As athletes trained for Salt Lake City, physiologists, chemists, physicists, and engineers were in their own race: to make faster, more powerful, lighter gear. The 2002 Winter Games will feature new equipment in almost every sport-from supershort slalom skis to faster snowboards coated with indium. But the most spectacular hardware will likely be the simplest: a wee sled known as the skeleton, on which athletes travel headfirst up to 90 mph. Skeleton is a featured event for the first time since 1948.
Among those who don't know the sport, the shooting-and-skiing biathlon often gets dismissed as a marginal event. But it combines heart-pounding aerobics with sudden-stop marksmanship; winners display remarkable control of the gun. That's why a device that spectators won't see-the Video Overlay Trigger System-may be a critical factor this year. The American team has been training with the equipment, which was created by Tim Conrad of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Coaching and Sport Science Division, and performance has improved a reported 50 percent on average. As the shooter takes aim, an infrared laser mounted beneath the rifle barrel pinpoints where the bullet will strike, sending a signal that is relayed back to a computer. The system correlates that data with data transmitted by a strain-gauged trigger blade that measures the applied pressure of each shot. The smoother the trigger pull, the steadier the shot. Results can be overlaid with video for analysis and training.
After dominating the last three world championships, Fischer's revolutionary SkateCut cross-country ski will make its Olympic debut this year. SkateCut skis, which are stiffer but lighter and slightly shorter than traditional cross-country skis, feature hourglass-shaped side cuts carved out of the front and rear glide zones. Skiers look as if they are skating: During the push-off, the side cuts make the ski to flex easily and evenly, enabling full-edge contact with the snow; during the glide, the side cuts and wide tail center the ski underfoot, keeping the skis flatter and providing more speed for the energy expended. Traditional cross-country skis concentrate edge pressure on the front and back. SkateCuts apply pressure along the entire ski length, which results in a better glide and higher speeds.