Technology of the Vancouver Olympics

Published 03.02.2010 ‘Cover Feature’ Engineering & Technology Magazine

The faint sound of alpine bells must mean the Winter Olympic Games are set to begin this year nestling between the city of Vancouver and Whistler mountain in the Canadian West. The whisper is, Canada may just have a surprise up its sleeve with a top secret programme funding a small army of scientists and engineers aiming for the greenest ever Olympics.

As soon as it was awarded the Games, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) swung into action developing infrastructure and investing in sports. Bell Canada official sponsor and telecommunications provider lay 285km of fibre optic cable between the 135 venues, offering 15,000 simultaneous connections to the network.

‘An all-IP system allows us to converge data, voice, video and broadcast over one network to improve reliability, reduce costs, and easily build in redundancy,’ says Ward Chapin, chief information officer of VANOC. ‘It’s so much simpler because there is less cabling, fewer switches, and no need for a PBX for voice’. Bell has also built and is hosting the portal, on a custom made cloud-computing infrastructure comprised of 30,000 servers worldwide.

The Olympic Oval

The Richmond Olympic Oval is a good example of the effort towards sustainable engineering and design at these Games. Already commendable for being built on time and within budget, the Oval will host the speed skating events and be repurposed for a public sporting and leisure centre after February. Clever use of building materials and the emphasis on reducing and recycling power consumption have so far resulted in a silver LEED certification the top award for Sports or Leisure Structures by the Institution of Structural Engineers and a high commendation by the World Architecture Festival Awards.

The stadium is said to fit four jumbo jets parked wing-to-wing, and is able to accommodate 8,000 spectators. The 24,000m2roof sheeting is made from Douglas fir plywood. The V-shaped trusses are pine lumber from the interior forests of British Columbia. This particular wood has been salvaged from forests ravaged by an epidemic of the mountain pine beetle. It carries a blue-stain fungus that assists in killing the tree. Staining does not affect structural characteristics or longevity of the lumber, but it does help promote the use of pine-beetled-wood as a valid replacement to steel and concrete in construction.

Lumber is the least energy-intensive and polluting form of building material and has a expansion and contraction coefficient one-third that of steel. Salvaged wood will continue to store its carbon dioxide for the life of the building instead of releasing greenhouses gases when left to decay in the forest. Rainwater is collected using the roof’s catchment areas and utilised for toilet flushing and other facility needs. Excess run-off is streamed to an outside pond via 7m concrete cast runnels, irrigating the outdoor trees and reducing the overall water consumption needs. The storm water collection system incorporates a public art project folklore engravings created by a local Musqueam artist throughout the runnels.


A modern indoor sports arena places a significant load on the refrigeration system. Infiltration of outside air, humidity, a building’s thermal insulation, resurfacing operations, heat radiated from skaters and arena lighting – all affect the optimal ice condition. Simultaneous cooling of the rink and heating of an arena create exponential power load requirements.

Additionally, ground under the insulated ice rink floor must be heated for year-round arenas, otherwise the ice could heave. A small ice rink in a Canadian environment requires around 60tr (tonnes of refrigeration) and creates approximately 1,050,000kJ per hour of rejected waste heat.

VANOC demanded new approaches and technology from its contractors to conserve and recycle energy.

‘The energy crisis of the 1970s demanded new solutions,’ explains Ted Martin, vice president Eastern (Canada) region for Cimco Refrigeration. ‘It became more common to use desuperheaters to capture the wasted higher temperature from the compressors to heat domestic and ice resurfacing water, but this was only still about 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the available energy that could be used.’

Cimco is providing all refrigeration systems at the Vancouver Games and will do so for the 2014 Games in Sochi (Russia). Their EcoChill technology was selected for its ability to recycle 100 per cent of the ice rink refrigeration by-product back into the arena.

Martin explains, ‘The total ice-rink refrigeration load plus compressor input energy can be reclaimed and recirculated as 35dC glycol or water to the building. The warm loop can be used directly for in-floor heating pipes in the floors and under the arena seating this works very well in a rink, because required room temperatures are often not as high as an office building. The warm fluid can also be used in heating coils in make-up air units to preheat outside air that is necessary for ventilation; and it can also be used as the heat source loop for building heat pumps.’

Greg Scott, director of major projects for the city of Richmond, adds: ‘All of the heating needs for the Richmond Olympic Oval are provided for with excess heat captured from the ice rink compressors. We are heating our entire facility, including the yoga and weight rooms, meeting centres, showers and the like. At the moment actually, we have too much heat energy for our needs’.

The Ice Battery

Cimco’s noticeable innovations in the world of refrigeration systems are the ‘Ice Battery’ thermal storage system and the computer control systems for regulating the various components of an ice rink arena.

The Ice Battery stores any excess waste heat reclaimed from the refrigeration system during arena operation. At periods of peak cold, ice rink compressors will draw on heat stored in the Battery. This innovation provides for a 30-40 per cent reduction in energy consumption as compared to older refrigeration systems.

Martin explains: ‘The computer control system integrates the refrigeration plant with the building heating needs instead of two standalone control systems. By having continuous communications, excess heat can be directed into the building whenever it is available. For example, if the building’s heating needs, are satisfied there is still waste heat available from the refrigeration plant, the amount of fresh ventilation air can be increased and heated with the waste heat to provide a healthier building interior environment at no added cost.’

The EcoChill product is installed at three of the Olympic venues, including the luge run. For the first time in Olympic history, the ski jump is refrigerated to ensure perfect snow conditions.

The Top-Secret Programme

Considering the cringing embarrassment felt by many Canadians as their country failed to secure a gold medal at the Montreal and Calgary Olympics, the federal government and VANOC pulled together to make certain this does not happen again in Vancouver.

‘Own the Podium’ is a ten-year $120m (US$112m) initiative to do just that put Canada on the first place of the medal tally in Vancouver. An $8m chunk of this sum was labelled ‘Top Secret’ its details closely guarded behind non-disclosure agreements and a complete media blanket. The reasons behind its eventual publication a month before the Games are most likely psychological rallying the athletes and the Canadian public while putting fear in the minds of opponents.

The idea was derived from Canadian athletes’ remarks at previous Olympic Games, as recounted by Dr Todd Allinger, the Vancouver based biomechanist who manages the Top Secret Program: ‘They always used to say to me, ‘we just can’t beat those Americans and Austrians, because they have the best suits and skis.’ It became an issue of confidence as well. So, this time we decided to provide Canadian athletes with the best equipment, training and technology.’

During the last four years, 150 researchers from 17 universities and institutions have been involved in completing 55 projects as part of the secret programme.

The working groups were dedicated to: macro and microscopic studies of snow and ice friction with a view to improve the Team’s equipment; examining and recommending body positioning for athletes participating in sports where the main factor of friction is air their velocity; creating new approaches for training, warming up and staying warm in-between events; identifying and providing bio-neuro feedback to help athletes recover quicker, and creating tools to provide technicians with accurate information on snow conditions.

Results of the groups’ work have already been witnessed as athletes have tried out new equipment at world championships and international gatherings. The Alpine snowboarders’ new weapon is a mysterious racing plate, elevated above their boards and crafted from laminated carbon composite instead of the usual aluminium. The composite and the binding method remain a closely guarded secret, hidden behind imitation wood-grain, but it has been described as looking like a skateboard sitting on top of a snowboard. The racing plate flexes under the rider’s feet, absorbing the many bumps and shocks of the terrain.

Snowboarders and cross-country skiers have a choice of equipment, depending on whether conditions are wet and humid or cold and dry. Researchers looked for materials with hydrophobic and hydrophilic properties to use for the bases. Tests, carried out with droplets of water on various materials, were filmed and the angle of contact measured. If the angle was less than 90 degrees, the material was hydrophilic, if more hydrophobic. Allen commented that they had achieved a 120 degree angle in one of the experiments.

On Ice and Snow

Ice skate blades were carved with a class 2 laser in another project. The surface area was simulated to resemble a lotus leaf. ‘Under the microscope it looks like a bunch of small bumps’ says Allen. ‘Interestingly, the metal was hydrophilic after the laser treatment and turned hydrophobic a few days later’.

Further help for the speed skaters comes in the form of a giant slingshot. Starting at one end of the rink, skaters hold on to a rope, much akin to water skiing. A winding wench picks up speed and draws the skaters forward, reaching a velocity of 65km/h. Letting go, they practice taking corners at high speed. The slingshot is incredibly useful to skaters who rarely reach their peak performance until the actual race. Without wasting effort and risking fatigue or possible injury, skaters practice high speed cornering one of the greatest challenges in the sport.

Alpine skiers have been presented with a new gadget, straight out of the defence department’s catalogue. The Honeywell HG1700 GPS system is governed under the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations. It has been modified to fit into a small backpack fitted on the skier’s belt. The GPS can deliver data on a skier’s speed and turn radius. Mapped against the ski track, software can work out the shortest route down to the finish line and provide accurate information on the snow conditions for the wax experts.

Paralympians have had assistance from the ‘Top Secret’ scientists too. A new design for the sit-ski allows adjustment of the leg positioning and the ability to change the centre of mass. Stability and control is afforded for speed in downhill races in a high grip, whilst precision required for slalom and super-G events is introduced when the leg grip is lowered. A’dual suspension system borrowed from motocross helps absorb large bumps on the track.

Downhill and speed skating events are not only about reducing the friction from snow or ice. Allen explains that 85 per cent of friction comes from air in these sports. A wind tunnel was built to test aerodynamics of new clothing materials as well as the athlete’s posture during competition. According to Allen, this was one of the most useful pieces of equipment, and numerous athletes have stepped into the wind tunnel to notice and improve the aerodynamics of their technique.

Studies of ice sweeping motions and brushes, giant treadmills for skiers and skaters that demonstrate their performance in real-time on surrounding video screen, studies on training and quick recovery and a handful of other ground-breaking projects are complete and shipped out to the athletes. Apart from a giant moral boost, it is up to them now to re-assert Canada’s place in the Winter Games. Something the ‘Top Secret’ programme may not have been able to foresee are the fancy gizmos and gadgets that other countries are bound to arrive with.

Info Box – EchoChill

The EcoChill product at the Richmond Olympic Oval covers the entire 400 metres length of the ice rink; it has 700tr capacity with heat reclaim plate exchangers and evaporation condensing; complete direct digital control and a potential geothermal loop to utilise heat rejection for an adjacent new residential block.

Info Box – Curling Brushes transformed

Motion capture video cameras line the length of the curling run in the specially equipped centre in Edmonton, Alberta. Digital reconstruction and analysis of a curler’s technique helps trainers and a kinesiologist make recommendations as to the athlete’s body position, foot placement and arm movement during a throw.

Infrared analysis of brushing confirms that ice does not actually melt behind the fierce sweepers which help the gliding rock along. Ice temperature is raised by around 2 C and surface friction is reduced to assist the momentum. New, technologically-informed brushing techniques are expected from Team Canada at the Games.

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