Changing the rules

Materials World magazine
1 Apr 2018

Following accusations of cheating aimed at Team GB at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Ellis Davies examines the rulebook and the impact of materials on sport. 

Success in sport can come down to the smallest of margins, with milli-seconds or millimetres making the difference between victory and defeat. In modern competition, putting in the training isn’t all it takes – kit, or equipment, now plays a large part (see Materials World, November 2016). This role has been known to cause disputes and rule changes, along with broken records and gold medals.

The most recent controversy surrounding sports clothing occurred at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Team GB and their skinsuits for the skeleton event were questioned following some impressive times during practice, and an investigation was conducted.

A number of other sports have witnessed controversy regarding suits over the past decade. In 2010, FINA – swimming’s governing body – banned the use of full body or leg suits that propelled athletes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics to a spree of broken records. The rubberised suits worn by cyclists in the same Olympics were also outlawed following the games, with the governing body bringing in porosity minimums for suits.  

The skeleton debacle 

This time, Team GB was forced to deny any rule breaking concerning equipment after other teams expressed concern over the legality of the suits – particularly after Dom Parsons, who was not a favourite going into the games, posted some impressive times in the men’s practices. Laura Deas and Lizzy Yarnold also headed the pack going into competition, leading USA athlete Katie Ulaender to comment that many competitors and coaches were questioning the legality of the suits. ‘The rules state that everyone is supposed to have access to the same equipment as far as helmets and speed suits go, and not have any aerodynamic attachments on the helmet or in the suit,’ she said.

Officials from the sport’s governing body – The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation – tackled the issue just hours before the start of the men’s competition, determining that no rules had been broken. International skeleton laws – rule 10.16.3 – state, ‘No elements whatsoever maybe attached either outside or under the race suit.’ 

Team GB, and their controversial suits, won three medals in the skeleton – bronze for Parsons and Deas, and a gold for Yarnold. The English Institute of Sport (EIS), who worked on the development of the suits, did not comment when approached by Materials World. 

The material effect

The British team’s experience at the 2018 games is an example of how the use of advanced materials in sports equipment is now a prominent part of competition. Technology is now tied to sporting performance, with institutes such as EIS forming teams – in this case the EIS Performance Innovation team – to work towards the next gold winning technology.  

TotalSim, UK, is an engineering consultancy that has worked on a number of projects related to sports technology, mostly in the world of cycling with bikes and suits. The company was involved with the 2012 Winter Olympics suits for Team GB, and worked extensively with British cycling for the 2010 and 2016 Summer Games. 

In sports such as skeleton and cycling, aerodynamics is the name of the game. Because of this, TotalSim focuses the majority of its efforts on wind tunnel friendly materials, such as elastic polyurethane and rough fabrics (see Materials World, July 2006). 

Rob Lewis, Managing Director of TotalSim, spoke to Materials World about the role of advanced equipment in sport. ‘A lot of people take their kit very seriously. They train hard and spend a lot of money on equipment and clothing,’ he said. On the world stage, the kit is more than just a feel good factor. ‘If you look at how Team GB does at the World Championships compared to at the Olympics, you can see the effect of UK sport’s investment in equipment development and research,’ said Lewis. ‘This equipment gets rolled out at the Olympics, and produces better results. Team GB definitely takes a step up, and has been successful in winning medals.’

Lewis highlighted that outside professional sport, amateurs are also becoming increasingly concerned with their choice of kit. ‘It used to be golf clubs, and now its bikes and triathlons. It’s the feel-good factor of putting on a new, expensive suit.’ In 2015, consumers in the USA spent around US$64.8bln on sporting goods from retailers, marking an increase of US$25.5bln from the 2011 figure of US$39bln. This large rise in spending supports the notion that sporting goods and technology are now important to the amateur sportsperson, and not just professionals.

Dealing with the rules

The rules, for professional athletes, regulating the use of certain materials or equipment in sport can vary in their severity depending on the sport in question. ‘Governing bodies sometimes provide a porosity test, where a material must measure at so many cubic metres per hour. Others have woolly statements, such as no add-ons for aerodynamic advantage – so you can’t sew on small bits to help with stability. And, some sports use rules akin to NASCAR in the USA, in which the rulebook is very skinny, amounting to, if we don’t like it, it’s banned,’ said Lewis. ‘In cycling, if you create an innovation it must be cleared by the governing body, and if you turn up at an event and the commissar doesn’t like your pedals, for example, they can make you change them. There’s a full range of rules and policing.’  

It is, however, difficult for governing bodies to address innovations in sports equipment immediately. All engineers involved with sporting goods are looking for that gap in the rulebook that they can take advantage of to give the competitor the edge, leaving the rule makers forever playing catch-up. 

‘It’s a tricky one,’ said Lewis. ‘To use Formula 1 as an example, someone will spot a gap and develop a new device, which will give their team an advantage for a season. Then at the end of the season, the governing body changes the rulebook and everybody has to go back to square one.’ This model is true for sport in general. The rules can’t change instantly, as it would be unfair to the athletes and disrupt the season or competition. ‘There will always be a little bit of an advantage somewhere, but everyone will eventually copy the leaders or the rules will change,’ added Lewis. 

At the top level, exploiting loopholes in the rulebook can cause controversy – as is apparent from the events in Pyeongchang. At the amateur level, they can provide a company with an edge in their sales and marketing, and give the wearer a boost in comfort and usability. Whatever the outcome, it looks as if governing bodies will continue to chase innovation, wielding a rulebook, for the foreseeable future.