The Patents behind the Winter Olympics

21 February 2014

We have all been inspired and amazed by the daring feats of power, speed and athleticism displayed in the skiing and snowboarding events at the Sochi Winter Olympics. But the extraordinary and awe-inspiring Olympic athletes are only part of the story. Behind the scenes and over may preceding years there have been huge teams of scientists, engineers and designers working hard to develop and improve the equipment upon which the athletes’ success and safety depends. Sports technology R&D is constantly pushing forward the boundaries of what is possible on the snow and in the air.

In this short piece, we will look at patenting activity in ski and snowboard technologies to identify emerging trends and to see which companies are creating commercial IP around their innovation.

The long view from 1980 (Figure 1) shows that until the early 1990s almost all of the innovation was in ski technologies. After that we see an emerging innovation pattern in snowboarding technologies which starts to really take off during the mid-to-late 1990s. The sharp rise in the number of patents published in 1997 appears to anticipate the introduction of snowboarding as a Winter Olympic sport in 1998. Although skiing R&D clearly outstrips snowboarding R&D in all years, the number of skiing-related patents seems to have settled at a lower level than we were seeing in the 1980s and 90s which may indicate the technology reaching maturity and becoming more difficult to innovate in. 

Winter Olympics  - Graph 1

Figure 1. Number of patent families published per year in ski and snowboard technologies from 1980 to 2013 (source: HL Analytics)


Figure 2 shows the top 20 companies to have filed ski and snowboard technology patents over the last 10 years. The landscape is dominated by a small number of mainly European and American companies with French manufacturers Salomon and Rossignol way out in front. 

Winter Olympics - Graph 2

Figure 2. Top 20 patenting companies in skiing/snowboarding technologies 2004 to present (source: HL Analytics)


So what exactly are these companies patenting? A formidable array of clever developments across every aspect of skiing and snowboarding equipment and activity including:

  • Ski and snowboard materials and construction: now lighter, stronger and more flexible than ever before
  • Bindings, fastenings and release mechanisms: getting stronger, more flexible and quicker/easier to operate
  • Helmets, visors and goggles: incorporating cameras, communication and audio systems and sat nav features
  • Impact protection devices:wrist and knee guards, spine protectors and body suits designed to protect the fragile human skeleton in the event of a wipe-out.
  • Ski wear: developments in thermal protection, wicking, waterproofing and electronic warming devices. Even the good old ski long-johns have been given a technology make-over and are now the subject of numerous compression and materials patents. Is nothing sacred?

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