Meet the entrepreneurs behind obscure Olympic gear

James Thorne
You see a strange winter sport. They see an opportunity.

Meet the entrepreneurs behind obscure Olympic gear

You see a strange winter sport. They see an opportunity.

Speed skaters have blades that clap. Luge athletes wear spiky gloves. Olympic curling stones are all mined from a single Scottish island.

With all the odd gear at the Winter Olympics, you might wonder: Who makes this stuff?

Some pieces of equipment are made by big-name brands. Both Under Armour and Samsung have tried their hand at speed skating suits. Dow Chemical helped Team USA remake their luges for Pyeongchang.

Elsewhere, smaller shops have claimed a niche. Here are a few that have made a name for themselves in specialty circles.

Biathlon Rifles: Peter Fortner

Shortly after his Olympic success in Sarajevo, West German biathlete Peter Angerer was having beers with entrepreneur Peter Fortner. The topic of conversation soon turned to rifles.

Angerer wanted a rifle that could match the technology developed by the Soviet Union and East Germany. Within a few months, Fortner had developed and patented a repeater system for biathlon rifles that reduced the loading time between rounds.

That was in 1984. Today, Fortner claims his system is used by 95 percent of top competitors.

"The interest in winter sports and especially in biathlon has increased a lot," Fortner told CNBC. He says the large number of junior athletes in Germany and Nordic countries is evidence that the sport has a bright future.

As for the manufacturing, Fortner has moved beyond doing the machining himself and now manages a small team of gunsmiths. To date, the company has made some 13,000 systems for rifles produced by gun manufacturer Anschütz.

Downhill Skiing Airbags: Dainese

Downhill ski racing — even when it's done by the pros — looks a lot like falling.

That was the conclusion arrived at by the first algorithm developed by Dainese, an Italian manufacturer started by Lino Dainese, to detect ski crashes. The company – known for making protective gear for motorcyclists – created what is essentially an airbag for skiers. The system deploys based on the judgement of seven sensors and an algorithm, which must distinguish between run-of-the-mill hurtling and a true crash.

After seven years of development, Dainese seems to have found a working formula. Thirty professional ski racers — such as Matthias Mayer, who took gold in the men's super-G event in Pyeongchang — now use the D-air Ski system. Dainese's race director Marco Pastore thinks the broader market is next.

"The goal is to expand it to all racers," says Pastore.

Curling Sliders: BalancePlus

Of the 50 medals given out in curling prior to the Pyeongchang Olympics, 42 were given to athletes using a BalancePlus slider. The emblematic design dates is based on a patent devised by athlete and entrepreneur Lino Di Iorio in 1995.

(For the uninitiated, a "slider" is a low-friction shoe that curlers use to move across the ice.)

Even with a gold medal track record, making huge revenues in the curling business isn't easy. "I don't know if there's a million potential customers in the world," says Scott Taylor, president of BalancePlus.

To expand, BalancePlus got into the brush business. The company makes what it claims is the lightest curling brush ever made, and Taylor estimates that around 40 percent of curlers in the Olympics use his brushes.

The games bring an uptick of interest every four years, but that doesn't always translate into more amateur curlers. Taylor's advice to entrepreneurs in obscure fields: "If you have a good product, you won't need to do a lot of advertising."

Cross-Country Ski Wax: HWK

To get a sense for the obsession over wax in the cross-country ski world, look no further than the trucks.

Many of the national teams now have a dedicated wax truck, which they roll out to major competitions around the world. Inside, teams of specialists layer and test different combinations until they've arrived at a formula for race day.

Norwegian firm Swix leads the ski wax market with a 65-70 percent market share worldwide, according to the company. But high-level teams want options.

Competitor HWK — founded by fluorine chemists and skiers Hannelore and Werner Kube in Austria — vies to be the wax of choice on the pro circuit. Karl Höchtl, who imports HWK to the U.S. market, advises anyone venturing into niche markets to be patient.

Still, he has hope that the U.S. market might gain some ground on its European counterpart. In Pyeongchang, Team USA fielded what is arguably its most competitive team to date.

"It is legit," Höchtl says. "They have some incredibly good skiers right now."

Skeleton Sleds: Kristan Bromley

When Kristan Bromley raced his final Olympic skeleton event in 2010, he did so on a sled he made himself. Bromley's success as a sled builder — and a PhD. in mechanical engineering — earned him the nickname "Dr. Ice."

His knack for sled building turned into a business. Bromley Sports sells a range of sleds, from junior and Paralympic models to its pro version, the V14. Bromley's sleds sell for £2,249-£3,500 ($3,150-$4,900), according to the company website.

Now retired, Bromley has been coaching and mentoring athletes in Pyeongchang.

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