In order to legally compete in any event sanctioned by the International Ski Federation, there are 47 pages worth of rules regarding equipment that athletes must comply with. Within these pages, collectively of the Specifications for Competition Equipment and Commercial Markings, certain equipment is forbidden (like collapsing poles) and a ski’s minimum weight is limited (to 750 grams per pair for cross-country).
Four whole pages of that document are dedicated to the fabric and construction of ski jumping suits. At the FIS Congress last month, a particular one-sentence modification was made to that section that could have a far-reaching impact on jumping and nordic combined: the maximum tolerance in the size of a jumping suit went from a loose-fitting 6 centimeters greater than body size to no tolerance at all. Beginning with the Summer Grand Prix this July, nordic combined athletes will be jumping in form-fitting suits.
This may seem like a tiny equipment rule change, but suit greatly affects an athlete’s jump. First and foremost, a looser suit has extra surface area to catch more wind during flight. Its greater flexibility allows for more mobility in the upper body and legs during an in-run.
Nordic combined inherits its jumping equipment rules directly from the ski jumping section of the rulebook. According to U.S. Ski Team (USST) Head Coach Dave Jarrett, who attended Congress where the rule was finalized, the ultimate intention of the zero-tolerance suit is to minimize the wind’s effect on the outcome of jumping competitions. In theory, this objective will be realized in several aspects of the sport, most obviously by making the suit less like a sail.
“Think of it like those wing suits for base jumping,” Jarrett said. “If you have one of those, obviously you could jump farther compared with an alpine suit. That’s the idea.”
The rule could also leave less room for subjectivity in pre-comp suit inspections and level the playing field for small teams without the budget to test hundreds of different suits, which run around $500 dollars each.
The intent sounds straightforward enough, but in practice, athletes and coaches don’t think the rule will have the desired effect. Jarrett says FIS didn’t extensively test tighter suits prior to passing the rule, which puts teams in an uncertain position until they see how the suits actually perform in competition and find out how controllers will enforce the rule.
“It could be hard to enforce as it’s written now; it’s one of those things where we don’t know if it’s going to serve the purpose it’s intended to do,” Jarrett said. “I really wish they would have tested it before just passing judgment down saying, ‘This is what we’re doing; everybody’s got to change.’ We don’t know if it’s going to work.”
Bryan Fletcher and his USST teammates have long practiced jumping in skin-tight alpine and cross-country suits just for the added challenge, and have experience with less body resistance in training.
“The tighter suit is definitely going to make a difference on the jump hill,” Fletcher said.
But experience with tighter alternatives in training doesn’t translate directly into knowledge of the new suit’s effect. World Cup competition suits must be made out of a specific fabric manufactured by the Swiss textile company Eschler. Unlike the cross-country and alpine suits used in training, it measures about a centimeter thick. As of now, athletes must use that same fabric in their new form-fitting suits, which presents some practical challenges.
“We’ve already made a couple suits here, and it’s unclear whether the seams will hold. You’re using material that has to stretch but maybe wasn’t supposed to stretch that much,” Jarrett explained.
Eschler might make a more elastic material to accommodate the new rule, but it won’t be available immediately. Meanwhile, athletes will be back to international competition come July for the Summer Grand Prix whether a new fabric is in production or not.
“A lot of questions need to be answered, and they’ll only be answered through trial and error, unfortunately,” Jarrett said.
Besides uncertainly over the fabric itself, Fletcher foresees the new suits potentially having the opposite of the intended effect on the relationship between wind and results. Athletes jumping with headwind or tailwind will all be jumping at higher speeds in the more aerodynamic suits, but Fletcher thinks that athletes jumping with bad wind will stand even less of a chance that they did before.
“Personally, I think this’ll make wind more of an issue,” he said. “With the tighter suits, if you have good headwind, you’re still going to be able to jump really far. However, if you have tailwind, it’ll make [the wind] that much more effective,” meaning detrimental, to the jump.
With less body/suit surface area, skis will be catching a larger percentage of the wind in flight. From his experience in training, Fletcher expects this to translate to less stability during flight in windy conditions.
“Jumpers will have a little bit less control of their skis, so you’ll probably see the skis moving around a little bit more and jumpers … reacting in order to stay on top and not crash,” he said.
The higher speed itself is another thing for skiers to think about. Through the first part of the flight, Fletcher said speed wouldn’t make much difference, but past the knoll at the bottom of the hill and coming into the landing, “your flight is not going to be as effective. You’re going to be moving faster and you’re not going to be stopping as much air,” Fletcher explained.
This will make it more difficult to carry momentum. “Which, you know, brings up a couple of concerns from the athletes,” Fletcher continued. “With the higher speed and the higher flight line, athletes are worried about jumping too far a bit more than in the past. With the bigger suits you’d be coming into the landing a little bit slower. Now with the tighter suits, you’d be coming in a little bit faster and at a different profile, so the impact to the ground will be a little bit harder.”
Athletes and coaches will see how significant the new suits are in July. Until then, Flecher said that athletes of several nations on the World Cup are trying to figure out the basics, like whether they’ll be able to jump in the same style.
This has been difficult since FIS hasn’t yet specified how the rule will be enforced. For example, members of the Norwegian nordic combined team have spent the last few weeks training with the USST in Park City, Utah. Upon discussing the new suits, the two teams found their respective interpretations of the rule to be different.
With the confusion over the new suits, that natural question becomes: who voted for them? The ski jumping committee was specifically tasked with the item where input from coaches of multiple nations was taken into consideration. Jarrett said there were plenty of nations for and against the rule, and indicated that the issues come less from the rule itself and more from the timing and execution. FIS hasn’t been clear about how it will be enforced, and athletes must adapt to it the season before the Olympics.
Overall however, Jarrett is frustrated with the rule change, which is the latest FIS has made in a series of equipment modifications to control for wind in ski jumping. In an outdoor sport, he says, wind is just something you have to deal with.
“Instead of trying to control something we can’t see and have no control over and can’t predict, we’re just going to have to make sure everything is safe,” he said. “Yes, sometimes certain athletes get unlucky with bad wind while others benefit from a change in direction later on in the day. But, it’s an outdoor sport and that’s the way it goes. But over the course of a season … it seems like everybody’s luck would even out. Sometimes you’d have good luck and sometimes you’d have bad luck.”
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Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.