Olympic dreams inspire firms to innovate

Boats in the 470 class races at the 2008 Olympics
Image caption Rowing and sailing provided some of the most hotly-contested results at the 2008 Beijing games

In many Olympic sports, the margin between winning a bronze, silver, or coveted gold medal, can sometimes be measured in milliseconds or millimetres.

The performance by any individual or team can usually be attributed to a number of factors: the training programme, the competitor's physical and mental condition, the weather, the correct diet, sheer determination and occasionally, just old-fashioned luck.

But in some sports, the difference between a place on the winner's podium, or the dashing of an Olympic dream, can be down to the equipment being used.

Rowing and sailing are sports in which equipment plays a key role in ensuring a top performance.

"Having the best boat is a vital component for any crew with Olympic ambitions," says Elvira Luykx at DSM, the Dutch life science company.

As a partner in sport to the Dutch Olympic Committee, DSM were responsible for developing the material used in building the 470 class sailing vessels used in Beijing in 2008 - material which has now been adopted by almost all national teams.

Quest for perfection

There are strict guidelines to follow but developing a boat requires involvement from the national rowing team, the coaches and the crews.

"On one hand you have that pull, but on the other you have the push because we want to show what we have developed," says Ms Luykx.

Setting their sights firmly on the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, DSM have developed the boats being used by the Dutch men's and women's 8 crews.

"Development in resin technology has increased the stiffness of the hull by 25% compared with regular boats, while maintaining the lightweight structure," she explains.

The extra stiffness reduces the amount of energy lost due to deformation of the hull, a common issue because of the force used by the crew during every stroke.

Reducing the deformation of the hull means the crew can build up and maintain a better speed.

It might seem to be a disadvantage to spend money and time in research and development, only for it to be used by competitors but, according to Olympic rules, teams cannot use materials which are not available to everybody.

"It is unlikely that teams will have boats the same as ours even if they use the same materials, because we have our wish list and have given specific instructions to the boat-maker about how our materials are used and applied," she says.

"We might learn who has used our products after the games and who is going to use them in the future," she says, "In much the same way that the materials and techniques we used for the Dutch bobsleigh team in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver are now used by the Canadian team."

However, prior to the games, she says, "Everybody tries to keep it a little bit secret."

Indeed, the sport is shrouded in such secrecy that the British rowing team were even reluctant to say who makes their boats,

Styled to order

One man who knows those secrets is Helmut Empacher, whose great-grandfather began building boats in 1923.

"If anyone from any nation makes a suggestion we don't publish it," he says, "The British team has a few special requests which no other team has."

Based in Eberbach in Germany, the Empacher company employs 80 people and supplies boats to a large number of crews rowing in international competitions, including the World Championships and the Olympics.

"We supply many national teams. I would say that more than 50% of the medals will be won in our boats," he says.

He supplies boats which are modified according to the wishes of individual teams and rowers.

Requests to personalise a boat take into account the average weight of the crew, the rowing style - for example, a team which sits more upright can use a shorter boat, requirements for a certain shoe angle, or a choice of carbon or wooden seats.

"This year we have developed carbon riggers to hold the oars, which are lighter and stiffer," he says.

Image caption Rowing has been an Olympic sport since 1896, but it was cancelled that year because of bad weather

"They are also less wind resistant, because London can be windy," he laughs.

"The person who designed our riggers has links to Formula One motor racing, so we have people who bring their expertise from other fields," he says.

The payback

DSM meanwhile, will be hoping that their development investment pays off and they will be cheering on the orange boats competing in the Olympic events.

"You can't always see the end results but this is a showcase so customers can see what we do in the area of innovation," Ms Luykx says.

But to win and come home with those precious medals requires a team effort.

"The athletes must be healthy, mentally fit, they must have the right coaching, everything must be right to row that race for the medal - the lights must be green, as green as possible to make it all come together. What we do is just one part of it," she concludes.

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