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Engineering big air for snowboarders, and the PyeongChang Olympic legacy

A long drop at an angle of 38 to 39 degrees. Speeds of 35 to 40 miles per hour. And a “kick” that throws riders into the air.

What am I talking about? It’s the Big Air event at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea, which had a great deal of engineering expertise behind it.

It’s just over a week since the Winter Paralympics Closing Ceremony and a month since the Winter Olympics finished. The “Big Air” event debuted at the 2018 Olympics, and since a ramp of these proportions doesn’t exist in nature, it has to be built.

You need a team of engineers, ice suppliers, snowmakers, crane operators, scaffold designers and so on, and it’s a real challenge to build this structure safely. Just like with snow on a roof, the structure has to be able to take the weight of snow and ice up to 45cm deep.

It’s a temporary structure, so this also needs to be taken into account in the planning and construction. And the Big Air ramp wasn’t the only temporary structure at this Olympics. Incredibly, having been built at a cost of $109 million, the stadium is going to be taken down.

It’s only been used four times – for the two opening and closing ceremonies – and yet pulling it down is a sensible decision. With only 45,000 people living in the vicinity of the stadium, it just wouldn’t be used and the ongoing costs of maintenance would be a drain on resources.

This contrasts with London 2012, where the plan for using the stadium afterwards was a key part of the bid. As I discuss in my book, “Will it Stand Up?” every country needs to justify the amount they spend on the Olympics by creating some kind of legacy.

The PyeongChang stadium won’t be part of their legacy, but their organising committee have secured some environmental and social benefits for their community, including:

  • An Olympic Education Programme to expose more children across the country to winter sports,
  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions due to spectators taking the express train between Wonjo and Gangneung during the games,
  • Twenty-four new electric car charging sites, increasing electric car use even after the games,
  • A new wind power plant that provided 104% of the consolidated energy needed for the games,
  • All six newly constructed venues certified to G-SEED (Green Standard for Energy and Environmental Design).

It’s likely that temporary structures are going to become more common as Olympic host cities attempt to manage the spiralling costs of hosting the games. PyeongChang shelled out almost $13 billion – so the stadium and the Big Air jump were just a tiny fraction of that budget.

It’s a shame to tear down a stadium, but it’s a practical decision, and the people of PyeongChang seem to have the right attitude. In a mountainous region, at 700m, the city’s slogan is “Happy 700”, as apparently living at that altitude encourages optimum health in humans. There doesn’t appear to be any science behind the claim, but you have to admire their positivity!

If you need input from a structural engineer on one of your projects, please get in touch on 020 8102 7974.

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