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The Wind at Olympic Training Venues

By Zhang Shuhong Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2022-05-12

On the evening of February 16, Zhangjiakou's Genting Snow Park hosted the freestyle skiing men's aerials final of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games. The Lantern Festival had just passed, and the first full moon of the new lunar year shone brightly on the jump platform. Chinese athlete Qi Guangpu launched himself into the air. Like a beam of light slicing through the dark, Qi rose high before executing a flip and smoothly returning to his feet. The flawless jump had secured gold for Qi, and the cold night air bubbled with excitement. 

Snow events constitute much of the highlight of the Winter Olympics, but they have long been a weakness for China. Chinese athletes dreamed of making a breakthrough in snow events on their native soil. A team of Chinese scientists also harbored the same aspiration. Shao Yun, a professor at the Aerospace Information Research Institute (AIR) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), was one such scientist. 

Modern competitive sports are also a test of technological capability. The mountains that hosted the snow events of the Beijing Winter Games have a complex meteorological environment. For an athlete attempting to execute one fluid movement in 20 seconds or less, the ever-changing wind is a decisive factor in performance. Previously, Chinese national coaches relied on wind flags to determine the wind direction and speed and instructed athletes based on their subjective experience. But Shao Yun had spent a long time wondering if it would be possible to "see" the elusive wind swirling on the training grounds. Having spent many years on basic and applied research of microwave remote sensing systems, she has developed a high-performance platform for microwave target property measurement and engaged in research on observing the inversion of sea surface winds using microwave remote sensing techniques. She wondered if she could contribute to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games by testing to see if these technologies could be applied at the training venues for snow events. To find out, she acted quickly to establish a cross-discipline research team.


Chinese athlete Qi Guangpu celebrates after winning gold in the freestyle skiing men's aerials final at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, China, February 16, 2022. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER XIAO YIJIU 

Shao Yun and her team of researchers left the laboratory at the end of 2018 and hit the road with the national team, traveling to training camps in the mountains of Yakeshi and Arxan in Inner Mongolia and Zhangjiakou and Laiyuan in Hebei, seeking research breakthroughs. After more than 500 days of observation, the research team developed a cross-disciplinary innovation, combining high-precision wind measurement systems, fine-tuned simulators, AI data analysis, and a real-time data network, along with a handheld display device, to create the very first on-site support system for competitive snow sports. The system can provide accurate meteorological information during training for competitive outdoor snow sports events. 

For modern scientists, data is the most objective expression of wind, and Shao Yun employed a wind index to describe wind conditions. The support system is capable of providing high-precision wind measurement data up to a height of 10 meters. The data is immediately converted into a figure on the wind index and delivered to a handheld device in the coach's hand. This innovation significantly boosted the efficiency of training and dramatically reduced the risk of injury. 

On January 19, 2021, President Xi Jinping visited the National Ski Jumping Center while inspecting the preparations for the Beijing Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. He watched on with interest as the athletes ran through their drills. When Xi heard that coaches were using an AI device to help them improve the quality of training, he expressed his support, pointing out that innovation should be used to improve winter sports in China in the same way it is being used for strengthening the country. 

Shao and her team took great encouragement from President Xi's words. They continued working to improve their support system, and successively extended its coverage to training programs for ten national teams of snow events, including aerial skiing, biathlon, ski jumping, and Nordic combined. In July 2021, the Winter Sports Management Center of the General Administration of Sport of China awarded Shao the title of "China's Snow Sports Scientist." As the Chinese national team picked up gold after gold at the Winter Games, the role of Shao's system was sincerely recognized by national coaches and athletes alike. 

With technology serving as wings, winter sports in China have now truly taken flight. During the Winter Olympic preparations, science and technology were integrated in many spheres, including performance enhancement, nutrition, equipment and materials, stadiums and facilities, and meteorological measurement. Over 200 dedicated technological outcomes were developed for Beijing 2022 by more than 10,000 scientif ic research personnel and successfully deployed during the Games. Application of these new technologies will not be limited to the Olympics. In the post-Olympic era, they will be used for the benefit of the public and to drive sustained development of winter sports and support high-quality economic and social development. 

"In future, this system can be employed in the wind energy sector and other similar areas. We will work with any sector that has a use for this technology," said Shao Yun. To see the profession that she loves satisfying a major national need fills her with immense pride and an even greater determination to do well.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 5, 2022)