Tech Battles Brewing at the Olympics

Photo credit Reuters/Andrew Winning

Technology likely will prove to be the deciding factor for Olympic success at the 2012 London Games.

From the infrastructure to the Olympians to the tourists, the 2012 Summer Olympics are shaping up to be the most technologically advanced event in history. It starts at the top, with LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games), which has a team of 450 top-tier technologists tasked with deploying and managing the massive tech infrastructure.  To provide insight into the scale of it all, LOCOG must keep 180 servers and 1,160 computers running 24/7, and provide the system to manage 70,000 volunteer staff.  That’s not to mention the fact that athletes, media, and visitors are expected to utilize so much data that it could cripple the networks of the greater London area.

The infrastructure is only the beginning.   Amidst all of the technology needed to produce the Olympics, perhaps none are tech-reliant than the athletes.  Sports have always been deemed a true meritocracy, but these days, ones merit is often determined by the technology behind the athlete.

In a world where even the slightest advantage can mean the difference between gold or silver, cover of Sports Illustrated or obscurity- milliseconds matter.  And that’s where technology has changed the game.  Athletes will try anything, and providers will stop at nothing to facilitate them.

The commercial appeal is too enticing for companies like Nike, Adidas, Speedo, and many others to pass up.  As Ryan Greenwood, Nike’s U.K. head of public relations and communications puts it, “It’s like a concept car model – we get to debut these innovations on the world’s best athletes, then commercialize the opportunity by providing these technologies to athletes everywhere.”

PERFORMANCE TECH: THE ATHLETES

“Athletes are always looking for that next piece of technology that’s going to help us train better. Every 100th of a second or centimeter could be the difference between going down in glory and going down in flames.”

-Bryan Clay, US Decathlete seeking 3rd Straight Gold Medal

TRAINING AND PREPARATION

We’ve always said that athletes are finely-tuned machines.  It shouldn’t surprise us then, that finely-tuned machine maker, BMW, agrees. Utilizing the latest camera, wearable sensor, and wireless technologies, BMW has created a system to breakdown training to the most granular level.  The BMW Velocity Measurement System allows USA Track and Field athletes in the jump events to determine their optimal steps, timing, foot placement, and takeoff angle to maximize their center of gravity to carry them the farthest distance.

You may be wondering, why would a German car company provide this technology for Team USA? Well, the economic downturn forced General Motors out of their sponsorship role, leaving an opening for BMW.  And in case you’re still confused by the whole BMW meets Olympic training situation, similar technologies will be found in our cars in roughly 10 years to help stay in our lanes and avoid accidents.

Keep a close eye on the jump events (long jump, triple jump, decathlon) to see the extent that BMW helps Team USA, and potentially the extent that your next car will be driving itself.

At the Nike Sparq Performance Center, scientists and athletes work tirelessly to produce the next training tool that will power the world’s greatest athletes.  A number of consumer product innovations are being used by the likes of LeBron James and Hope Solo in their training for the 2012 games.  Nike+ Fuelband and Nike+ training apps are used to track and analyze training, while the ultra high-tech Sparq Vapor Strobe glasses are designed to optimize vision, sensory performance, and reaction times.

COMPETITION APPAREL

Technology moves the world forward, but when it comes to sports, it has the potential to elicit controversy- particularly when world records start shattering.  Wearing the Speedo LZR Racer suit (named to the Popular Science ‘100 Best of What’s New ’08’ list), Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  By 2009, 46 world records had been broken by swimmers wearing the same suit, before it was finally banned.  Suits, like Speedo’s LZR were meant to reduce drag, but the LZR over-stepped by improving buoyancy and creating a girdle-like stiffness to stabilize swimmers’ core, which reduced fatigue and resulted in unprecedented record times.

In 2012, two speed suits will be center stage in two of the highest profile sports, swimming and track & field.  Speedo is back with a new-and-approved suit, the LZR Racer Elite, and Nike will debut its Nike Pro TurboSpeed suit for USA Track and Field.  Both are designed to reduce drag and optimize aero-dynamics.  Interestingly, the Nike Pro TurboSpeed suit utilizes similar technology to that of a golf ball.  It’s dimpled, to bring air into it, like a vacuum, and reposition the air to the runners back.  As far as the difference between the LZR Racer Elite and its banned predecessor of 2008, you’ll notice that it is a half-suit only, not a full body suit.  This change will continue to aid in aerodynamics, but will not have the same effect on buoyancy and fatigue.

Will the times at the 2012 Games reveal an unfair advantage in the 2008 Games?  We’ll have to wait and see.

THE CONSUMER TECH: MILLIONS DESCEND UPON LONDON

The competition in London won’t be limited to the participants.  The London games set the stage for a gladiator-like competition between countless brands, fighting against one another on the biggest stage.  Apps are all the rage, and NBC, BBC, Yahoo!, and even the IOC are betting big on the craze.

In a more intriguing head-to-head battle, two for-hire vehicle apps will battle it out in London.  In a city of roughly 8m, where taxis are a popular mode of transportation, adding an estimated 4m visitors to the ecosystem sets up to be a mess.  San Francisco-based, Uber, and London-based Hailo will vie for the future of the lucrative London market, at a time when transportation will be at a premium unlike any other time in recent memory.

Uber has been disrupting the for-hire vehicle market in North America (as well as select international cities), with its ultra-slick mobile app and super-cool black car treatment.  Hailo has done the same in the U.K., with an equally cool mobile app and a more taxi-centric approach.  The two companies differ on many levels, but ultimately seek the same goal: to takeover the on-call car business as we know it.  The battle in London will go a long way to determining their future competitiveness with one another in markets around the world.

THE MOST ‘SOCIAL’ GAMES EVER

Perhaps the most entertaining storylines of the Olympics are the athletes’ tales of overcoming adversity to compete on the world stage (and perhaps Olympians’ misguided use of social media).  Now, unlike any other time in history, the athletes themselves are poised to tell their own story.  The London Games have been billed as the most social games ever.  This at a time when athletes have never been more aware of their personal brands, expect participants to take to Twitter and Facebook faster than Usain Bolt runs the 100-meter dash.

The in-depth coverage likely benefits the oft-overlooked niche sport athletes more than the big names, but expect nearly all 10.5k participants to use the platform to raise their profiles (and sponsorship dollars).

Tweet costs her a chance to compete. Photo via 24 Sports

However, the IOC, through their Social Media Policy, will be heavily policing all participants internet usage.  This isn’t to protect the athletes from themselves, like you might expect. And Greek track athlete, Voula Papachristou, could certainly have used some Twitter guidance.  Her racist tweet cost her a chance to compete. The policy is actually in place to protect the Olympic sponsors, who paid big money for the spotlight.  For example, if Usain Bolt were to captivate the world again, like he did in 2008, he will be punished for sending a tweet about Puma (his footwear sponsor), because Adidas is the official footwear partner of the 2012 Games.

THE BATTLE OF THE SOCIAL NETWORKS

Facebook appears to be the focal point of global brands’ social media efforts at the Games.  Facebook, itself among the world’s biggest brands, launched its own portal to the Olympics, Explore London 2012, which is designed to facilitate intimate communication between athletes and fans.  NBC is also utilizing Facebook to create a deeper experience around the Games, by providing exclusive (presumably, behind the scenes) content on the NBC Olympics fan page.  Not to be outdone, the BBC also intends to utilize Facebook, but in a different way than NBC.  They will live stream events on their page, which is actually a sweeter deal for Facebook, because viewers’ attention won’t be divided between their computer/tablet/smartphone and their television.

On the surface, Facebook appears to have won the pre-Games battle of the brands over its archrival, Twitter.  However, don’t be surprised if Twitter is the top choice of the participants, thanks to its public cool-factor (cache, or street-cred), as well as its short-burst, less time-consuming nature.  And where the athletes go, so must go the brands.  This makes for an intriguing clash, with billions of dollars in business at stake.

The competitions will run deep at the Games this year.  While watching your favorite athletes showcase their life’s work, be sure to keep tabs on the tech battle brewing beneath the surface.

Ryan Clifford is the co-founder of Lingobox.tv.  His career in the tech industry spans a number of capacities, and requires he keep a close eye on developing technologies around the world.  He authors the Starting Now blog and would love to connect on Twitter.

8 comments

  1. Nice piece Ryan. The world certainly is changing. I had no idea that Michael Phelps was wearing a special suit that helped him win all of those medals. You would think that they would have looked into it a little closer before the last Olympics.

    1. Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. Not to minimize his achievements though, because everyone was wearing them in 2008, so the competition was reasonably equalized. Compared to past record holders though, it’s a different story.

  2. I don’t think your average Joe has any idea what’s going on behind the scenes but as this piece highlights there has been great innovation at every level. All very impressive. And just think – it will continue to improve and converge seemlessly into our lives – amazing!

    1. By the 2016 Games, athletes will probably be able to ‘think’ a tweet after a win and it’ll show up on TV screens worldwide. Hopefully, they’re not thinking dirty thoughts.

  3. Interesting piece! Similiar to commenter Dennis, I’m impressed as to the level of technology taking place at the Olympics- and I agree with him as well that it will continue to improve and be a seemless portion of our lives. I think the concept of overt technology is over, and we’re leaning more towards technology being integrated into everything we do… soon enough, we won’t even recognize it as a separate entity since it will be such commonplace! I look forward to that…

    1. Absolutely! It’s definitely happening, as we speak. The thing about innovation is that it moves faster and faster, with each and every innovation that precedes it.

  4. Now that the London Games are officially over, and there’s been time to take it all in, it’s safe to say that Twitter crushed Facebook in this battle! They seem to absolutely own real-time communication and therefore own media access. Here’s a good piece on Yahoo Sports to sum it all up: London Morphed Into the Twitter Games 140 characters at a Time http://yhoo.it/RJrhmd

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