Wax on, Wax off?

There is big news in the world of wax – Mr Miyagi has been appointed head wax technician for the Japanese team! Of course he hasn’t! He was waxing cars and also more importantly he is a fictional character! No the real big news in the wax world is the banning of fluorinated wax from this season!

What is it and why I can hear you all thinking. Well let me take you back in time to explain all……

A wax miracle

Back in a time called “the eighties” when people wore shoulder pads and wondered ‘Who shot JR?’ (It wasn’t a biathlete by the way!) fluorinated wax was introduced in both in cross country and alpine skiing. It was a game changer in terms of increasing the speed of the skis. Fluorinated wax basically creates a barrier between the ski and the snow which repels both moisture and dirt therefore reducing the friction and increasing speed. It can take minutes off a skiers time especially in cross country skiing over longer distances.

The science bit

The wax is known by a few different names – fluorocarbon, fluorinated or just plain fluoro. From there it gets a bit complicated unless you are a scientist!

The chemical found in the wax is made from raw perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) compounds. Although not found in large quantities in the wax they are more commonly used to coat frying pans (Teflon), raincoats and even pizza boxes.

In the USA many of the compounds found in fluorinated wax products contain ingredients listed in the American Toxic Substances Control Act. The acid has been found to cause liver and kidney damage as well lung problems. In 2010 a study showed that ski technicians had on average 45 times more fluorocarbon in their blood as nonskiers. While it is unlikely to have a big impact on recreational skiers or indeed the athletes it could have a negative impact on the technicians. This however has long been known and it’s why you see the wax techs wearing masks so they don’t breathe in any harmful fumes.

There are two types of ski wax that contain PFOA. The C8 wax contains eight fully fluorinated carbon molecules and C6 which contains six. The C6 is said to be less toxic than the C8 although the C6 has not been as intensively studied as yet.

The legal bit

Fluorinated wax has already been banned in the USA in high school and college nordic skiing and also in the youth and amateur leagues in Europe for some time. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), a policymaking branch of the European Union, will begin enforcing its ban on the sale, manufacture, and import of all “nonessential” C8 products in Europe from July. Hence the reason it can no longer be used in biathlon.

The biathlon bit

There are two big problems that banning the wax is going to create. The first is for the wax teams. They have to find an alternative to fluorinated wax that does a similar job. It won’t be easy. The wax manufacturers are working furiously to come up with alternatives to replace it but no one knows yet how good they will be. I’m sure the wax techs are already busy experimenting with other solutions and could be testing things like candle, turtle and even ear to replace the miracle wax! 😉

The second problem is a big one. Unfortunately biathlon is not immune from cheating as we have already seen with doping. Now however we are facing another form of doping – ski doping! There will be a big temptation to use the fluorinated wax even after it is banned as it does offer a competitive advantage and can take minutes off an athletes ski time.

This means that skis are going to have to be tested for traces of the banned wax which brings up all kinds of questions. Firstly an accurate test has to be found which will show the presence of the wax and one that will do it quickly. Next it will have to be decided when to test the ski – before or after the race. Remember most athletes have multiple pairs of skis so it could be possible to send one pair to get tested and then swap them for a pair with the wax on before the race begins or even after.

Who do you test? Will it be like the drugs testing? Maybe the podium finishers and then a random selection from the rest of the field. Will they target people based on changes in their ski times? If they ski around the same speed as the previous year will that arouse suspicion?

There is also the issue of those athletes who are using skis from last season which may still have traces of the wax on them. Will there be a limit on acceptable traces in the first year it is banned and what is that limit? Not all teams can afford sets of new skis every season for all their athletes so it is going to be an issue.

If you do catch anyone using the banned wax what is the punishment going to be? Will it be like doping and see athletes face a ban? Or will they have time added to their race time to mitigate the advantage gained? Will they receive a warning and a second chance if they are caught once?

It’s a bit of a minefield but luckily that is the job of the wax teams and IBU to sort out and not me! Good luck to them!It will be a very interesting season in the wax trucks that is for sure!

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