Keiichiro Nagashima of Japan training at the Adler Arena ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics

Engineers join speedskating arms race

Engineers have been drafted in to give speedskaters the decisive edge at the Winter Olympics this year.

Aerospace technicians, kinetic engineers and even eye surgeons have been commissioned to work on a top-secret arms race since the 2010 Vancouver Games, with the sport’s super powers trying to emulate the successful "marginal gains" philosophy of British track cycling, which has seen them dominate the sport in recent Olympics.

So clandestine are the efforts to shave the thousandths of seconds that can separate gold and silver medals that even the skaters themselves have not had the technology explained to them and are instead left to blindly trust their new 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 its 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."

Americas multi-million dollar 'Mach 39' skin suit is 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.

And this week the Canadians revealed lightweight mechanical systems to attach blades to boots as well as state-of-the-art aerodynamic skin suits.

"Research shows that when you power off, 60 per cent 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 briefly experiment with all-polyurethane suits leading to slew world records before the world governing body ditched them in 2010 amid complaints about unfair advantages, but the International Skating Union has no such plans.

But, 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."

Five members of the American team have even 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."

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