Daron Rahlves -- test his latest creations in the Chilean Andes. As of last week, the Americans had checked 400 pairs of skis, all custom-made from carbon fiber laminate.
But the purpose of the exercise wasn't just to find the fastest skis, but also those with the ideal cut for specific downhill runs. The run in Austrian resort Kitzbühel has many tight curves, so a ski with a deeper sidecut is needed for tighter radiuses. The more moderate curves on the Olympic run in Sestriere, on the other hand, call for a medium sidecut.
In between testing skis, Bürgler and his charges search for the right footwear. With modern racing boots, it's possible to adjust both the forward cant and the angle between the shaft and the edge of the ski. The amount of pressure applied by a skier depends greatly on such adjustments. The growing importance of the technical side of the sport can mean that today's competitive downhill skiers spend more time testing materials than actually training.
"You feel as though you were in a giant labyrinth," says Liechtenstein's Marco Büchel. Indeed, it's a maze of potential errors and possible solutions that can be so daunting it causes many lose their nerve.
Austrian Olympic champion Hermann Maier spent two years testing equipment before finding the ideal settings for his skis and his boots. "I was on the verge of pitching everything," admits the Alpine hero from the western Austrian town of Flachau. But despite the frustrations involved, the feeling of having found the right equipment can also trigger a burst of performance in some athletes.
The power of negative thinking
Conversely, an athlete is doomed the minute he begins to question the quality of his equipment. Büchel has experienced both extremes. Four years ago Büchel, who won second place in the giant slalom at the 1999 world championship, dropped out of the group of top World Cup challengers because of ongoing equipment problems. "Suddenly I was an also-ran in the ski circus," he says.
A frustrated Büchel soon became obsessed with endless tests. "It was like fighting an invisible enemy," he says. He even considered ending his career early when he barely managed to make it into the top twenty at a World Cup race. "The worst thing is that you're completely at the mercy of the situation, that you're forced to stand and watch, helplessly, as everything goes down the tubes. You try everything, but nothing works. It's incredibly frustrating. At some point you start wondering whether it's even worth it anymore."
In the end, all he needed to get back to the top of his game was the right boot. Today Büchel, who is actually more of a specialist in technical disciplines, is also among the world's top-ranked downhill racers.
Equipment-heavy sports like biathlon can make athletes even more frantic. The gunsmith Brislinger sometimes had to protect them against changing gear blindly. Some try to pressure him into making tiny changes, changes the athletes are convinced will suddenly solve every problem.
The gunsmith can be stubborn, but when he has no other option, he resorts to one last trick: He says that he's retooled the gun to suit the athlete's specifications, while in truth he hasn't changed a thing. And the placebo effect often works wonders. "A lot of this is in their heads," says Brislinger.
Translated from German by Christopher Sultan