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The Science of the Olympic Winter Games

December 10, 2009

Online videos explain the science behind winning gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games

Science and sport. Have you ever wondered …

* How angular momentum helps one of the world’s top ranked figure skaters Rachael Flatt achieve the perfect triple toe loop?

* How elastic collision allows three-time Olympic hockey player Julie Chu convert a game-winning slapshot?

* Or how Newton’s Three Laws of Motion propel U.S. Olympic Trials silver medalist and short track speed skater J.R. Celski to the finish line?

These are just a few of the scientific principles explored in a new, fast-moving, 16-part, video series for students and adults entitled “The Science of the Olympic Winter Games,” presented by project partners NBC Learn, NBC Olympics and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“The Science of the Olympic Winter Games” focuses on the science behind how athletes skate, ski, jump and curl their way to winter Olympic gold. This groundbreaking series capitalizes on next February’s Vancouver Olympics to make science understandable to students by illustrating how it applies to competitive sports.

The video series is narrated by NBC News anchor Lester Holt and available to viewers on http://www.NBCOlympics.com/science and http://www.nbclearn.com/. NBC’s “Today” premiered a segment from the series this morning. The project will also be offered to educators as a timely way to incorporate the Olympics into classroom learning.

Each video in the series shows NSF-supported scientists explaining scientific principles while Olympic athletes describe how these principles apply to their respective sports.

“Science touches every aspect of our nation’s popular pursuits, including its athletic events,” said Jeff Nesbit, director of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. “It’s exciting to partner with NBC Learn and NBC’s Emmy-award winning Olympic division to present the range and depth of that science to a huge American audience while ultimately inspiring the passions of young people across the United States in all the things science can do.”

A state-of-the-art, high-speed camera with an astonishing ability to capture images at rates of up to 1,500 frames per second follows the movements of the athletes frame-by-frame providing illustrations of Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, the Law of Conservation of Angular Momentum, friction, drag, speed, velocity and other scientific concepts.

“This unique project shows just how versatile NBC Learn can be,” said Steve Capus, president of NBC News. “We’ve made a commitment to education and this project is another creative way to support classroom learning using the journalism and production resources of NBC News. Every two years the Olympics captivate us. This project is another way of telling the remarkable stories of athletes who are the best of the best.”

Rachael Flatt, a 17-year-old high school senior at Cheyenne Mountain High School. in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and among the favorites to qualify for the Vancouver Games in figure skating, may understand the ins-and-outs of the science behind her sport better than anyone else on the ice. The straight-A student’s father is a biochemical engineer, while her mother is a molecular biologist.

“I guess it’s definitely safe to say that science runs in my blood!” said Flatt. “I jumped at the chance to participate in this project because my parents have passed along their love of science to me over the years and I hope to one day pursue a career in the field.”

In addition to Flatt, the “The Science of the Olympic Winter Games” features two-time Olympic medalist and Harvard graduate Julie Chu (Hockey) from Fairfield, Connecticut; 2006 Olympic bronze medalist John Shuster (Curling), Chisholm, Minnesota; 2006 Olympian Emily Cook (Freestyle Skiing), from Belmont, Massachusetts; and 2010 Olympic hopefuls J.R. Celski (Short Track Speed Skating) from Federal Way, Washington and Liz Stephens (Cross-Country Skiing) from East Montpelier, Vermont.

Image 1: The Science of the Olympic Winter Games, a new, fast-moving, 16-part, video series for students and adults capitalizes on next February’s Vancouver Olympics to focus on the science behind how athletes skate, ski, jump and curl their way to winter Olympic gold. Credit: NBC Learn & NSF

Image 2: In episode 11, “Banking on Speed,” Paul Doherty, senior scientist at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, Deborah King, Associate professor in the department of exercise and sports sciences at Ithaca College, physicist George Tuthill of Plymouth State University, and bobsled designer Bob Cuneo, the team explain how drag impacts the chances for the United States’ four-man bobsled team to win its first gold medal in more than 60 years. Credit: NBC Learn & NSF

Image 3: Olympic hopeful Rachael Flatt and Deborah King, an Associate professor in the department of exercise and sports sciences at Ithaca College, explain how skaters increase rotation in the air with their triple axels and quadruple toe loops. Here, Rachel Flatt spins on her skates. Credit: NBC Learn & NSF

Image 4: U.S. Ski Team members Julia Mancuso, Ted Ligety and Scott Macartney, and Katharine Flores, an Associate professor in the department of materials science and engineering at Ohio State University, explain how the materials used to make skis play a vital role in their performance on the mountain. Credit: NBC Learn & NSF

On the net:


The Science of the Olympic Winter Games The Science of the Olympic Winter Games The Science of the Olympic Winter Games


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