Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images
Canada's Own the Podium program has used sport science to improve the speed of its bobsled team. (Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)
Going into the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi this week, Canada's Own the Podium program says the country is aiming to improve on its showing in Vancouver in 2010, when Canadian athletes won 26 medals, including 14 golds.
One of the factors in that huge medal haul was Innovations for Gold, which uses cutting-edge sport science to give our athletes a leg up on the competition.
But while Canada's medal hopes are greater than they were in Vancouver – as is Own the Podium spending overall – the Olympic program is doing so with a reduced investment in sport science, says Jon Kolb, director of sport science, medicine and innovation for Own the Podium.
"We were in a much better position going into Vancouver," Kolb says, referring to the amount of funding available for sport science. "But we're being extremely efficient with the limited funds that we have."
Applied science has become significant in developing better athletes in most sports. It can include everything from pinpointing the most efficient training regimens to identifying more aerodynamic gear and improving athletes' sleep patterns.
Given the wide range of events at the Olympics, and the many years of training involved for the participants, sport science has become a key part of the arsenal for many competing countries.
"There are a number of sports that are won by a hundredth of a second," says Richard Powers, a senior lecturer at the Rotman school of management at the University of Toronto and an expert in sports marketing.
"How do you shave a hundredth of a second off a bobsledders' run?" he asks, Sports science, he says. It’s what puts athletes into the top tier.
Less corporate money
Innovations for Gold falls under the umbrella of Own the Podium, an Olympic and Paralympic program for excellence that relies on a mixture of funding from the federal and provincial governments and the private sector.
Previously known as the Top Secret program, Innovations for Gold seeks out the most promising scientific research to improve athletic performance.
It then provides technical expertise and funding recommendations to national sports organizations — such as Alpine Canada or the Canadian Luge Association — whose athletes are identified as having "podium potential."
But Innovations for Gold has had to do more with less since Vancouver. The program received about $2.2 million a year in funding going into the 2010 Winter Games, thanks in large part to corporate sponsors such as Bell.
But after Vancouver, much of the corporate funding dried up, says Kolb.
"There's very little funding out there for applied sports research. Even though there's interest, it takes a lot of money," says Kolb.
In December, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced that it will contribute $37 million to high-performance sport and the Own the Podium program over the next four years – a 48 per cent increase over what it amount in the previous four years.
But Innovations for Gold now has only about $1 million a year, which supports both summer and winter sports — about 45 targeted sports in all.
The drop in funding has been frustrating, says Kolb, and it has forced the program to take fewer risks with the kind of research it pursues. Even so, it has made significant contributions to a number of sports.
Innovations for Gold looks at three areas of scientific research: human performance, sports engineering and sports medicine.
The human performance component includes everything from novel training programs to measuring an athlete's state of preparation.
Sports engineering looks at gear that will reduce drag and friction – from faster skate blades to more aerodynamic bodysuits – as well as performance analysis tools. Sports medicine looks at injury prevention and recovery techniques.
"When you look at what a gold medal Olympic or Paralympic champion might look like, performance is just one element," says Anne Merklinger, CEO of Own the Podium. "We really break that down into every possible element to assess."
Kolb says that as a result of non-disclosure agreements signed by athletes, coaches and scientists, he can't go into great detail about innovations in specific sports.
But one of the things the program has helped develop is the multi-measurement system (MMS), which is a sophisticated piece of hardware that gives an athlete a very precise technical assessment of a given performance.
The MMS was developed in the lead-up to the 2012 Summer Games in London to help kayakers and rowers. The device combines a GPS and accelerometer and is gyroscopic, which means it can measure changes in pitch, yaw (side to side movement) and rotation of a specific vessel.
Based on the analysis, it can show rowers how to use their paddles or oars more efficiently to gain speed.
Kolb says it was a "real difference-maker" for sprint kayaker Mark de Jonge, who won a bronze medal in London, and the technology is now being applied to some of the sliding sports in the Winter Games.
Cross country skiers have "used this very successfully to determine performance on a course, and how they can make minute adjustments over the distance of a course in order to shave off a few seconds here and there," says Kolb.
Another area where Canada has done significant work, Kolb says, is in sleep research.
Canadian researchers have created a sleep questionnaire that helps identify athletes who may be having a challenge getting enough quality shut-eye and don't even know it, says Kolb.
"It's so basic, but sleep is probably the most important recovery tool that an athlete can use on a daily basis," he says.
The Rotman school's Powers, who is also a Canadian Olympic Committee representative for Rugby Canada, applauds Own the Podium's emphasis on scientific innovation.
"It's wonderful. It's not drugs – it's science, it's legal, just keeping ahead of the competition," he says.
Although Innovations for Gold has made significant contributions to Canadian medal winnings in recent Olympics, Kolb points out that other countries put significantly more money towards it.
"We have about one million a year; the Brits have about 60 million pounds a year. The Germans have a very extensive research and innovation facility that employs dozens of engineers and researchers full-time," says Kolb.
"I'm sure that most of the countries we're in tight competition with are doing similar things," he says. "If you're not in this area of research, you're not in the game."