Technology-wise the Olympics has come a million miles since its ancient roots, when starkers, oiled up Greeks would hurl stone discuses and wooden javelins around a big field. In fact, this year’s games have progressed a lot even since 2008’s Beijing Olympics – and we can expect some even crazier sporting tech developments in the near future.
Here’s a rundown of the cutting edge technology used in Beijing, what we can expect to see later this summer in London – and the mind-boggling innovations that could shake up the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
2008 – the fastest track ever
Running tracks were once constructed of clay, dirt or cinders, but the Beijing Olympics used an all-natural rubber surface called MondoTrack FDX, developed by Italian firm Mondo. The extra-thin surface, glued on top of asphalt, is hard to ensure the best energy return from runners’ feet but grippy enough to prevent them from slipping over too easily. It was dubbed the fastest running surface ever.
2012 – a fairer starter’s pistol
The London games are the first to feature an electronic starter’s gun, linked to speakers behind each sprinter to ensure that they all hear the “shot” at the same time – previously, the runner closest to the starter would hear it a tiny fraction of a second before the next closest, and so on. There’s also a laser projected across the finish line to record the winner with maximum accuracy – a far cry from the 1948’s London Olympics, where the athletes broke through a tape.
2016 – spray-on suits
Clothing causes drag and slows runners down – but there won’t be a return to the butt naked Olympics of old. Instead, future athletes could enter “spray chambers” before competing, which will clad them in barely-there spray-on suits almost instantaneously. It’s doubtful we’ll see this by 2016, but don’t be surprised if it comes into future tournaments.
2008 – three officials
Matches in the Beijing Olympic Football tournament were officiated by the “standard” crew of a referee and two assistants (with a fourth official on the sidelines to oversee substitutions and the like). Basic stuff.
2012 – five officials?
Two extra goal line officials may have been added to the Euro 2012 refereeing setups, but don’t expect to see them used at the Olympics: the usual three-person team will be officiating. No great loss perhaps, considering it how much use they were when Ukraine’s Euro 2012 goal against England was disallowed despite crossing the line.
2016 – goal line technology
However, things will have changed by the time the next Olympic Games rolls around. FIFA has finally given the green light to two technologies that determine whether or not the ball has crossed the goal line: the camera-based Hawk-Eye (which you’ll have seen in tennis) and Goal-Ref, which uses a chip embedded in the ball itself.
2008 – “top secret” gear
The British team dominated the Beijing Olympics, netting 14 medals in total (8 of them gold). The gear they used was a huge contributor to that success: so much secret research went into the development of the carbon fibre-framed bikes that they were worth around £70,000 apiece – one wind tunnel session cost around £10,000!
2012 – custom helmets
One of the ways in which Team GB is trying to gain an edge this year is in its helmets. Each cyclist has individually tailored headgear, based on 3D laser scans of the athlete’s noggin; this gives a tight, flawless fit. Aluminium honeycomb and polycarbonate are the materials of choice, picked for their light weight and high strength.
2016 – spokeless bikes?
Such is the secrecy surrounding the British cycling team that we don’t know what’s next, but former member Chris Boardman – now selling bikes rather than riding them – may have given us a clue. His own concept bike “of the future” rocks spoke-free wheels to cut down on drag.
2008 – Speedo LZR Racer
Speedo’s LZR swimming suit played a starring role in the 2008 games, with its wearers setting a staggering 23 new world records. Its streamlining elasten-nylon and polyurethane materials were reportedly responsible for lowering a swimmer’s times by around two percent – and in 2010 the authorities reacted to this “technological doping” by banning the suit entirely.
2012 – Speedo Fastskin3
Fast-forward to the present day and Speedo is back with more high-tech gear. The Fastskin3 isn’t a suit but a “system” consisting of trunks, cap and goggles that work in synergy to reduce drag and improve oxygen economy. Look out for the Fastskin3 adorning the likes of Michael Phelps and Rebecca Adlington.
2016 – digital goggles
Future goggles could well emulate Google’s Project Glass by offering swimmers a heads-up display projected in front of their eyeballs. Olympic hopefuls could then be fed information about their current time, and tips on their technique by coaches during training.
2008 – Hawk-Eye
The British-developed camera triangulation system (now owned by Sony) got its Olympic debut in 2008’s tennis tournament. Using 10 high-speed video cameras to track the ball’s movement, it can be used to verify close line calls.
2012 – Co-polyester strings
Many top tennis pros can achieve incredible amounts of topspin on their shots – and co-polyester (or “copoly”) strings, as used by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, can be a huge help. These strings are slippery and stiff, and when a player hits the ball they slide with the ball then immediately snap back, adding extra spin. They’re judged to offer as much as 20 percent more spin than nylon strings and 11 percent more than natural gut.
Excessive grunting has long been a bane of tennis courts, with the prospect of a Maria Sharapova versus Victoria Azarenka match-up sending the share price of earplugs soaring. But that could all change over the next few years: there’s currently a push to bring in rule changes, plus a meter to measure on-court noise and relay readings to umpires.