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At Large: The winter of discontent

At Large: The winter of discontent

Matthew JC. Powell may well be taking the pisteWhat is there to say about Salt Lake City that has not already been said? Utah, Mormons, Osmonds, guns, Dutch ovens, polygamy and Novell (down the road in Orem, anyway). These Winter Olympics have it all.

The thing that has intrigued me most, as a technology buff, is the discussion of how technology has impacted on Winter sports. In some cases this is inevitable. Skiers, for instance, rely for their performance on such intractable factors as the slope of the mountain. They derive extra speed with bends of the knees and shifts of the weight, so developing more flexible skis with less friction but good control of weight distribution is vital.

Then there's the luge. The only Olympic sport a sack of potatoes could win (provided someone gave them a shove off the top). You slap the ice a few times, then lie back and hope you don't die before you cross the finish line. Given that the key to winning at luge is gravity, you're going to be fairly reliant for high performance on the folks back at the sled shop.

But I was intrigued by something one of the commentators said. He described the skating rink in Salt Lake as having "the fastest ice in the world". From my recollections of high-school science, I believe that ice is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen, cunningly hybridised in the absence of heat. There are no moving parts (the moving component of ice is called "water" and very little of it is required for speed skating). What is there to enhance?

Ice really does just sit there. If it fails to do so, you cannot skate on it at all. I can imagine that ice may be deemed "slow" if, because of imperfections in the underlying floor or impurities in the water, the surface is too rough to skate on. But I presume that any ice rink deemed fit for Olympic competition is going to meet a reasonable standard of smoothness, and the occasional once-over with a Zamboni ought to keep it that way.

My fear is that there may have been some modification to the water used to make the rink - something more than hydrogen and oxygen in there. If this is true, can the stuff even be said to be ice? If the rink in Salt Lake is made of something other than ice, can the times registered on it be compared with any validity to the scores of past competitors on old-time ice?

And what if they've made the luge track out of the same "new and improved" ice? I'll be so disillusioned.

Matthew JC. Powell is a very merry soul. Throw snowballs at mjcp@optushome.com.au


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