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[Image above] Credit: Kevin Dooley; Flickr CC BY 2.0

Next week, the 2018 Winter Olympics (February 9–25) will start kicking up some snow and ice in PyeongChang, Republic of Korea.

The Winter Olympics—the ultimate cold-weather event for worldly competition—consist of a combination of winter sporting events that cover familiar, unusual, and borderline crazy:

  • Biathalon (a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting)
  • Bobsleigh
  • Curling
  • Figure skating
  • Ice hockey
  • Luge
  • Nordic combined (cross-country skiing and ski jumping)
  • Speed skating
  • Skeleton
  • Alpine, cross country, and freestyle skiing
  • Snowboarding

In addition to the incredible feats of human fitness and skill on display at the Olympics, however, there’s a lot of research and development that happens behind the scenes to make the games the to-the-finish-line competition that they are. And there’s plenty of materials science to thank for making the games so captivating.

One obvious example is how CeramTec’s high-tech ceramics make ski jumping possible, regardless of weather. The company’s unique ceramic material, called ALOSLIDE ICE, enables a ceramic-based inrun track system that allows ski jumpers to practice their gravity-defying soars, twists, and turns with no regard to the level of the thermometer outside.

The track itself is dotted with strategically placed ceramic nubs that can be cooled, allowing track technicians to build up a 20 mm thick layer of ice for skiers to glide down. In warmer climates when it’s not feasible to build up a layer of ice, the material itself acts as a stand-in, allowing skiers to glide down the track right on top of the ceramic nubs.

ALOSLIDE ICE ceramic inrun ski track. Credit: CeramTec

CeramTec’s innovative ceramic track isn’t a new debut this year, however—the same system was used at the 2006 and 2014 winter games.

What is new for 2018 is what the athletes will be wearing—and there is plenty of interesting materials science and engineering that goes into Olympic fashions.

Under Armour, for example, has devoted a considerable amount of research and development into this year’s U.S. speed skating suit, designed to heighten the performance of already top-notch athletes. “We’re trying to get the body to be more aerodynamic than it is in its natural state,” Clay Dean, chief innovation officer at Under Armour, says in a Wired article.

Like several other Olympic events, speed is the key to these athlete’s performance. Speed skaters can reach speeds of 30 mph as they race around the track, so reducing air resistance on their bodies is a legitimate strategy to shave time off the clock. The materials hugging athletes’ bodies can actually have a significant effect on how quickly they can skate across the finish line.

For 2018, Under Armour has designed a speed skating suit composed of three different fabrics that are arranged to optimally reduce air resistance and drag. One of the fabrics is a slightly rough nylon spandex with an uneven surface, strategically placed in areas that have high wind resistance. The fabric reportedly works akin to the surface of a golf ball, where dimples on the surface disrupt air flow in an effort to reduce drag in the wake of the fast-moving object.

But while this may sound like a simple job with a sewing machine, there’s a fine line to make skaters as aerodymanic as possible. “You can’t add roughness willy nilly,” Chris Yu, director of integrated technologies at the company that wind tunnel-tested the suit, says in the Wired article. “If you add too much you’ll introduce more drag; add too little and you’re not re-energizing the air quite enough.”

And even clothes the Olympic athletes will wear when they’re not competing are technologically advanced. According to another Wired article, the U.S. team’s opening and closing ceremony uniforms are completed with outerwear equipped with a special heat conductive ink, which will help keep the athletes toasty in Korea’s chilly weather.

Designed by Ralph Lauren, the self-heating parka and jacket are printed with carbon and silver ink, fashioned into an American flag, on the inside. When a small onboard battery pack is flipped on—via smartphone control, of course—the ink heats up, warming up the wearer.

So as you watch the incredible competitions that will undoubtedly unfold at the Olympic games this year, take a minute to marvel at all the scientific research and development that went in to making it all possible—chances are, you’ll be even more amazed.

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