Thursday, October 13, 2011

Setting a Speed Trap

[COVER_BOTT] Andrew Burton for The Wall Street Journal

Torin Koos of the U.S. competes in the men's 4x10km relay race at Whistler Olympic Park this week during the Olympics.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia—Don't believe them when they tell you the Winter Olympics are all about courage, hard work, mental toughness and grace under pressure. There's only one quality that's universally worshipped here in Vancouver—going fast.

The heroes of these games, from Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn to speed skater Apolo Ohno and even figure-skater Kim Yu-na, all depend—to some extent—on the ability to move at a hair-raising pace. Speed is one of the elements that makes the Winter Games the jaw-dropping spectacle that it is (it's also the element that makes it dangerous: Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died in a training run just before the Games began, lost control of his sled at an estimated 90 miles per hour).


Olympics: Faster Than a Speeding... Zamboni?


Speed has been a dominant factor at these Winter Games. The Wall Street Journal equipped some reporters on the ground with a radar gun to track speed at events. WSJ's Bryan Gruley talks with Kelsey Hubbard about some of the surprising results.

The odd thing about the Olympics is that for all the stopwatches and television cameras trained on its events, raw speed isn't something that's consistently measured. We already know who the fastest Olympians are—a Canadian bobsledder took that prize at the Whistler Sliding Centre with a speed that wasn't too far from triple digits. High up there in the speed rankings were the downhill skiers, who reach speeds well into the 70s.

But what about everyone else?

To find out just how fast Winter Olympic events really are, we rented a Stalker Sport radar gun.

With one of these things, you don't have to listen to the "experts" tell you how fast Olympians are traveling. The gun doesn't lie.

What we found was more than a little interesting. Did you know curlers occasionally go over the speed limit of some gated communities in Florida? Did you know speed skaters go faster than snowboarders in a half pipe? Did you know cross-country skiers are faster than hockey players? We didn't either, until we figured out how to use the thing.

91 MPH: Women's Bobsled

[RADAR1] Getty Images

Kallie Humphries and Heather Moyse, Canada

59 MPH: Team Ski Jumping

[RADAR2] Bongarts/Getty Images

Thomas Morgenstern, Austria

54 MPH: Ski Cross

[RADAR3] The Canadian Press/Associated Press

Christopher Del Bosco, Canada

At a recent men's curling match, we had the pleasure to speak with a seasoned expert on radar guns: a Vancouver police officer, who first ribbed us for renting a Stalker, which, he said, wasn't the latest in radar technology. "Wait till I tell the guys back at the station you've got a Stalker," he laughed.

Steve Hocker, senior product manager for Applied Concepts, the Stalker's manufacturer, says that the Sport model is an older machine but was updated about two years ago. He says the technology, which uses Doppler radar, is accurate to within one mile per hour and is the best system for clocking sports.

Newer speed guns used by law enforcement have narrow beams that are good for clocking specific automobiles, he says, but are less adept at catching the speed of a pitcher's fastball or getting a reading on a skier whipping around gates on a slalom course. (The newer models also cost $2,800, about twice as much as the Stalker Sport).

So what did the gun tell us? Curling may be the slowest sport at the Winter Olympics, but it's not as pokey as you'd think. When someone is curling, they usually move somewhere around seven or eight mph, which is slower than the hockey referees we timed during stoppages of play. But when curlers want to knock a bunch of stones out of the way, they can slide along the ice at a furious 10 mph.

That's still slower than a Zamboni ice-cleaning machine, which we clocked at 11 mph, but just barely. Now we understand why this game got the Scottish so excited.

If curlers go 10 miles per hour, Olympic hockey players must go around 90, right? Wrong. While hockey players got up to roughly 20 miles an hour while back checking, most of the time they were cruising around the ice at a pedestrian 14 miles per hour. When Latvia's Kristaps Sotnieks took a pass on the blue line with a clear lane to the net during Friday's game against the Czech Republic, he reached a max of 16 mph before scoring. To put that in perspective: It's slightly slower than the cross-country skiers we clocked on the downhill portion of the course in Whistler, and about 35% slower than a women's short-track speed skater.

Most Olympic events are designed to reward consistency and precision. But if they changed the rules to award medals for the highest top speed achieved, Austria's Romed Baumann would have a medal. He finished fifth in men's giant slalom Tuesday, only a split second away from winning. During the final stretch of the run, however, we clocked him at 53 miles per hour, faster than any of the medalists that day.

China's Zhifeng Sun didn't technically win the women's halfpipe snowboard competition here in British Columbia. But maybe she should have: While other snowboarders were going down the halfpipe in the mid-to-high-20-mile-per-hour range, we clocked Ms. Sun at about 31 miles per hour, the fastest top speed our gun registered that evening.

So what does Ms. Sun get for pushing it harder than any of her competitors? Absolutely nothing.

The Radar Games


Click above to see a comparison of speeds for different events.

When Christopher Del Bosco of Canada qualified for the semifinals in men's ski cross, he was going faster than 54 miles per hour as he came over the final jump of the course. That was the fastest speed for any competitor that day, and it presaged good things for the Canadian. But Mr. Del Bosco was a little too fast in the finals. In place to win a bronze medal, he fell in the final stretch.

American speed skater Shani Davis wanted gold in the men's 1,500-meter competition, but Dutchman Mark Tuitert stole it away from him by a mere 0.53 second. Our speed gun, however, said Mr. Davis reached a top speed of 37 miles per hour—faster than Mr. Tuitert's peak of 35.3. That's gotta count for something, right?

If there's any unofficial speed record for the Winter Games, it was likely set in 1992 in Albertville, France, when the International Olympic Committee made speed skiing a demonstration sport. The object of the sport is pretty simple: Someone skis down a straight slope as fast as they can wearing aerodynamic gear. It's one of the fastest things humans can do without the help of an engine. In that event, the skiers went about 125 miles per hour, nearly 40% faster than the fastest lugers go. Why is this not the showcase Olympic event?

If you're looking for the slowest Olympic activity, we don't have a ready answer. We tried to take a reading while waiting in line for beer at Canada Hockey Place–but the pace was so slow it didn't register on the Stalker.

—Matthew Futterman and Phred Dvorak contributed to this article

Write to Reed Albergotti at

No comments:

Post a Comment