Accusations of cheating have been hurled at the UK skeleton team after the aerodynamic attributes of their skinsuits are praised in the Guardian. But is this a case of innovation breaking the rules?

Are you one of the hundreds of companies involved in the build-up to such huge sporting events? Innovation in textiles, equipment and training are a large part of any team’s success on the world stage. This story is a surprising scandal because the rules of all the different sports are so transparent and R&D projects can only be successful if they meet their demands .

Tech Innovation cross-over from cycling to skeleton

TotalSim is a Northampton based company specialising in computational fluid dynamics (CFD). TechTargetWhatis? Defines CFD as, “the use of applied mathematics, physics and computational software to visualize how a gas or liquid flows — as well as how the gas or liquid affects objects as it flows past.” To the layperson, a reasonable summary would be how aerodynamic performance can be improved by combining the latest scientific, mathematical and technological know-how.

In December 2017 their CEO Dr. Rob Lewis was awarded an OBE for his services to sport, specifically for innovations to the suits worn by Olympic cyclists and Paralympians.

They also published a blog article in December 2017 entitled ‘Developing the World’s Fastest Skinsuit’ which revealed their success with the British Cycling teams “led us to launch a 3 year R&D programme, in collaboration with Cranfield University, to commercialise and exploit our expertise, making it accessible to the public.” We hope they got the full R&D tax relief claim in for that. Part of this development was designing a wind tunnel “that has been designed specifically for the application of fabric samples, with the ability to house 3 sizes of cylinder, to simulate a range of body parts”.

What’s the controversy?

Fast forward to February 2018 and there are allegations that the skinsuit design of the British skeleton team breaks the rules of the sport. TotalSim invited ITV’s Good Morning Britain journalist Juliet Dunlop in for an interview to clarify their involvement, with Dr. Lewis saying, “TotalSim have not been directly involved in the suits but we have helped develop IP for English Institute of Sport over the last 3 Olympic campaigns for British Cycling which may or may not have been transferred.”

According to the Olympic Regulations for the skeleton sliding sport, “no aerodynamic elements whatsoever may be attached either outside or under the race suit”. The British team’s suits have been made using 3D scan of their bodies to get a perfect fit and have ridges to combat drag resistance and increase sliding capacity. They have been ruled legal by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation and the UK’s Laura Deas and current Olympic champion Lizzy Yarnold hold their spots as top two favourites for gold.

Where did the accusation come from?

It was the USA’s former world champion, Katie Uhlaender, that raised the complaint after reading a Guardian article about the UK team’s skinsuits. The first paragraph connects the previous cycling innovation to the success of the UK skeleton team in their practice runs, “Some of the technical innovations that have seen Britain’s cyclists dominate in the velodrome at recent Summer Olympic Games are now being used by GB’s skeleton riders to set scintillatingly fast times at the Winter Olympics in South Korea.”

Why all the fuss?

Considering that an investigation has happened and no rules have been violated by team GB’s skeleton suits, there are those who think that the allegations have been made to mentally disrupt their preparations. Chemmy Alcott described them as “dirty tactics” during the BBC’s Winter Olympic coverage and spoke of the immense mental challenge the athletes face, as well as the physical demands of this dangerous sport.

If you are involved in any kind of sport-related innovation, make sure you find out how much R&D tax relief you can claim. Hopefully you won’t end up in the middle of such a controversial situation.

 

Darren Moynan