Team USA overcomes Pyeongchang cold with new technology


Team USA overcame the Pyeongchang cold during the 2018 Winter Olympics with new, innovative technology. The team’s opening and closing ceremony outfits, designed by Ralph Lauren, and the U.S. bobsled and speedskating suits, designed by Under Armour Inc., had ink-based technology that provided extra warmth and protection against the cold.

The average February temperature in Pyeongchang is currently around 23 degrees. However, winds from the Manchurian Plain, China’s largest plain, and Siberia, a region encompassing Russia and northern Kazakhstan, are expected to bring temperatures of around 7 degrees to Pyeongchang. Weather forecasters anticipate that these will be the coldest games since the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. During that year’s opening ceremony, the intention to release doves was rejected because organizers were concerned that the birds would suffer.

The South Korean opening and closing ceremonies are taking place at arguably the coldest place in this year’s games, the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium. The stadium is roofless, and seven concert-goers contracted hypothermia at the stadium in November 2017.

Designers dedicate years to create Olympic uniforms, providing style and impressive aerodynamics for athletes. Additionally, offering Team USA protection against frigid temperatures was an added difficulty for Ralph Lauren, a company that has designed the team’s uniforms since the 2008 Summer Olympics.

U.S. athletes wore red, white and blue parkas during the opening ceremony on Feb. 9. Inside the parkas were layers of electronic, heat-managing metallic ink. The ink was composed of silver and carbon, taking the form of the U.S. flag and serving as an electric blanket.

Athletes operated this technology by pressing a button on a slender lithium-ion battery pack. Once the battery pack activated, electrons traveled through the silver ink until they collided into a repellant carbon pad. This carbon pad then produced heat inside the athlete’s parka. The technology included three settings so athletes could regulate temperatures. The highest setting is intended to supply up to five hours of heat and the lowest setting is intended to supply 11 hours.  The battery pack buttons were extra-large, so it would not be a hassle to press them while wearing gloves.

According to Ralph Lauren, this technology was reshaped from heated car seats and made more pliable so that it would be appropriate for Olympic clothing.

“We knew about the cold,” says David Lauren, chief innovation officer at Ralph Lauren, “and hit on the idea of using wearable technology to keep our athletes warm.”

For the closing ceremony, Team USA will exchange parkas for white, waterproof bomber jackets. These bomber jackets will have the same ink-based technology.

The U.S. bobsled team wore suits that supplied up to 4 degrees of additional warmth. The heat was derived from an unprecedented fabric technology called ColdGear Infrared.

Under Armour was responsible for this innovation. The technology confines body warmth and includes compounds such as ceramic material, a frequent thermal insulator. ColdGear Infrared was implanted in the uniform fabric’s fleece border. When athletes wear ColdGear Infrared against their skin, the technology soaks up body heat and preserves it.

This was vital for bobsledders who raced down the outdoor course at over 90 mph. The extra warmth was also necessary at the start of the race when Olympians were standing at the base of a mountain.

Under Armour used a fabric called “H1,” which was composed of nylon and spandex, on the suit’s shoulders, upper arms and back.

This strengthened the suit’s aerodynamics, an important action because every second of a bobsled event impacts performance. A suit that causes drag weakens a bobsledder’s performance. Reducing drag leads to a higher chance of winning a medal.

Mark Cumiskey, a textile engineer and senior director of materials innovation at Under Armour, began evaluating new fabrics with other directors for the U.S. speedskating team several years ago. The evaluation was done in the wind tunnel at Specialized Bicycle Components in Morgan Hill, California. The Under Armour team experimented on mannequins that wore 100 different fabrics. H1 was the most effective fabric because it diminished wind resistance. The fabric has a surface like sandpaper and disrupts the airflow over an Olympian’s body. This decreases drag.

“At the end of the day, H1 gives athletes less aerodynamic drag and faster speeds for the same amount of exertion,” says Chris Yu, an aerospace engineer and director of integrated technologies at Specialized Bicycle Components.

These faster speeds may help bobsledders and speedskaters win gold, as time is a crucial aspect in these two fast-paced sports.