for National Geographic News
Twenty-first century sport is a mix of talent and technology. That's why some of the world's best ski jumpers are spending part of their summers strapped down in 60 mile-an-hour (100 kilometer-an-hour) wind tunnels.
"Ski jumping, from the scientific viewpoint, is a wonderful problem," said Michael Holden, an aerospace engineer for the Buffalo, New York-based Calspan Corporation.
"Once you're in the air, it's aerodynamics and nothing else. It's not too difficult to train people to get good lift over drag positions in a wind tunnel. That's what you use a wind tunnel for."
In his day job, Holden uses the tunnel to test vehicles and structures for clients like NASA and the U.S. military.
But he also uses it to help maximize the performance of speed-craving athletes, including alpine skiing champions Picabo Street and Bode Miller and gold-medal-winning speed skater Bonnie Blair.
The Original Extreme Sport?
Ski jumping is largely about the scientific tango between lift and drag that takes place in 100-meter (330-foot) flights through chilly winter air.
Reducing air resistance is one key in determining who flies farthest.
The quest for improved aerodynamics has yielded revolutions in clothing, helmets, and other gear designed for Olympic athletes to give them a performance edge.
But as that technology has proliferated, it has become harder for any single athlete to stand out.
"FIS [the global governing body Federation Internationale de Ski] has made a lot of rules, so we're not able to experiment as much as we used to," said Lasse Ottesen, a U.S. Ski Team coach and retired jumper who won a silver medal at the Lillehammer Games.
"Everyone has access to more or less everything, so it comes down to technique and physical ability."
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