Olympics-Speedskaters turn techno in search for 'marginal gains'

SOCHI, Russia Fri Feb 7, 2014 7:48am EST

SOCHI, Russia Feb 7 (Reuters) - Aerospace technicians, kinetic engineers, even eye surgeons - speedskaters are tapping every imaginable resource to give them that extra, potentially decisive, edge at the Winter Olympics.

Cloaked in the deepest secrecy, the super powers of the sport have invested heavily in an arms race since the 2010 Vancouver Games, emulating the successful "marginal gains" philosophy of British track cycling as they seek to uncover new ways to shave the thousandths of seconds that can separate gold and silver medals.

So clandestine are the efforts that even the skaters themselves have are not let in on the technological sorcery and are instead left in hopeful and superstitious awe of their new-fangled skin suits and blades.

"I haven't skated with it yet because I am saving it, I don't want to wash it. I'm being really careful, what if I wash it and it looses all it's magic," said Canadian short track racer Marianne St-Gelais, a medal favourite in the 500m sprint.

"You can see and feel that it is different, but honestly I don't know what it's made of," she said. "If it's going to help me avoid being passed, I'll take it."

No expense was sparred in the United States and Canada to improve their speedskaters' timings.

Only after Maple Leaf-clad skaters took to the Adler Arena for training this week, did the Canadians reveal lightweight mechanical systems to attach blades to boots which, coupled with the suits, have left them purring with optimism.

"Research shows that when you power off, 60 percent of your energy is lost through friction against the air so we now have very high performance materials in our skin suits," Canadian long track coach Mathieu Giroux said this week.

"This is similar to swimming. In the 500m event, the difference can be measured in milliseconds."

Swimming' s brief dalliance with all-polyurethane suits led to slew world records before the world governing body ditched them in 2010 amid a raft of complaints about unfair advantages. The International Skating Union has no such plans.

They ran the rule over the multi-million dollar 'Mach 39' suit that the Americans will wear before giving it the seal of approval to be used in Sochi by the most successful nation in the sport, where athletes race at speeds of over 30 miles (48 kilometres) per hour.

Touted as the fastest ever skating suit by designers Under Armour, and defence and aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin, it features a patchwork of high-tech stretchy, breathable and cut-proof fabrics, tested for drag in wind-tunnels.

"At one point Under Armour were there every day we were training making adjustments," Joey Mantia, who will compete in the men's 500, 1,000 and 1,500m, told Reuters.

Not everyone is impressed with it all though.

Dutch skater Irene Wust believes the giant leaps in times are a thing of the past and that improvements now will continue to be minor.

"Since Turin in 2006 the suits haven't changed that much," the defending 1500m champion said.

"Between Nagano (1998) and Salt Lake City (2002) the suits changed a lot, but the changes they make these days are marginal."

20/20 VISION

The Americans, though, eyed another technique. Five members of the team had free laser surgery to remove the need for contacts lenses or glasses.

"I've had to keep my eyes closed while skating in the fear of them (contacts) coming out," American Brittany Bowe told Reuters.

"If my contacts did come out I wouldn't be able to see the blocks and travelling at 30 plus miles per hour that is not something you want to be worrying about."

Although Mantia admitted to doubts about whether the skin suits or eye surgery would really give him an edge, the 28-year-old was already looking ahead to the next big technical leap.

"Bionic legs: I'm going to get the procedure done and I will never get tired again," he joked. "You never know who the next mad scientist is and what they are going to bring up." (Editing by Mitch Phillips)

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