With the summer’s sporting masterpiece now upon us, we look at 10 disciplines soon to come under the spotlight. How has technology changed the Games?
From the naked eye to photo finishes, standard trunks to streamlined swimsuits, technology has driven elite sport to new heights with every Olympic Games.
Given the two-year gap between each summer and winter edition, and the marketing opportunity such a showpiece presents, it’s only natural that technology and science companies from all over the world battle to give athletes the most telling edge.
Here are some great examples of how technological tweaks and overhauls have completely changed 10 of the Olympics’ best-known disciplines.
Most technological shifts in the pool have come in the lead up to each Olympics. Training technology like underwater cameras measuring form, biomarkers monitoring physiological performance and even swimsuits increasing speeds have added to the sport.
Taking the latter as a bizarre example, the LZR swimsuit was created for swimmers at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where a remarkable 98pc of all medalists wore the outfit.
Compressing the torso, while also adding extra buoyancy, it helped swimmers wearing the suit break almost 100 world records in under 18 months. Rule changes were inevitable and now both the length and texture of swimsuits operate under stricter parameters.
Another major technological side to swimming at the Olympics is electronic timings, which began back in Tokyo ’64. These have become more and more advanced, reacting faster to genuine pressure from hands and feet.
At Rio ’16, though, TV screens underwater will be present, allowing long-distance swimmers to keep track of their lap-count without running the risk of tallying it wrong. Sensor-driven, when swimmers pass over the screen it adds to their distance covered.
With running, particularly sprints, the start is crucial and dominated by changing uses of technology, and interpretation of rules. This goes back quite a long way, too.
Back in the 5th-century BC, a contraption called the Hysplex was created to ensure an equal release along the start line.
It was a catapult-type contraption that draped a rope in front of the competitors, and lined a stick in their path, releasing everybody in unison a la the Grand National.
Things have moved on, of course, with a starting gun taking the place of a yelling Ancient Greek, and cameras, sensors and timings replacing the Hysplex.
Nowadays, a false start is determined by sensors in accredited starting blocks, which measure when the runner has left the start line. Should you react anything earlier than 0.10s after the gun, it’s deemed a false start. The governing body IAAF sets that time as the fastest possible human reaction speed, so any earlier and you’re cheating, simples.
In previous years, even the slightest flinch on the blocks could constitute a false start, and an elimination from the race, however, since 2012, this has become a bit more relaxed, allowing some movement by the runners.
Another recent change is the speakers behind each racer, ensuring they all hear the starting gun at the exact same time. Prior to that, the runner farthest from the gun would hear it fractionally later.
Tennis has been revolutionised by technology in many ways. The sport has evolved from the days of wooden racquets and lawn tennis to now, an era of record-breaking serves and racquets designed to allow players to achieve maximum speed and power in their hits.
There are now even connected racquets – such as the Babolat Play – that allow players and their coaches to analyse every move a player makes during training or a game.
One of the most obvious tech developments to impact tennis has been Hawk-Eye, a means of electronic line-judging first used at the top levels of the sport at the US Open in 2006.
Since then, it has been used at the Olympic Games in 2008 and 2012, and it will be in use again in Rio.
Hawk-Eye uses a network of on-court cameras to track the trajectory of the ball and uses modelling techniques to predict where it lands on the court, allowing officials to detect whether the ball is in or out of the court to a high degree of accuracy.
A relatively modern rule even embraces the technology by giving players three challenges per set, allowing them to question a decision made by human line judges.
First appearing in the second edition of the modern Olympics in 1900, competitive archery has remained largely unchanged for decades within the Games – archer fires arrow at target, referees judge the accuracy of said shot.
Now, however, beneath the paper bullseye target, an advanced sensor system is able to accurately measure where an arrow has pierced the target.
In fact, the system is so accurate that it can pinpoint an arrow’s location by 0.2mm, which is far more precise than the human eye is capable of.
It also effectively eliminates the need for a human referee as these sensors can then display the score immediately afterwards.
It’s not just the scoring system that has gotten a complete overhaul, as the bow itself has undergone huge changes from the traditional design of wood and string.
Olympic athletes this year will continue to use recurve bows, built using ultra-light fibreglass or a carbon/wood mixture. For the first time, spectators in Rio will also be able to monitor athletes’ heart rates in real time, adding tension to the proceedings.
Football’s governing body, FIFA, has been slow to change its attitude towards using new technology to assist with making calls in the game.
However, in recent years, it finally rolled out goal-line technology, which can register when a ball has completely crossed the line.
Fraunhofer IIS in Germany has developed a technology called GoalRef that embeds a chip into the football so it can be accurately picked up by sensors installed in the goalposts and crossbar.
With pinpoint accuracy, it can then tell when the ball has completely crossed the line, with this technology having already been rolled out in a number of international leagues and tournaments, including Euro 2016. Rio is the first Olympics to use it.
The javelin was the trusty weapon of the Roman legionnaire, who would fire an opening barrage at the enemy using airborne weaponry that would maim on contact, but also bend so as not to be returned.
Now a sport, javelin has become a very technical event, requiring perfect coordination of body and mind. It combines short-burst running, releasing and recovery with the force of a Panzer but with the grace of ballet dancer, all to get the perfect arc and distance.
A proficient, elite javelin thrower usually hurls their missile at between 32-degree and 36-degree angles, achieving a velocity of 100km/h to reach a distance of close to or over 100 metres.
Javelin throwing entered the Olympics back in 1906 and original versions of the tool had the centre of mass at the centre of pressure – perfectly weighted at the halfway point.
However, a redesign in 1986 saw the centre of mass moved 40mm forward, ensuring a greater number of throws ‘pitching forward’ on impact.
They are still dangerous weapons – in 2012, a German official was killed when he went to measure a throw but was hit by a javelin.
Weightlifting is one of the older disciplines around, with various and significant changes coming over the course of 60 years of evolution. In 1928, the weights were standardised for the Olympics, with subsequent tweaks to the sport both superficial and technological.
The weights lifted went from pounds to kilos in the 1970s and more people got used to the idea of the 120kg weight.
The first rubber weights – more floor-friendly – were introduced in Canada during the 1967 Pan-Ams and by 1972 Schnell plates were prominent in the Olympics.
Since the 1970s, weights have become colour-coded: red, 25kg; blue, 20kg; yellow, 15kg; green, 10kg; white, 5kg; black, 2.5kg; silver, 1.25kg; record disks, .25 kg.
Women’s weightlifting entered the Olympics in 2000; the men’s bar weighs 44 pounds and the women’s bar weights 33 pounds. Men compete in eight weight classes and women in seven.
Traditionally, referees used the Roman style “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to signal decisions. However, in the 1975 World Championships in Moscow, a new lighting system was introduced and has since been ever-present at the Games, too.
Changes to diving have largely been for the viewer’s benefit. Cinematographer Garrett Brown’s website describes the DiveCam as “the first dropping vertical camera system” – and he should know, as he invented it.
The DiveCam made its debut at the 1996 Olympic Games, following divers on their descent via a 53ft weighted tube that extended deep below the surface of the water.
This Emmy Award-winning technology is based on a simple pulley system, timing and good old gravity. An operator releases a wire connected to a video camera in the tube the moment the diver leaves the springboard.
As long as everything obeys the laws of physics, both the camera and the diver should drop at the same rate, offering viewers and analysts a perfect view of an Olympic dive from start to finish.
Of course, for viewers who only engage with diving once every four years, some helpful guidance on what separates the good from the bad is a welcome addition.
For the 2012 Games, the BBC’s R&D team and Red Bee Media developed an automatic analysis tool for live diving events. The system could examine video of a dive frame-by-frame and measure the size of the splash and the angle of the diver’s entry to the water, displaying these results on-screen.
The Splashometer is getting a Workout! They might as well be doing Canonballs!!
— Samuel L. Jackson (@SamuelLJackson) August 10, 2012
Inevitably dubbed the Splashometer, this tool offered greater insight into a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that weighs heavily on the event outcome.
You see, Olympic divers must enter the water as straight and smoothly as possible. Thus, an off-vertical entry – most often indicated by a bigger splash – results in a lower score.
The worlds of augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) are most commonly talked about in relation to entertainment. At the Rio Olympics, however, we’ll see those technologies extending to sports.
Team USA has been using AR glasses developed by Solos to gather data during cycling training sessions. The glasses track heart rate, speed, power, pace, cadence, distance and duration, among other metrics, all of which can be viewed in real-time on a heads-up display.
This can enable athletes to adjust their performance on the fly, making it easier to meet targets. The glasses, however, won’t be permitted during the actual games.
Olympics advancements can also be more low-tech than AR and VR. The New Zealand team will be taking to the track on newly-developed, scientifically-designed bikes, rigorously tested in closed wind tunnels.
Sporting refined aerodynamics, and 3D-printed handlebars customised to each rider, the bikes are a bid to give the New Zealand team all the advantage possible in Rio.
The tech also extends to the Paralympics, taking place in Rio in early September. German athlete Denise Schindler will be the first cyclist to compete with a fully 3D-printed prosthetic leg, created in collaboration with software company Autodesk.
There are few things more important to the Olympian than performance optimisation. In our tech-centric world, that puts data on a par with the old adage, ‘practice, practice, practice’ – something the Irish boxing team is taking very seriously.
The Irish training facility is equipped with cameras above every ring, which track boxers’ movements from the second they enter the ring to the second they leave it.
This allows boxers and coaches to review performance and spot areas for improvement, all with a view to getting in shape for Rio.
Team GB is also taking advantage of data analysis, utilising a software system called iBoxer – developed with Sheffield Hallam University – that assesses boxers and their opponents, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and helping to refine strategy ahead of the Games.
At the Games themselves, a big change this year will see the end of the electronic scoring system, to be replaced by the points system used in pro boxing.
Tech comes into play for spectators, too. This year, NBC will be broadcasting the Olympic boxing bouts – among a number of other sports – in VR, available to those with a Samsung Gear VR headset and the NBC Sports app.
Main Rio 2016 image via lazyllama/Shutterstock