The Olympic Games are a fertile testing ground for some of the most groundbreaking equipment in sports
eave it to the French to cause a sensation. At the 1960 games, in Squaw Valley, California, Frenchman Jean Vuarnet became the first athlete to medal on metal—skis, that is, rather than traditional wooden runners. Today’s top competitors use skis made from layers of pressed aluminum and fiberglass or Kevlar, titanium, carbon or boron fibers, which dampen vibrations and make the skis easier to maneuver.
(Left) Hannah Kearney, a freestyle moguls skiier on Team USA, hits the slopes; (right) French skier Jean Vuarnet, a gold medalist in the men’s downhill ski event, at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California
The Olympic Games have long been a showcase for and a driver of technological innovation in sports. Performance-focused sportswear reflects advancements in fabrics that are designed to insulate, wick moisture and be waterproof. And unlike at the early games, in most sports today, pads and helmets are now de rigueur—as is the liberal use of Lycra in uniforms because of the fabric’s aerodynamic properties. For the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, Team USA has invested significant time and money into technological improvements of equipment, such as the team’s bobsled, which was designed in partnership with BMW. The process of building and testing Olympic venues has also provided valuable data on slope grades, turn degrees and slope grooming that has been used to design snow-making systems for resort areas, even though Olympic host cities did not use artificial snow until the Lake Placid, New York, games in 1980.
From left to right, figure skaters Herma Planck-Szabo of Austria, Ethel Muckelt of Great Britain and Beatrix Loughran of the United States show off their medal-winning moves at the inaugural Olympic Winter Games at Chamonix, France, in 1924
The competitive advantage of technological advancements in certain equipment is hotly disputed and carefully regulated by each sport’s governing body to ensure fairness. But at least one piece of gear has remained largely the same since the inaugural Winter Games in Chamonix, France: the ice skate. Since the 1914 invention of a skate with a closed-toe boot and a blade crafted from a single piece of steel, nearly all competitors have met on equal footing, making the dramatic developments in the ambition and scope of skaters’ routines all the more impressive.