A look at two sports that are right at the cutting edge of modern sport.
Dr Angelo Grubisic explains how he is fighting for greater recognition for wingsuit flying, by developing the first scientifically engineered wingsuit. Veteran rock climber Hans Florine then discusses what the introduction of speed climbing at Tokyo 2020 will do for his sport.
That was the first recorded incident of a human attempting to glide through the air wearing a special suit. That is unless you count the ancient Greek legend of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun using wings made of wax and feathers.
Icarus is the name of Dr Angelo Grubisic’s project to create the world’s first scientifically engineered wingsuit. The British lecturer in Astronautics and Advanced Propulsion at The University of Southampton explains what first inspired him to start the project.
“I found out, shortly after I started wingsuiting that the guys who designed the wingsuits were just passionate about the subject (wingsuiting), they were not aerodynamicists and they were not engineers. They were just guys who knew how to sew or even had to learn to sew, so that they could stitch these suits together.”
Wingsuit flying is a sport where a person glides through the air, wearing a suit that increases the surface area by having fabric underneath each arm and between the legs (think: flying-squirrel) before opening a parachute and floating gracefully to the ground.
Probably cooler than your lecturers were: 37-year-old Grubisic splits his time between wingsuiting and lecturing on astronautics!
Before he became a lecturer, Dr Grubisic used to design and build spacecraft propulsion systems for organisations like NASA and the European Space Agency.
“I actually have some great resources available to me; like wind tunnels, computer resources and also some really great students. I teach aeronautics and astronautics –that includes the aircraft design of things. So I thought; wingsuit design is actually aircraft design.”
Grubisic had been flying these wingsuits —designed by amateurs —in more than 100 jumps over the last six years. Somewhere along the way the Doctor had a startling realisation.
“I thought; ‘blimey, we’re chucking ourselves off cliffs in these things and they’re built by a guy who used to be a plumber.’ We had a really great project where we can inspire the students to do really novel work and give them the chance to have their work implemented. We can do great public outreach and engagement for the university.
“I get to do wingsuiting for my job, we get to use all the resources here to do some great work and we integrate with manufacturers. We basically give the manufacturers a head-start in how they can develop better wingsuits.”
A massive objective of Icarus is to improve the safety of the sport. If Grubisic can develop better suits, which are more resistant to stalls or develop aids to enable people to recognise when they are stalling a suit, then they could potentially save lives.
“I don’t think there is any greater argument that I can make as to why this is necessary.”
Like many ‘extreme sports’, for a lot of people one of the big draws for its adrenaline-junkie enthusiasts has also been a big obstacle in its pursuit of acceptance by the general sporting public.
“It’s not regulated, I guess in the way that skiing’s not regulated. No-one stops you from buying a base parachute and a winguit and putting it on to jump off a mountain. The question is: are you stupid enough to do it?
“Unfortunately, because it’s not regulated, you’re not really assessed on whether you’re capable or not. So there are incidents where people make mistakes, they attempt something that they’re not really capable of and they get injured or killed. Because of that, it is one of the most dangerous extreme sports.
“In 2016 we lost about 36 people from a very small community. There’s only between one or two thousand jumpers in the world. When you’re losing 2% of your entire population, alarm bells start to ring.
“If you lost 2% of skiers, people would probably start saying that skiing is too dangerous, so it’s the same with wingsuit-basejumping.”
Despite the high fatality rate, popularity continues to grow. That has resulted in competitions and even a governing body. This has given Icarus a platform to showcase their progress.
“I’ve been doing this for the last two or three years
and we are now at the point where we are starting
to implement our designs into manufacturer's winguits.
One example is; we just held the
2nd Wingsuit World Cup in Las Vegas and
the seven top-placed athletes were using our designs.”
The FAI(Fédération Aeronautique Internationale) World Cup of Wingsuit Flying took place in Nevada, USA in November 2017. It consisted of two separate events:
The Acrobatic Competition Event: A team of three — two performers and one cameraman— leap from an aircraft at an altitude of 12,500ft. The performers then have 65 seconds, in each of seven rounds, to impress the judges with: accuracy of performance, artistic performance, completion of the formations, grips, and quality of the camera work.
The Performance Event: This measures the three different performance parameters of a wingsuit pilot. Best lift, least drag and best glide ratio (basically different ways of measuring how effective the flyer/suits are at flying through the air.)
These are combined into one single result. These are all measured or recorded by a GPS logging device (like the Garmin you might use to measure your Sunday bike-ride) whilst within the competition window, which is between 3000m to 2000m above ground level (AGL).
Performance is also divided into three “tasks”. The objective of the time task is to measure which of the competitors can stay in the window the longest. The distance task is to judge which of the athletes covers the most ground whilst within the window. The winner of the speed task achieves the highest average horizontal speed over ground, the further they fly in the shortest time, the better.
54 men and women, from 5 continents and 11 different countries competed in an event that was dominated by the USA.
“Although there are very few people in the world that can do this kind of performance sport, there are enough people to make it a valid competition. Once you have a valid competition, you have exposure.”
This exposure is a vital building block for a tiny sport slowly developing to be recognised as a more mainstream sport.
One example of this recognition is Sport Climbing,
the competitive rock-climbing that will debut at
the next Summer Olympics.
According to Wikipedia, rock climbing is one of the oldest recorded activities; paintings dating from 200BC show Chinese men rock-climbing. So by that reckoning it has only taken 2,222 years to become a recognised Olympic event!
For more concrete proof of climbing as a sport, in 1985, in the town of Bardonecchia, Italy, Andrea Mellano, a member of the Academic Group of CAI, and Emanuele Cassarà, a well-known Italian sport journalist, gathered a group of the best climbers for an event called "Sportroccia". The competition was on a natural cliff in Valle Stretta. This first organized competition launched a new era of modern Sport Climbing.
In 1991 the Union Internationale des Associations D’Alpinisme (UIAA)held the first official climbing championships. Lead and speed climbing were the two disciplines competed in at the inaugural championships in Frankfurt. Since then the biannual event has been held a further 13 times. Since 2007 it has been organized by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC).
Tokyo 2020 will see the introduction of the sport that consists of three variations of rock climbing:
Lead climbing: The original form of competitive climbing. Climbers are attached to the manmade climbing wall for safety. The winner is either whoever reaches the top in the fastest time or the climber who reaches the highest point without falling.
Bouldering: Achieving the set route in the shortest number of attempts in a timed period. Lead climbing and bouldering are both competed for on the same wall. These differ from competition to competition. Entre-Prises —a leading manufacturer of competition walls— create walls with different contours and overhangs ranging from 1.3m-6m.
Speed climbing: a straight head to head up a flat 15m wall with 40 handholds and 22 footholds on it. The climbers race side by side up identical 3metre wide lanes. First to hit the buzzer at the top of the wall wins.
Each climber must compete in all three disciplines and the final ranking is
determined by the combined results of all three.
Former speed-climbing world champion Hans Florine — explains what
we canlook forward to from his preferred discipline in Tokyo.
The speed climbing in the Olympics is moving up a moderate grade route
as fast as you possibly can. It will look like the person is swimming
They will cover 15metres in less than six seconds (the men’s world record of 5.48 seconds was set by Iranian Reza Alipourshenazandifar in April 2017). It is pretty mind-boggling to watch, people will think it is speeded up! When we say a moderate grade route, it’s not as easy as climbing a ladder, but for an experienced climber it is.”
The 53-year-old has been climbing all of his life and competitively since 1988. He won the first three X Games speed climbs, as well as the World Championship Gold in 1991. Florine clearly has no resentment that Sport climbing’s Olympic debut came a tad late for him to take part in.
“I would have loved to compete at the Olympics, but I climbed at world championships so I felt like I competed at that level. I was world champion when it was a little tiny sport, with 12 people competing.”
Climbing’s Olympic introduction has not been met with universal acclaim by the climbing community. As a minority sport, there have been whispers of the sport “selling-out” to a mainstream audience, but not from Florine.
“I’m one of the people that‘s psyched that the sport’s growing and I think that, because speed-climbing is in it, non-climbers will enjoy watching it. Because regular- difficulty sport climbing is pretty fricking boring. I mean, I like it but who wants to watch somebody creeping up a wall, ten metres, really slow? You can’t really tell how hard it is so it’s challenging to capture that.
“Even with super-great camera work, close-ups on someone’s hands, their forearm’s bulging with sweat dripping, they can only do so much. The good climbers make it look graceful and effortless. I think speed climbing is the way to sell it to that Olympic audience, they will be able to see some action and it’s simple: whoever get’s to the top first wins.”
Florine says that even some sport climbers are in the ‘sold-out’ camp now that their sport has Olympic status.
“They don’t want speed-climbing to be in the Olympics because they don’t practice that.
“You will find that the person who wins speed climbing, will not take last place in the bouldering or the lead climbing. They would be in the top three in the other disciplines because when you are very powerful, you can be a good speed-climber. So someone who boulders really hard will also be a good speed-climber and you need to have that power for lead-climbing as well.”
The American says that an Olympic metaphor has been used, unfairly, to describe the different elements of sport climbing.
“Some people say that speed-climbing is the 100m dash and lead climbing is the marathon’. That’s not a very accurate comparison. I think that the skills cross over really easily.”
Sport climbing’s first flirtation with a non-climbing audience was when it was introduced as an event in the X Games —the annual extreme sports event—in 1995. Florine won the first three. When he slowed down he became a commentator, but don’t ask the American who the favourites for Tokyo are.
“I can’t pronounce their names because most of
them are Eastern Bloc, so it’s a lot of consonants
that I can’t put together.”
Using another Olympic metaphor—the Californian
believes that the athletic progression in his sport will
inevitably slow down.
“Just like gymnastics had someone do
double-pirouette and triple-pirouette on the high
beam, you don’t see many new moves in gymnastics.
I think in speed climbing — now they’ve gotten it down to 5.48 seconds on a 12m wall— you won’t see it jump very far now. Lead climbing and bouldering are now at that level too.
“The difficulty of what people are doing in climbing in general has gotten pretty close to what it can be, but I’m sure it will keep on progressing. People will do stuff in climbing and gymnastics, in 10 years time, that people didn’t think were possible, just because their training will get better.”
It may be a challenge for both wingsuit flying and sport climbing to shake the novelty tag that some fans will inevitably attach to it, but sport climbing is one of five sports that will be introduced at Tokyo 2010. The IOC seems to be trying to appeal to a new and younger audience. As well as climbing, Olympic fans will see skateboarding, surfing, baseball/softball and karate for the first time in Japan.
The Icarus project is aiming to increase the performance and reliability of wingsuits. With their suits being adopted by World Cup competitors to —hopefully— set new performance records. Dr Grubisic hopes that his project will help propel wingsuit right to the top of the sporting tree.
“People around the world write articles about global competitions. What we’re really trying to achieve is something like an Olympic sport, where it is recognised.”
Well, it worked for Sport Climbing…