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Author - Jason Hagerman
Cold air fills her lungs as the skater steps down and her blade etches its first blemish onto the surface of the ice. She basks in its crispness, welcoming the icy touch on her exposed face. Her second skin, bearing the team Canada logo and insignias of a host of sponsors, keeps the icy tendrils from latching on to her muscles, slowing her body’s responses and leeching her energy. She glides as though no force holds her back—no friction, no drag. The skin suit that hugs the curves and corners of her frame is much more than an insulator. It is a knife, slicing through the wind generated by skaters who traverse the frozen water at speeds greater than 40 kilometres per hour. It is a frame, urging the body to conform when fatigue sets in after pushing her body to the limit. It is a statement, wordlessly warning competitors that they are in for the race of a lifetime.
She stands aside a contingent of athletes at the pinnacle of sport, the Olympic games, knowing that whether she ends the day atop the three-tiered podium or in the proud arms of her family, she has arrived there in fairness. The athletes who overcame her, or who were overcome by her, trained in likeness to her and had access to the same knowledge that she did. They worked to the limits of their bodies and went no further, withstanding the allure of performance-enhancing substances that could give an edge over the competition.
The exceptionally high level of competition we see at the modern Olympic games can ultimately be attributed to one thing —the application of science to sport. Though the two may not often be mentioned in the same breath, it is science that makes sport what it is today and it was science that made the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver one of the greatest successes in the history of amateur sport in Canada. While competitors from around the world were blasting down mountains and competing across so many different venues, lab workers were behind the scenes keeping athletes honest and helping them reach the limit of their abilities.
Cheaters never prosper
Drug testing has become as much a part of the Olympic games as hockey or the luge. It is so important that if a potential host country cannot meet the requirements the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has set out, the games will not be held there. Fortunately for Vancouver, Canada houses one of the most well established World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) accredited labs. However, this lab (Institut national de la recherche scientifique or INRS) is located in Montreal, too far to be able to meet precise WADA guidelines.
“In order to eliminate risk and ensure that results are available as quickly as possible, the city that hosts the Olympic games needs to have a lab on-site,” says Jeremy Luke, Director of Anti-doping for the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) and Director of Anti-doping at the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES). Negative test results would need to be provided within 24 hours of submission to the lab, positive results within 48 to 72 hours. This couldn’t be done from Montreal, so the decision was made to build a temporary lab quite literally on-site, at the Richmond Olympic Oval.
Drug testing has become as much a part of the Olympic games as hockey or the luge. It is so important that if a potential host country cannot meet the requirements the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has set out, the games will not be held there.
“This was the first time in the history of the Olympics that a lab was located within a competition venue,” says Luke.
With a price tag of more than $16 million (including operations and construction), the lab would end up being autonomous, entirely separate from the competition venue, with its own mechanical room and secured entrance. Additionally, the installation of this lab would mean creating only the 36th WADA accredited lab in the world—and dismantling it a year later.
The lab was built under the guidance of Dr. Christiane Ayotte, Director of the Doping Control Lab at Montreal’s INRS.
“We were around for the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal, at a time when there were less than 10 WADA accredited labs,” says Ayotte. “We’ve been around so long, we have this history which gives us a unique position.”
This position included tests that were sufficient for just about any other sporting competition, but would not fly with the extremely aggressive anti-doping outlook for the Vancouver games.
“We had to buy new equipment, significantly different from what we have at INRS, and so we used this opportunity to entirely rebuild our approaches to testing,” says Ayotte. Reworking this approach to testing led to game-changing advances in doping control.
Some drugs exert their action at the time of competition. Stimulants can improve performance immediately after introducing them to the body, for example, or diuretics could be useful at the time of weighing in for weight-category-controlled competitions. These drugs could be found in quantities of micrograms. Steroids, EPO or growth hormone could be used in the months leading up to a drug test, and would be identifiable in nanogram or pictogram quantities. Using traditional methods, about 30 ml of urine would be required to run pertinent tests. For the Olympics, Ayotte wanted to see if they could do any better.
“To make a champion, you really need the technology.”
Dr. Guy Larose, researcher, National Research Council’s
Institute for Aerospace Research (NRC-IAR)
“We went out and took a look at this new GC Triple Quad, QQQ, from Agilent. It was still at the prototype stage when we made the choice to use it. With steroids, you have to use GC, you can’t measure the steroid profile correctly without it, and that’s the basis for what we do,” she says.
The first two of these products came off the manufacturing line, and Ayotte snagged one.
“We get sensitivity with this to a couple of picograms per millilitre. During the games we had a blind sample which was provided by the World Anti-Doping Agency and we were able to track a trace of substance that was produced in a previous excretion study done five months prior,” says Ayotte.
Now, instead of running multiple tests on multiple platforms with only sufficient sensitivity, one platform can handle multiple tests with exceptional sensitivity. When a sample comes back negative, there is literally no trace of a banned substance.
“This method we’ve developed is going to be the standard, undoubtedly,” Ayotte boasts. “Our colleagues from London were visiting the Vancouver games, in the process of selecting their instrumentation. There is the chance that they’ll adopt something else, but I very much doubt they will.”
While sticks and bodies battled on the ice a few rooms away, the 35 scientists in the vibration-free lab tested 1,721 urine samples and 453 blood samples, and later at the Paralympics, 370 urine samples and 74 blood samples. This number is almost double that of the previous games in Turin. The small army of blood collection officers, numbering upwards of 50, had collected samples, transported in tamper-proof containers and overseen by independent observers. Athletes were brought to sample stations by one of the 300 Olympic chaperones. The lab, which was still revising its ISO accreditation for newly banned substances as last-minute as January 2010, operated at a high capacity throughout the entire Olympic program.
And then, one day less than a month after operations began, the lab ran its last test, and Ayotte got what she was looking forward to throughout the entire Olympic process.
“We took everything out of Vancouver, dismantled the lab and brought all of this cutting-edge technology back to Montreal,” she says. “We finally made it to the top of the food chain. We have all the best technology and it will give us some peace of mind, and an edge, for at least the next five years.”
When it comes to Canada’s athletes, lab workers are pushing the boundaries of science to help athletes push the boundaries of their sports.
The science of speed
The application of science extends beyond policing sport.
“To make a champion, you really need the technology. There is always an element of luck. Even though these are the best athletes in the world, luck is always a factor,” says Dr. Guy Larose, a researcher at the National Research Council’s Institute for Aerospace Research (NRC-IAR). “But if you have the technology, you can reduce the amount that is left to luck.”
In the men’s 500-metre short track Olympic speed skating final, Canadian Charles Hamelin took the gold medal with a time of 40.981, while the second place finisher clocked a time of 41.340.
“Technology could have been the difference in those hundredths of a second,” says Larose.
After the 2001 Olympics, a number of athletes voiced concerns over the lack of technology available to Canadians. This outcry prompted the creation of Own the Podium (OTP) and OTP turned to Larose, an expert in bluff body aerodynamics (aerodynamics of things that don’t fly). Larose, who had consulted Catriona Le May Doan prior to the 2001 games, felt he had much to offer our athletes, and so did the OTP board.
In preparation for the 2006 winter games, a group of speed skaters utilized the two-by-three-metre wind tunnel at NRC-IAR, which can generate wind speeds of up to 400 km/h, and achieved great results. Moving in to the 2010 games, athletes from 11 disciplines hoped to reap the benefits of working with Larose and his team.
Skeleton, bobsleigh, luge, alpine skiing, ski cross, para-alpine skiing, nordic skiing, para-nordic skiing, freestyle aerial skiing, snowboard and snowboard cross, and speed skating athletes all took turns over the years leading up to the 2010 games honing their form in the tunnel to eliminate drag.
Athletes whose sports were new to the Olympics gained much knowledge into body positioning.
“We learned that a snowboarder shouldn’t crouch. They are different than the alpine skier because for the snowboarder, crouching actually makes you become too wide,” says Larose. He explains that the act of crouching in alpine skiing reduces frontal area, resulting in less drag. For the snowboarder, however, a more upright position, with the rear leg directly behind the front, creates drag only on one leg surface, rather than two. The basic idea came down to reducing the frontal area while trying to maintain equilibrium. Once the athletes understood that, they began to see a huge difference,” he says.
With the bobsleigh in position, centered in the wind tube, the sled team oriented themselves as they would during competition, and a display relaying information on drag was projected onto a surface in front of them, allowing the athletes to see what adjustments needed to be made and to work through trial and error in real-time.
Speed skating is one of the more developed and mature Olympic sports. To help athletes reach the full potential of their bodies, Larose went beyond body positioning and looked at the most minute details of the surfaces that create drag.
“The speed skating suit, both short track and long track, were part of the main, four-year project which was undertaken full-time by a PhD student here. We applied the knowledge we had in aerodynamics to figure out which is the best fabric—and it turns out that different fabrics are best for different parts of the body,” says Larose.
On several surfaces, like the forearms and lower legs, the suit mimics the principal used by golf balls. Dimples create turbulence in the air around the surface, reducing the forces of drag.
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