There's a lot going on at the Sochi Games, and a lot of it is unfamiliar to U.S. audiences. That's where we come in. We're here to answer your questions, both thoughtful and ridiculous. Got one? Hit us up by email right here. We continue today with a question asked by an awful lot of you, including Ray from Australia, Byron from Montana, and "T.M." from parts unknown.
What's the material on the ski jump? Is it snow?
The ski jump is one of the most visually impressive and flat-out terrifying events of the entire Olympics, even though it's the event with probably the shortest actual competition time. As jumpers have grown bolder, safety measures have improved, and technology has improved, we've seen significant changes to the sport.
We'll get to the grooves on the ramp, but let's back up a bit. First of all, this is an incredibly dangerous sport. There's a reason it was used as the "agony of defeat" symbolizer in the old ABC Wide World of Sports intro:
It's also so dangerous that Olympic officials, in their sweet paternalistic wisdom, wouldn't allow women until this year because they were afraid (and this is not a joke) that "a woman’s reproductive organs could be damaged — even dislodged — by the cumulative impact of ski-jump landings."
Lindsey Van, current Olympian and staunch supporter of women's ski jumping, has had a biting response to that argument: “I’ve had people ask me had my uterus fallen out yet. I heard that multiple times; it was comical. And embarrassing — not so much for me but for whoever said it."
Well. Where to go from there? How about, back to the point. The reason why the skier in the video above, a fellow by the name of Vinko Bogataj of Slovenia, pinwheeled off the side of the jump is because the ramp was covered with snow, and he was trying to stop himself. As anyone who's ever skied knows, unexpected snow while traveling at a high rate of speed can tilt your skis in an unplanned direction. When that happens at the bottom of a ramp atop a 120-foot jump, well ... that's not good.
Hence, the grooves. They're made of ceramic, and utilize a technology known as "ALOSLIDE." It allows for a smooth inrun (what ski jumpers call that terrifying run down the ramp). According to Ceramtec, manufacturer of the ramp system, cooling elements inside the grooves create a layer of ice 20 millimeters thick in temperatures as warm as 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
So there you go. It's controlled ice, not uncontrolled snow. Get in the grooves, stay in the grooves, pray like hell you can land without shattering several bones and liquefying your innards. Easy.
Want a sense of what it's like to go off a ski jump? Here's first-person video from last December at Lake Placid. It's not a perfect analogue to Sochi, but it's as close as any of us are likely — or want — to get to flying the length of a football field:
Whew. Yes. There's a reason most of us aren't Winter Olympians.