How an environmental ban on toxic ski waxes prompted an Olympic snow-sport arms race

Andrew Chisholm works at the Ski Technicians Association of Canada Centre of Excellence in Canmore, Alta., a research hub designed to support ventures that might increase Olympic medal counts.Handout

Andrew Chisholm wasn’t even alive at the time, but he has heard the stories of what happened when the miracle substance was first used, in secret, on the ski racing circuit. “I think it was in the mid- to late-1980s when the Italians first started waxing with pure fluorocarbon powders,” said Mr. Chisholm, an assistant coach and ski technician with Biathlon Canada. “It wasn’t even fair. Their skis were so much better than everyone else’s, and nobody could figure out what they were doing.”

Mr. Chisholm was referring to perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs – chemicals that almost magically repel water, grease and dirt, and that can therefore add extraordinary glide to skis and snowboards. After the Italian triumphs in the eighties, he said, whispers began to circulate about the special source of the country’s speed. PFCs became a standard component of snow wax, and eventually any national team that was serious about competing had “tens of thousands of euros of fluorocarbon powders in their wax boxes.”

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Wax techs – the hard-working roadies who prep skis and boards – would constantly test different approaches, looking for a unique alchemy of powders and waxes and application techniques that, along with grinding and finishing, might give their athletes an edge over racers from other countries.

But after research emerged showing the compounds are harmful to humans and animals, governments and international sport federations began to ban them.

And so, with an eye to next month’s Beijing Winter Games, snow-sport teams around the world, including a collection of Canadian teams with which Mr. Chisholm is involved, have spent the past few years experimenting with new treatments that might make up for the loss of PFCs, in hopes of discovering advantages over other countries similar to the one the Italians once had.

“It’s really turning into an arms race again,” Mr. Chisholm said.

That’s a fitting analogy, because PFCs were first deployed in a different kind of arms race. Discovered in a DuPont lab in 1938, the compounds were found to be all but indestructible. That made them extremely helpful during the development of the atomic bomb, when the U.S. military needed seals and gaskets that could withstand corrosion in uranium-refining plants.

In peacetime, manufacturers exploited PFCs’ amazing ability to repel other substances, deploying them in a wide array of consumer products, from non-stick cookware (sold under the brand name Teflon) and carpet treatments (3M’s Scotchguard) to athleisure wear, Gore-Tex, paints and food packaging.

But the same quality that gives PFCs their superpower also became their Achilles heel.

In scientific terms, the compounds consist of long chains of carbon and fluorine, elements that bond so strongly that almost nothing can tear them apart. That’s why they’re known as “forever chemicals.” While this property makes them excellent at beading rain off umbrellas, it also means they take, well, forever to break down in the bloodstreams of humans and animals. That puts them in a class known as PBTs: persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals.

An Estonian service technician waxes skis before a cross-country race at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler.Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press

Last year, the International Ski Federation, which governs ski and snowboard competitions in many countries, introduced a ban on the materials. Strictly speaking, only one type of fluorocarbon has been banned: perfluorooctanoic acids, or PFOAs, which are known colloquially as C8s because they consist of spines of eight carbon atoms. Fluorocarbons known as C6s, which are shorter and are believed to take less time to break down, are still permitted.

For the moment, though, the ban is effectively a voluntary one, because proper enforcement is impossible: after years of development, a hand-held sensor device, which could give a quick and accurate reading of the presence of flourines, isn’t yet ready for use. “The current way to test for all of this stuff is to fill a room with helium, and you burn everything inside and you see what’s left over,” explained Mr. Chisholm, who noted with a chuckle that the method isn’t great “if you want your skis back, after.”

Even a less intrusive test, which would involve scraping a tiny sample of wax from the base of a ski or board, could cause a significant difference in performance.

National sports organizations have signed a pledge not to use C8s, but apparently not everyone is on board: Earlier this month, the Norwegian news service NRK reported that the International Ski Federation had confirmed the presence of C8s on equipment during a recent competition in Falun, Sweden, that included Norwegian and Swedish Olympians. Authorities have not said exactly which competitors used tainted skis.

With strict enforcement of the ban looming, Canada’s snow-sport federations realized they had to improve their technological approaches to ski and board prep. When the pandemic halted athlete training and many other activities, it helped spur an innovation that Mr. Chisholm and others believe is already paying dividends.

“We have a pretty European-based sports system, and when we couldn’t get to Europe because of COVID, it made us really centralize what we have in Canada,” Mr. Chisholm said. In addition to his position with Biathlon Canada, he also serves as the ski and board technology co-ordinator for Own the Podium, the national not-for-profit dedicated to helping Canada win more Olympic and Paralympic medals.

In Aug., 2020, techs from Alpine Canada, Nordiq Canada, Biathlon Canada and the national snowboard cross team moved into a new workshop and laboratory in Canmore, Alta., where they could learn from each other, share techniques and brainstorm together.

“We have 30 to 40 things that we have to look at that are constantly in flux,” said Blake Lewis, the lead technician for the snowboard cross team. “There’s a lot of trial and error and testing.”

Mr. Chisholm and Blake Lewis, lead technician for the snowboard cross team.Handout

The new research and development hub, officially known as the Ski Technicians Association of Canada Centre of Excellence, or STAC COE, is partly funded by Own the Podium, which works with National Sports Organizations (NSOs) to prioritize investments in ventures it believes could increase medal counts.

“I see them a little bit like a Dragon’s Den kind of thing,” said Mr. Lewis, regarding Own the Podium’s input into the Centre’s activities. “We go, ‘Hey, we’ve got this idea.’ And they poke holes in it a little bit and challenge us. And in the end, if they see value in it, they’ll help fund it or help us find some funding or convince our NSOs to work together.”

The techs are understandably wary of talking too much with the press about what they’ve learned so far by working together. National teams “have advantages for short windows, and we want to keep ours for the window that we have,” Mr. Lewis said.

Mr. Chisolm agreed. For the first season or two after the ban on C8 fluorocarbons, he said, “there is going to be some pretty big disparity in ski performance” between countries. He acknowledged that he has spent a lot of time using high-end, computer-controlled grinders to imprint different microscopic patterns on the bases of skis.

“If you look at the bottom of your ski, it’s not smooth as glass,” he explained. “There’s a little structure on there, and different shapes and depths, and everything that we can play with.” One pattern might work well in damp, warm conditions, channelling water away from a ski’s base, while a different pattern would be better for a dry, cold clime.

“Fluorocarbons are like a Band-Aid. They can cover up some less-than-great work on all of the different parts of ski preparation and make the ski run pretty well. But now we don’t have that any more, so it’s going to be about trying to find what’s the next best thing,” Mr. Chisholm said. “There will be things that will be good in this new era we’re going into, but it’s going to be a big battle to figure out what is that thing.”

The Centre of Excellence is a demonstration of the power of collaborative work across different sports disciplines, he added. “I really think it’s going to give us an advantage that we haven’t had, going into the Olympics. Maybe we won’t have the best thing out there, but we’re for sure going to be right in with everyone else at the Olympics, because of what’s happened at the COE.”

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