Sizing Up the Olympics

Closing Ceremony for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games

Closing Ceremony for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games

Credit: / Korean Culture and Information Service (Korean Olympic Committee) CC BY-SA 2.0

The next round of the Winter Olympic Games will occur between February 9th and 29th in PyeongChang, Korea. This is, of course, a chance for the world’s best athletes to compete against one another and for the rest of us to marvel at their abilities.

But instead of just comparing the accomplishments of one to the other, what about taking a look at how the Olympics measure up against science and nature?


distance triptych

Left: Track, Katie Peek. Middle: 2010 Winter Olympics leading group in the Nordic combined, 10km, Kevin Pedraja/Seattle, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0; Right: Earth, Katie Peek

While the Summer Games feature several long distance events (marathon, 250-km cycling, triathlon, etc.), the distances are generally shorter for the Winter Games. That said, there are still some very grueling events that would make most mortals despair. In particular, we are thinking of the 30-km and 50-km cross-country, or Nordic, skiing competitions for women and men respectively.


  • Track in Lane 1: 400 m

  • Olympic cross-country skiing event: 50,000 m

  • Shortest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean: 2,600,000 m


mass triptych

Left: DNA, Katie Peek; Middle: Helen Glover with her 2012 Olympic Gold medal, Thomaswwp, CC BY-SA 3.0; Right: Golden Retriever, Katie Peek

The Games in PyeongChang will include the heaviest weighing medals ever. Winners at these 2018 Games will receive a gold at 586 grams, silver at 580 grams, and bronze at 493 grams. In case you didn’t know, the medals are never pure gold, silver or bronze, but must meet certain standards and amounts for ratios of the precious metals. The host city’s organizing committee then decides the medals’ exact composition.


  • DNA in a Human Cell: 6x10^-15 kg

  • Olympic Gold in PyeongChang: 0.586 kg

  • Adult Golden Retriever: 36 kg


speed triptych

Left: Cheetah, Katie Peek; Middle: Andrej Šporn at the 2010 Winter Olympic downhill, Jon Wick, CC BY-SA 2.0; Right: Sound waves, Katie Peek

When downhill skiers get going, watch out. The top speed in an official downhill event like those in the Olympics has been clocked around 95 mph (about 150 km/hr) or 42 m/s. We don’t even feel safe driving in a car at that speed, let alone flying down an icy mountain strapped to two skinny, slippery boards.


  • Fastest Land Animal (cheetah): 27 m/s

  • Top downhill speed: 42 m/s

  • Speed of Sound: 343 m/s


acceleration triptych

Left: Jupiter, Katie Peek; Middle: United States goaltender Ryan Miller in US versus Canada, 2010 Winter Olympics, Leech44 CC BY-SA 2.0; Right: Human limit test, Katie Peek

The term acceleration most often refers to an object increasing in speed. In fact, acceleration is defined as both any change to the amount of speed -- both faster and slower -- but also in the direction of an object’s motion. (Think of the pull you feel going around the corner on a roller coaster.) In the Olympics, as with many sports, the ability to change directions and speeds is crucial.


  • Gravity at Jupiter’s surface: 23.1 m/s^2

  • Slapshot in hockey: 1,230 m/s^2

  • Record for human limit: 453 m/s^2 *

* Colonel John Paul Stapp was a US Air Force pilot who wanted to test how much acceleration the human body could endure. In 1954, Stapp rode a decelerator sled that caused him to experience over 46 times the “g” force, defying the medical community’s consensus of what was possible.


spin triptych

Left: Washing machine, clipart; Middle: Yuna Kim spins on ice, Flickr;

Right: Race track, Katie Peek

The idea of rotation, that is, how fast something is spinning around an axis, can be found everywhere from children’s merry go rounds to washing machines. Rotation is also extremely important in many Olympic sports including freestyle skiing and snowboarding. Perhaps the quintessential rotation example in sports, however, is in ice skating where Olympic and professional skaters perform spins at vertigo-inducing spins (at least for us non-skaters).


  • Ice Skater’s Spin: 5 Hz*

  • Washing Machine: 20 Hz *

  • Crankshaft in Formula One engine: 250 Hz

* The unit of Hz, or Hertz, measures one revolution per second. Perhaps a more familiar unit for most in rotation – at least for car enthusiasts – is the RPM, which stands for “revolutions per minute.”


Left: Blood pressure, Katie Peek; Middle: Olympic medalist speed skater Shani Davis, Getty Images; Right: Karate strike, Katie Peek.

We will all hear the term “pressure” a lot during the Olympic Games. In sports, it refers to a high stress situation. The definition of pressure in science is much more specific. It means the amount of force over a certain area. Think of pushing your palm into a wall. It generally doesn’t go through. Use that same force on a thumbtack and it will go right in. That’s because the force has been concentrated onto a much smaller area, in this case the head of a pin.


  • Average Human Blood Pressure: 100,000 pascals

  • Speed Skater on Ice: 1,000,000 pascals *

  • Karate First Strike: 90 million pascals

* The amount of pressure exerted by the skater’s blade onto the ice depends on the weight of the skater and the length and width of the blade.

The athletes in the Olympics can do amazing things, but perhaps more fascinating is what happens every day in science, nature, and technology all around us.

This article was cross posted to Medium.

Megan Watzke and Kimberly Arcand are the co-authors of “Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe” ( now available wherever books are sold. This illustrated book takes readers on a journey to explore the lightest and heaviest, fastest and slowest, hottest and coldest, largest and smallest, loudest and quietest phenomena in the Universe.

#olympics #sports #speed #pressure #acceleration #mass #distance

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