Since the modern Olympic games were first held in 1896, each iteration of the events has brought with it significant breakthroughs in both sport and broadcast technology. As fans and athletes around the world wrap up the 2016 Olympics this summer in Rio de Janeiro, we will long be reflecting on the captivating competitions, stunning victories, and amazing feats of athletic ability.
What often goes unnoticed, though, is the innovative technology put into play on the Olympic stage. Here are a few sports and broadcast innovations you might have missed in the Rio 2016 Olympics this August:
Italian company Mondo created the striking royal blue Olympic track we saw at the Olympic Stadium in Rio this year. Mondo used nanotechnology to optimize the track for Rio’s extreme climate, which is sure to bring soaring temperatures and high humidity come August. By tweaking the molecular composition of the track, Mondo hoped athletes will reach record-breaking speeds on its surface, and lo and behold, Usain Bolt came through.
Meanwhile the Olympic Rio Velodrome brought fast times for cyclists, despite construction delays that left many wondering if it would be completed in time. Not only was it finished; its use by international athletes earned its 250m oval-shaped smooth wooden surface high praise.
Quantifying human performance is one of today’s leading trends and research reveals that certain biomarkers, such as blood sugar levels, can be used to customize pro athletes’ training programs to ensure optimal performance. Professional athletes who track their glucose levels, hormone levels, and energy believe this helps them fine tune their workouts and nutrition plans to ensure peak performance come game day.
Back in 2012, the U.S. women’s cycling team faced steep odds, but brought home the silver medal through applying this approach to their training. Four years later, the use of biometric tracking is much more common, though we can’t expect the pros to reveal their secrets—that is, until after they take home a medal.
Innovative Olympic Torch
One of the most-watched events of the Olympics is the passing of the torch. Over the years, the torch has evolved from a real torch, first ignited in the 1928 games, to an apparatus that emits smoke and the appearance of fire. Today, the torches are designed to very technical standards with a gas chamber that creates a yellow or red flame of different intensities.
The torch underwent a major makeover for the 2016 Olympic Games. The torch was completely redesigned with horizontal segments that opened up to reveal scenes of the sky, mountains, sea and earth, representing Brazil’s natural beauty. It is made out of recycled aluminum and resin, weighing between 1 to 1.5 kilograms and stands 69 centimeters tall when fully expanded.
Back in 2008, Michael Phelps famously won eight Olympic gold medals while wearing a Speedo full body polyurethane and neoprene suit in Beijing. In 2010 FINA, the world governing body of swimming, banned racers from wearing these high tech suits after an unprecedented number of record-setting performances led many to suspect the suits were giving swimmers superpowers. Essentially, these rubber tubes compressed the swimmer’s body and trapped air, which reduced buoyancy and drag to unnatural levels.
Since then, Speedo and other apparel companies have had to think of creative ways to gain a competitive advantage while remaining within the new regulations that limited the length of suits and dictated that materials must be air-permeable and zipper free. Speedo enlisted the help of experts in hydrodynamics, aircraft engineering, and nano textiles in their redesign, which resulted in the Fastskin system, whose latest iteration was designed specifically for Rio. Essentially, the lycra suit is made with alternating levels of compression to reduce drag on specific body parts. The Fastskin compresses the body at least 3x the amount the polyurethane suits that were banned back in 2010, so it will be interesting to see if officials react to the degree that swimsuit tech aided the new records set in Rio.
Futuristic Cycling Upgrades
When training for the Olympic Games, cyclists made use of Kickstarter funded Solos smart cycling glasses, which keep track of the athlete’s speed, heart rate, and other self-tracking metrics. While many cyclists already use computers to rack their pedal stroke or wear a heart rate monitor to keep track of their performance, Solos take tracking to the virtual reality level with a display like that of a car dashboard. While cyclists won’t be able to wear these glasses during competition events, they can make use of the metrics during training sessions — a new step for many.
Another breakthrough cycling innovation this year was witnessed in the U.S. women’s team sleek new bikes, dubbed Project 2016. The Felt bikes featured a first in cycling design: a left side crankset. Moving the crankset from the traditional right side mount showed a remarkable 3.5 second speed gain over 4,000 meter distances in testing. Taking inspiration from NASCAR, researchers moved the crankset to the left to offset wind force, or yaw, coming from the left as racers compete in counterclockwise ovals. In other words, the bikes, like racing cars, should be asymmetrical in design, since they’re only racing in one direction. Putting this into practice in the design of Felt—rather than solely focusing on reducing frontal aerodynamic drag, as most bike research does—gave the U.S. women’s team a competitive advantage on the Cycling Track. The women won silver, losing to Britain’s powerful (and more fully outfitted) team.
New Broadcast Experiences
Before television news, the first Games were broadcast in the cinema; live broadcasts didn’t take place until the 1920s via radio. The Olympic Games were first beamed into homes on television in 1936. In the decades since, clarity has gone from grainy to high definition, and Rio’s Ultra HD resolution broadcasts will be the sharpest yet. Fans go a better audio experience in this year’s games thanks to Super HI Vision cameras, from Japan’s state broadcaster NHK. These high def audio cameras have been described by the Olympic Broadcast Services as “3D 22.2 channel audio surround sound.”
Another new broadcast medium this year came in the form of virtual reality (VR) headsets. Fans with compatible headsets had the ability to access live and on-demand VR coverage of certain events. Experts have described this as a defining moment for VR technology and the implementation of VR at the Rio Olympics will allow for a truly immersive 360 degree experience that will set a new precedent for Olympic broadcasts.
Ryan Lochte’s Brazilian escapade may make for better news fodder, but the triumph of technology should not be overlooked. From asymmetrical bikes to hydrodynamic swimsuits, the Rio Olympics debuted innovative tech in practically every sporting event. Meanwhile new broadcast technology and virtual reality continues to evolve the way we watch these historic games—making the 2016 Summer Olympics equal parts athletic and technological tour de force.