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How an environmental ban of toxic ski waxes led to an Olympic snow-sport arms racing

How an environmental ban of toxic ski waxes led to an Olympic snow-sport arms racing

How an environmental ban on toxic ski waxes prompted an Olympic snow-sport arms race

Andrew Chisholm works for the Ski Technicians Association of Canada Center of Excellence in Canmore (Alba.), a research hub that supports ventures that might increase Olympic medal count.Handout

Andrew Chisholm was not even alive at that time, but he heard the stories about what happened when the miracle substance first appeared on the ski racing circuit. According to Mr. Chisholm (assistant coach and ski technician for Biathlon Canada), I believe it was in the mid-to-late 1980s when the Italians began waxing with pure fluorocarbons. It was not fair. Their skis were so much more advanced than the rest, and nobody could understand what they were doing.

Chisholm was referring specifically to perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs chemicals, which almost magically repel water and grease and dirt and can add extraordinary glide to skis. After the Italian victory in the eighties he stated that whispers began to circulate regarding the secret source of their speed. PFCs became a common component of snow wax. Soon, any national team that wanted to compete had tens or thousands of euros worth fluorocarbon powders in its wax boxes.

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Wax techs are the hardworking roadies who prep skis or boards. They constantly test new approaches to find the best powders and waxes.

However, after research revealed that these compounds are dangerous to humans and animals (and other species), governments and international sport federations decided to ban them.

With a view to the next month’s Beijing Winter Games, we will be following snow-sport teams from around the globe, including a collection of Canadian team members, as well as Mr. Chisholm. In an effort to find advantages over other countries, we have spent the last few years trying out new treatments.

According to Mr. Chisholm, it is turning into an arms race.

This is a fitting analogy since PFCs were first deployed during a different type of arms race. The compounds were discovered in a DuPont lab back in 1938 and proved to be virtually indestructible. This made them extremely useful in the development and testing of the atomic bomb.

PFCs’ amazing ability to repel other substances was exploited by manufacturers in peacetime.

However, the same quality that gives PFCs superpower is also their Achilles heel.

The compounds are composed of long chains of carbon or fluorine. They are so strong that they can be broken apart by almost anything. They are known as “forever chemicals”. This property makes them great at soaking up rain, but it also means they take forever for to break down in the bloodstreams. They are classified as PBTs, persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals.

An Estonian service technician waxes skis in preparation for a cross country race at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press

The International Ski Federation, which regulates many countries’ ski and snowboard competitions, banned the materials last year. Perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOAs, has been banned. These acids are commonly known as C8s. They consist of spines made up of eight carbon atoms. C6s fluorocarbons are still permitted, as they are shorter and take longer to break down.

The ban is currently voluntary because it is not possible to enforce. A hand-held sensor device that could quickly and accurately detect the presence of flourines is still in development. The current method to test for all this stuff is to fill a room full of helium and then you burn everything inside. You can then see whats left.

Even a simple test that involves scraping a small amount of wax from the base a ski or snowboard could make a big difference in performance.

Although national sports organizations have pledged not to use C8s during competitions in Falun, Sweden, earlier this month, the Norwegian news agency NRK reported that the International Ski Federation confirmed the presence C8s on equipment at a recent competition that took place in Falun. This included Olympians from Norway and Sweden. Authorities have not revealed the identities of the ski-tainted competitors.

With strict enforcement Canada’s snow-sport federations realized that they needed to improve their technological approaches to skiing and board preparation. The pandemic caused athletes to stop training and many other activities. This led to innovation that Mr. Chisholm believes is already paying off.

We have a fairly European-based sports system. When COVID made it impossible for us to travel to Europe, it forced us to centralize what we have here in Canada. He is not only a biathlon Canada representative, but he also serves as the ski-board technology coordinator for Own the Podium. The national non-profit dedicated helping Canada win more Paralympic, Olympic, and Olympic medals.

In August 2020, techs from Alpine Canada and Nordiq Canada, Biathlon Canada, and Canada’s national snowboard cross team moved into a new laboratory and workshop in Canmore Alta. They could learn from each others, share their techniques, and brainstorm together.

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Blake Lewis, lead technician for the snowboardcross team, said that there are between 30 and 40 things that we need to be aware of that are always changing. There is a lot to be learned and tested.

Blake Lewis and Mr. Chisholm are the lead technicians for snowboard cross.Handout

The new research-and-development hub, officially known by the Ski Technicians Association of Canada Centre of Excellence (or STAC COE), is partially funded by Own the Podium. This group works with National Sports Organizations to prioritize investments in ventures that could increase medal counts.

They look a lot like a cigarette. Dragons DenMr. Lewis stated that Own the Podiums input to the Centres activities was very common. We say, “Hey, we have this idea.” They poke holes in it and challenge us. They will fund it or help us find funding.

The techs are reluctant to talk too much about their experiences working together. Mr. Lewis stated that national teams have advantages for shorter windows and that they want to keep theirs for the window that they have.

Mr. Chisolm agreed. He stated that ski performance will be very different between countries for the first two seasons after the ban. He admitted that he spent a lot time using high-end computer-controlled grinders to imprint different microscopic patterns onto the bases of skis.

The bottom of your skis is not as smooth and smooth as glass, he said. There is a structure to it, as well as different shapes and depths. We have a lot of options. One pattern might be good for damp, warm conditions that channel water away from the skis base. A different pattern would work better in dry, cold conditions.

Fluorocarbons can be used as a band-aid. They can be used to cover up any less-than-great ski preparation work and make the skis run very well. We don’t have that anymore, so it’s going to be about finding what the next best thing is, Mr. Chisholm stated. There will be some things that are good in the new era we are entering, but it will be a difficult task to find them.

He added that the Centre of Excellence is an example of the power of collaboration across different sports disciplines. It will give us an advantage we didn’t have going into the Olympics. We may not have the best, but we will be right there with everyone else at Olympics because of what happened at the COE.

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