by Nari Lee '17
Have you ever wondered why you can’t pull off those triple axels just like they do in the Winter Olympics? Well, as it turns out, three of the most popular winter sports—ice hockey, figure skating, and speed skating—are dependent on ice skates, and the athletes in each category need skates that fit their individual needs.
Take ice hockey, for example. Players need skates that can endure up to twenty minutes of high intensity, high velocity play, while allowing for agility on the ice. Thus the boot of an Olympic hockey player is crafted from synthetic materials that form to his feet when heated. The molded fit helps reduce energy wasted from the foot moving around inside of the boot and instead applies that energy towards forward motion.
The blades under the hockey player’s boots, though built of the same highest quality steel, are shorter and lighter than other blades. This adaptation allows for both speed and quick stops or turns.
A speed skater’s skates are perhaps the most complex. Both the boot and blade have to be flexible for the tight, high-speed turns that are highlights of speed skating. Boots are usually made of carbon fiber so that they are hard but flexible in the ankle for efficient movement. The blades, meanwhile, are long and wide to help the skater glide smoothly over the ice.
From simple surface physics, we know that the movement of a blade over ice creates friction. That friction creates heat, which in turn melts the ice. The resulting line of melt-water is essential to speed skating. It is advantageous to keep the blade on the ice as long as possible and maximize melting. Thus in the long-track event, skaters have “clap-skates” with hinges connecting the blade to the boot. As the skater picks up their heel, the blade stays in contact with the ice longer.
In the short-track event, blades are fixed to boots because there are no long-track straightaways. The short-track blades are instead fixed in a carefully calculated position so that when athletes lean over and angle their skates, the boots do not rub the ice (called "booting out").
You’re probably most familiar with the skates of a figure skater. From those of amateurs to those of Olympians, figure skating boots are all made of leather. Nature provides the best material that is the perfect blend of stiffness and suppleness required to support skaters’ ankles in their beautiful axels and jumps. The skates also have the iconic toe picks in the front of the blade that are used to dig into the ice when the skater stops or launches a jump. Less well known are the center grooves that separate each blade into two thin edges, which help skaters steer when tilting. As a plus, the sharp edges gives an extra impact to complicated moves by allowing skaters to dig more into the ice.
For more science behind the sports of the Winter Olympic Games, watch the videos on NBC’s Learn website.