From the start, the Olympics acknowledged the impact of tech on the world with their segment highlighting text messages. It may seem a little silly, and maybe it is, but regardless, the fact that texting made its way into the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics says a lot. Samsung was a major sponsor of this year’s event and their cellphones have been prevalent.
Then there’s social media’s effect on the games and how those who weren’t fortunate enough to catch the Olympics live had to steer clear of Twitter and Facebook as to avoid having the results spoiled, a problem that wasn’t as severe four years ago at the Beijing Olympics.
Still, the biggest impact that technology has had on the Olympics is on the games itself and the way athletes train and perform.
First, there’s the cameras. Athletes often record their training sessions to help them better understand what they did right and what they did wrong. BMW, who happens to be the Official Automotive Partner of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, have developed a camera system that can capture a long jumper in motion and give immediate feedback about the jumper’s velocity and other measurements. It does this by using two lenses and software that tracks the athlete’s body.
Track events use cameras, too. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “photo finish” in regards to racing? When athletes cross the finish line, they cross a laser beam that records their time as cameras at two different heights record the act of crossing the line.
If you’ve ever watched Olympic diving, you may have noticed a long tube running perpendicular to the diving boards. This tube holds the DiveCam. The cameraman drops the camera as the diver leaves the springboard and gravity takes control, dropping the camera alongside the diver, all the way into the water, capturing the entire dive.
Then there are robotic cameras planted all around the games, capable of swiveling 360 degrees and capturing imagery from angles that human photographers couldn’t possibly get to.
Australian cyclists training thousands of miles away from London are able to train on and familiarize themselves with every bump of the course via virtual reality. Then there’s the use of wind tunnels in training that help show the riders what little tweaks they can make to their sitting position that will benefit their time and aerodynamics.
American runner Shannon Rowbury suffered a stress fracture that threatened her training regiment, but by using a NASA-developed anti-gravity treadmill that made her feel that she was only 20% of her actual weight, she was able to start training much more quickly after recovery than she would have been able to otherwise.
While I would guess we’re a ways away from deploying our own Iron Man, athletes in all different events are wearing specially-designed clothing to give them an edge. Cyclists wear helmets insulated with aluminum honeycomb that’s lightweight, absorbs impacts, and lets air through.
Several athletes use patterns of bright-colored Kinesio tape on their skin which helps manage and prevent injuries. There’s still some debate as to the actual scientific merit of the product, but even if it’s all snake oil, scientists seem to think that there may still be a benefit in the placebo effect.
Then there are the suits that have been banned since Beijing because their effects were believed to be too beneficial. American swimmer Michael Phelps set seven world records wearing a full-body suit made partly of polyurethane, which granted him more buoyancy and speed.
Oscar Pistorius, a 25-year-old South African whose legs don’t extend beyond his knees, not only gets to run in the Olympic Games, he gets a cool nickname, too: the Blade Runner. This name stems from his artificial legs made from flexible carbon fiber. Not only do his new limbs make him a formidable runner, but there are actually a sizable amount of critics, including former 400-meter record holder Michael Johnson, who believe that the legs give him an unfair advantage. Fairness aside, thanks to technology, for the first time ever an amputee will be able to compete in Olympic track.
Technology is abundant in the Olympic Games, beyond what I’ve covered here. Sprinters are running faster thanks to more aerodynamic clothing. Pole vaulters are going higher thanks to poles going from wood to bamboo to metal to fiber glass. Swimmers and volleyball players are improving their blood’s ability to carry oxygen by sitting in egg-shaped pods that causes changes in their bodies not unlike changes caused by high-intensity exercise.
Technology is changing the Olympic landscape and it’s not going to stop any time soon.