The Winter Olympics tests athletes' skills to the limit – but in many events, their equipment is every bit as important as the training they undergo.
The right kit can mean the difference between a gold medal and returning home empty-handed; so UK Sport has teamed up with BAE Systems to call on the engineering expertise that it's honed manufacturing fighter jets. The skeleton sleds that carried Amy Williams and Lizzy Yarnold to gold medal success in 2010 and 2014 were both developed with BAE's help, as is the four-man bobsleigh that's competing in Sochi this year.
No, they haven't fitted jets to them; BAE let the bobsleigh team use its wind tunnel to perform aerodynamic tests. Because even when you're hurtling down an icy slope under the influence of gravity alone, you can make minute adjustments to eke out every last bit of acceleration, shaving hundredths of seconds off your time. "The things that the athletes can change," explains BAES technology partnership lead Kelvin Davies, "are the equipment they're taking with them – in other words, the sled, helmets and suits – and how they sit; their posture."
The design of the sled itself was refined at Southampton University, while BAE Systems helped the team pick out the right kit for the event. "The bobsleigh team were particularly looking at the helmets they were wearing to Sochi," says Davies. "They have to wear commercially available helmets, so the question there is which of the many – typically motorcycle – helmets that are available is best to wear for aerodynamic purposes."
BAE also helped the Bobsleigh team work on their posture and placement, blasting them with 80mph winds at the Low-Speed Wind Tunnel at Warton. "Each athlete wants to get as low in the sled as possible – but each athlete is a little bit different," explains Davies. "So you might change the order that you place the athletes in the sled, given their physiques. The bobsleigh guys are enormous – aerodynamically they're a disaster, though their muscles are fantastic."