Math Counts In the Science of the Olympics

It might not be as obvious as physics or materials engineering, but math from arithmetic to calculus can describe every move the athletes make from jumps to spins on the snow and ice.

Math counts in the Olympics. There are 2,500 athletes competing in 86 sports and events to win 252 medals at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. But these are only the base numbers in the games.

Math is all around in scores and measurements, motion and quantities. It can be as easy as how many hockey players are on the ice? Or how many times has the puck gone into the net?

Scoring in ice skating involves arithmetic. Addition is only part of the scoring. Each element is assigned points and then is judged on how well it is performed. A triple axle is worth three points, but the judges will also rate the overall performance and artistry of the skater.

Nine judges give scores, but only five of the scores will count. Two of the scores are thrown out at random, then the highest and lowest scores are dropped. The remaining five scores are added up and then divided by the total number of scores, 5, to get the average or mean. When all of the averages are added up, the skater with the highest total wins the event.

Events that are timed like slaloms, downhill runs and speed skating are all math in motion. Rate is math slang for speed. Rate equals distance divided by time. In the 1,000-meter race, the meters are the distance and then how long it takes the skater to finish is the time. Divide the distance (1,000 meters) by the time of each athlete and you get their rate.

Calculus is also used to understand the changing acceleration and velocities.  The skaters all start at zero, but how does the winner win? Is it the skater that goes the fastest or is it the skater that starts fast then tapers off near the end or the skater that starts slow and then drives it up at the end? By using calculus skaters can determine the best strategy to cross the finish line first.

Lines are everywhere in the Olympics – finish lines, start lines, sight lines, race lines, line segments and angles. Geometry is evident in many sports, but especially in hockey. Players use angles of reflection, measuring angles and angles of incidence.

On defense, hockey players try to move attackers off to the side and reduce their angle of access to the net. Basically, the frame of the goal is narrower when viewed from the sides, and winder from the front.  The farther to the side of the net a player is, the smaller the area they have to get the puck into the net.

Whether it be algebra, calculus, geometry or arithmetic, math is all around the athletes in Vancouver.

Get more information from and the National Science Foundation. Lesson plan available on Mathletes at

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