Now that the 2018 Winter Olympics are well under way, many British supporters will be looking forward to the skeleton competition – an event in which Team GB have enjoyed growing success in recent years. In the women’s skeleton event in particular, Team GB have been edging towards dominance, with a bronze medal in 2002 (Alex Coomber) followed by a silver in 2006 (Shelley Rudman) and gold in both 2010 (Amy Williams) and 2014 (Lizzy Yarnold).
With the skeleton event just around the corner, however, a row has erupted over technology incorporated into the skinsuits worn by the athletes of Team GB.
After all of Team GB’s sliders produced unexpectedly quick times on the first day of practice, rivals such as Team USA slider Katie Uhlaender have questioned the legality of Team GB’s skinsuits, and whether they break the sport’s rules on aerodynamic enhancements.
Skeleton clothing rules – International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (2017)
- No aerodynamic elements whatsoever may be attached either outside or under the race suit
- Race suits must be manufactured from an uncoated textile
Various sources, including the BBC and the Guardian have reported this week that Team GB’s latest skeleton skinsuits have special “drag-resistant ridges”, which create a turbulence effect in the air flowing over the suit and reduce wind resistance.
Despite Uhlaender’s concerns, however, the sport’s governing body has confirmed that the suits are legal, saying:
“The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation currently checked race suits of the British skeleton team. There were no rule violations at the presented suits.”
Is Team GB’s secret hidden in plain sight?
The company reported to have developed the British skinsuits is TotalSim Ltd, which the Guardian reports was also involved in developing the skinsuits used by GB cycling at recent summer Olympics (these suits were the subject of a previous blog article).
In order to gain an insight into the technical aspects of Team GB’s latest suits, I have searched for patent applications filed by TotalSim Ltd which might relate to skinsuit technology.
My search has turned up one pending European patent application EP3213911A1 titled “Improvements in or Relating to Fabrics”, as well as a corresponding UK patent application GB2547928. These patent applications were published in September 2017.
EP3213911A1 relates to “fabrics, particularly those for use in clothing garments for sportspersons”. In summary, this patent application describes a two-layer fabric made up of a base layer (12) and a membrane layer (20) which is supported a short distance above the base layer by an array of upright supports (18).
At low speeds, air can flow over the membrane layer (20) as normal, so the drag coefficient of the suit is not affected. At higher speeds, however, the separation of the membrane layer (20) and the base layer (12) means that sections of the membrane layer begin to oscillate up and down. This oscillation creates turbulence in the air flowing over the fabric, which reduces the drag experienced by the fabric.
Team GB’s secrets revealed?
Without inspecting one of Team GB’s skinsuits, we can only guess at whether this is actually the technology that has been used in their suits for Pyeongchang. It is of course possible that the suits work in a completely different way, which may have been kept secret in order to maintain the element of surprise until the last minute.
If EP3213911A1 does explain the secret of Team GB’s new suits, however, this perhaps highlights an important lesson for those who wish to protect their inventions while keeping them secret from competitors. Patent applications are published 18 months after filing, unless they are withdrawn beforehand. If maintaining secrecy is important to you, it is therefore wise to consider carefully whether, or when, to file a patent application for your invention.
If you would like advice on protecting your own innovation, or on whether you’d be better placed to keep it a secret, please get in touch.
This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.