As athletes from around the globe converge on Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the 2018 Winter Olympics, they must steel themselves for winds that will whip in from the Manchurian Plain and Siberia and fan icy temperatures that are likely to drop to around 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Meteorologists say this year’s games will likely be the coldest Olympics since Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994—a year when the opening ceremony was so frigid organizers had to cancel plans to release doves because they worried the birds would suffer.
For the designers and engineers who spend years crafting Team USA’s uniforms to offer both style and extraordinary aerodynamics, the need to keep athletes warm in these extreme temperatures posed an added dimension of difficulty. And Ralph Lauren, the brand outfitting the American team for the opening and closing ceremonies, was up against the most daunting challenge. Those two outdoor events take place at what will likely be the coldest location of the entire competition: the roofless, open-air Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium. In November six people attending a concert there reportedly developed hypothermia.
“We knew about the cold,” says David Lauren, chief innovation officer at Ralph Lauren, “and hit on the idea of using wearable technology to keep our athletes warm.” The result: bonded to the interior of the red, white and blue opening ceremony parkas are printed strips of electronic, heat-conducting metallic ink, made of silver and carbon (in the shape of an American flag, of course)—sort of like a stylish electric blanket, but with ink instead of wires.
Athletes will be able to activate their self-warming jackets by pushing a button on a slim lithium-ion battery pack. Once switched on, electrons will surge through the silver ink till they hit a resistive carbon pad, which will generate heat. The system is designed to provide up to 11 hours of warmth, and has three settings so athletes can control their own temperatures. The technology was adapted from heated car seats and made more stretchy and flexible for the Ralph Lauren Olympic apparel, according to the company. The white waterproof bomber jackets Team USA will wear for the closing ceremony are equipped with the same ink-based technology.
Keeping Warm on the Bobsled Course
Athletes on the U.S. bobsled team will also be outfitted with innovative suits that designers say will provide anywhere from two to four degrees Fahrenheit of extra warmth as they hurtle down the outdoor course at 90-plus miles per hour. The added heat comes from a novel fabric technology designed to lock in body warmth known as “ColdGear Infrared”—a proprietary blend of compounds including ceramic material, a common thermal insulator. The CGI will be embedded in the fabric’s fleece lining, the company says. “When you wear it against your skin it absorbs and retains your body heat,” says Mark Cumiskey, a textile engineer and senior director of materials innovation at Under Armour, the company that designed the U.S. bobsled and speed skating teams’ uniforms. (The makers of CGI fabric claim it retains heat longer than similar fabrics.) “The added warmth will be most important right before the race, when the athletes are standing on the top of a mountain in what amounts to a tight, stretchy base layer,” says Chris Laughman, Under Armour’s senior product manager for Olympic apparel. “They’ve already told us the new suits are warmer than the ones they’ve had in the past—and they’re pretty happy about it.”
Under Armour’s designers used a different state-of-the-art fabric on the suit’s shoulders, upper arms and back to provide better aerodynamics. “It’s easy to think that since athletes are tucked away in their bobsleds, the aerodynamics of the suit is meaningless,” Cumiskey says. “But in bobsled, an event where every hundredth of a second matters, the race can be won or lost from the moment the athletes start pushing the sled, and anything that creates drag, including the suit, can slow them down. Even inside the sled, their shoulders and backs are exposed to the passing air.” Decreasing drag, Cumiskey says, could make the difference between being on the podium or not.
To identify this more aerodynamic material, Cumiskey and others began testing new fabrics for the U.S. speed skating team in the wind tunnel at Specialized Bicycle Components in Morgan Hill, Calif., a couple of years ago. They did trials on mannequins that collectively wore 100 different fabrics. One candidate fabric, dubbed “H1,” was the clear winner. Made of nylon and spandex, it has a unique weave that helps reduce wind resistance. “What makes H1 so aerodynamically fast are the air channels—the spacing of the ridges and their depth—that are engineered into the fabric,” Cumiskey says. In addition, H1 has a barely perceptible jagged, shark skin–like texture when you run your hand over it in one direction. That sandpaper-like surface is enough to disturb the airflow over the athletes’ bodies, allowing it to wrap slightly around them. This phenomenon reduces drag by shrinking the size of their wakes, according to Cumiskey.
Chris Yu, an aerospace engineer and director of integrated technologies at Specialized who led the team conducting the wind tunnel trials, was impressed with its performance, too. “At the end of the day H1 gives athletes less aerodynamic drag and faster speeds for the same amount of exertion,” he says. For Olympic competitors trying to eke every last nanosecond of speed out of their finely tuned bodies—and uniforms—tiny tweaks to their suits’ software may help them bring home the gold.