Above: Image © pixitive,iStockPhoto.com

The Olympics are well underway in PyeongChang, South Korea. Canada has a medal total of 11 - and counting!

But did you know that whenever you watch an Olympic event, you’re watching STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in action?

On Ice

Every time you skate across the ice, or watch figure skating or hockey, thank chemistry! Water is made up of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule (H2O). The hydrogen end has a positive charge. The oxygen end has a negative charge. The opposite ends attract other water molecules and attach into hydrogen bonds.

As water molecules move around, hydrogen bonds form and break. But as water cools, the molecules slow down. The hydrogen bonds remain attached, forming a crystal lattice. That’s what keeps the ice hard.

But this is only possible beneath the surface. On top, there’s still a thin layer called pre-melt that acts as a lubricant. This semi-frozen ice is perfect for gliding objects, like hockey pucks and skates!

Learn more:

The Science of Ice

Did you know? Chemistry is at work catching cheaters at the Olympics, too.When a person digests a drug (such as a steroid), their body might metabolize it into a different product. Chemists at the Olympics can test athletes’ blood for these byproducts as well as for the drug itself.

On the slopes

Every time you ski or watch downhill skiing, you’re seeing laws of physics at work! When a skier launches themselves from the starting gate at the top of the hill, that’s Newton’s Second Law of Motion: a force (the skier pushing off) on an object (the skier) produces an acceleration. Gravity then takes the skier down the hill.

Ever wonder why skiers hunch down while they ski? It has to do with air resistance, particles in the air that can slow down a moving object. The smaller you make yourself, the less air resistance will push against your body. You may have felt air resistance while riding your bike.

In the judges’ booths

There would be no winners at the Olympics without math! In some sports, the math may seem obvious. For example, in hockey, scorekeepers are keeping track of how many goals each team scores.

Another example is figure skating. Typically, there are nine judges per event, though only five of the nine scores count. (The scoring system removes the highest score, lowest score, and two random scores.) The five remaining scores are added and then divided by the number of judges (five). In other words, the figure skater’s score is an average of the judges’ scores.

Inside the athlete’s brain

Many of us watch Olympic athletes and think, “How does their body do that?” But there’s often a fair amount of psychology involved, too. You may have heard that visualizing (imagining) a positive outcome is a powerful way to improve sports performance. But that performance improves even more if you do the visualizing in context. One study found that skiers who did their visualization in their ski gear at the top of a slope had faster times than skiers who used other or no visualization techniques.

By visualizing their actions, athletes actually improve the connections between the neurons in their brains, meaning their neurons can fire more quickly and achieve better results.

Learn more:

How brain training improves sports performance

Did you know? When you exercise, more blood and oxygen flow to your brain. This keeps your neurons functioning.

Careers for sports lovers

You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to make a living from sports! Look at what these Let’s Talk Science supporters are doing:

Simon Cooke is a sports physiotherapist. He uses biology and physics every day to help injured bodies heal.

Ben Sit is a registered dietician. He advises professional and amateur athletes on how their nutritional habits can help their sports performance.

Dr. Jonathan Smirl is a researcher at the Sports Concussion Research Lab at University of British Columbia. He studies how helmet design can protect sports players from head injuries.

Let’s talk about it!

  • How many other sports-related careers can you think of?
  • Do you think visualization techniques can work in other areas of your life? If so, which ones?
  • How do Olympic judges use math when judging timed events, like skiing? How does the speed, acceleration and time of an athlete relate to one another?
  • How do Olympic judges use math when judging timed events, like skiing?
  • How does the Olympics affect your life? How do they affect your sense of national pride?
  • Athletes who cheat are going to more extreme, more clever measures to enhance their performance. But the technology to catch them is getting better, too. But what if an athlete can “outsmart” current testing methods? Are there any ethical limits to how far testing can go?

Additional references

Science of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games: Mathletes (Mixed Sports) (2010) National Science Foundation

Science of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games: Downhill Science (Alpine Skiing) (2010) National Science Foundation


This is content has that been provided for use on the CurioCity website.

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