The Winter Olympics, with its 15 sports taking place on ice or snow, has sometimes been jokingly described as “several different types of sliding”.

But although that tongue-in-cheek description overlooks the incredible athleticism and skill on display, it is fair to say that much of the games’ action relies on physics.

In fact, 20-year-old Czech Republic snowboard cross competitor Eva Samkova put her recent gold medal success at the 2014 Sochi games in Russia down to natural forces. “It’s just physics, that’s all,” Samkova said with a laugh when questioned by reporters about her impressive win.

She singled out her wax technicians in particular for helping to make her board travel so fast down Sochi’s slopes and leave the other competitors in her wake.

Friction, gravity and air resistance are the main natural forces that many Winter Olympic competitors have to consider, particularly those taking part in the downhill events.Technology can help alleviate some of the effects of physics and play almost as big a role in the success of some athletes as their natural ability.

The engineering and design of a bobsled, snowboard or pair of skis can shave vital milliseconds off an athlete’s time and mean the difference between a podium finish or a trip home without a medal.

For example, Team GB’s Lizzie Yarnold sped to skeleton gold in Sochi thanks in part to the cutting edge design of her sled, built by a division of motorsport company McLaren, which normally specialises in Formula 1 racing cars.

Its designers used computer simulation to engineer a sled that could be adapted to suit different tracks by capturing track data using electronic sensors fitted to the frame.

The company is now working with the British bobsleigh team to design a revolutionary sled that can compete with the best in the world, including its motorsport rival Ferrari, whichis designing sleds for the Italian Olympic team.

Questions for debate and discussion

  1. Can you name some of the sports in the Winter Olympics? Which is most appealing to you and why?
  2. Eva Samkova said of her success, “It’s just physics”. Do you think that physics plays a more significant role in winning a gold medal than the sportsperson themselves? Justify your answer.
  3. Most winter sportspeople try to decrease friction as much as possible in their sport, but can you think of a sport when friction is desirable?
  4. Are the Olympics, Paralympics, and Winter Olympics important? Give reasons for your answer.

Related resources

Winter Olym-physics
This research lesson encourages students to take an interest in the science behind the different types of professional sliding.

Ski jump equations
Your more-able students will be able to discuss the simple and complex mechanics of a ski jump after watching this video from FearOfPhysics.

True snowboards: STEM focus
Give students an insight into the many processes that go into making a snowboard efficient and impressive.

The aerodynamics of speed skiing
This engaging video shows how much time and effort goes into a speed skier’s performance.