From the onset, technology has been a key feature to the games. The drama of the Opening Ceremony was created by 70,000 tablets located between the seats in the stands. These tablets had 637,191 lights installed and as the Queen arrived they flashed red, white and blue to create one of the highest resolution Union flags ever seen. Connected to a central computer system by 197 miles of cable, the result was 126 million images that had five times the resolution of high-definition television and appeared to turn the audience into a huge multi million pound human video screen.
The scene depicting Tim Berners-Lee inventing the internet was a fitting tribute to the technology that will permit billions of people around the world to watch the games. But unlike previous Olympics where live streaming was only available on PCs, more and more people are choosing to watch the action on smartphones and tablets. Mobile devices will act for many as the ‘second screen’ for stats and replays. Figures released by the BBC show record numbers of people watching the coverage online, with its website recording a peak audience of 8million, above the previous record of 5.7 million. More than 1.5million people have downloaded the BBC’s Olympics mobile app, and about 17million have used one of the 24 red button streams with 29 million requests for its interactive video streams.
Social media and the Olympics – Twitter gets gold?
London 2012 has been labelled “The Twitter Olympics” and the contrast in the use of social media during Beijing and London is significant. During the last Olympics in 2008, there were around 100 million users of Facebook. Now that number is close to one billion. During the games, tens of thousands of Facebook fan pages will be created and accessed from around the world – many from corporate networks. Twitter has grown from 6 million to 140 million users in the years since the Beijing Olympics. The opening ceremony alone generated 9.66 million mentions on Twitter, more tweets than the whole of the Beijing games, with a tweet by Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee being retweeted more than 10,000 times.
But this can have its drawbacks. Mass tweeting on the microblogging site was blamed for disrupting TV coverage during the cycling road races of the first weekend. BBC commentators and pundits were unable to receive electronic timing and positional updates during both the men’s and women’s races and had to make do with using their own watches. The timings are sent to organisers via tiny GPS transmitters in competitors’ bikes and it was these messages that were not being received due to the volume of tweets being sent as the peloton went passed.
Engineering technology for the win!
But what about the technology and engineering that gets the athletes to the winner’s podium? Preparation and research is key. Much of the technological innovation boosting athletic performance starts during the training process. Researchers at the England Institute of Sport (EIS) and UK Sport explore every aspect of an athlete’s routine, including diet, clothing, training methods, psychological preparation and equipment to try to improve performance. Advances in the miniaturisation of sensors and wireless technologies allow training sessions to be monitored and analysed by computers. For example, in rowing and canoeing training, the blades have tiny sensors that combined with the special vests worn by the rowers, links the data to computers that analyse the speed, force exerted by the blades and the physical response in the athletes. This data is key to designing the engineering innovations we are seeing at the games.
Michael Caine, a professor of sports technology at Loughborough University explains: “What we have seen really is nothing short of a revolution, particularly in the use of advanced materials, integrated with engineering design”. He says athletes with lighter and stronger bats, rackets and golf clubs can hit balls further, harder or with more spin. Often these engineering innovations can be tracked by the records in the sport.
This came to the forefront at Beijing where 108 new records were set, smashing the previous average of 22. In swimming, 94% of the races were won by athletes wearing full-body swimsuits made with engineered materials. These have subsequently been banned from competitions but in the continual quest for better hydrodynamics, Speedo engineered a new suit and released its “Fastskin Super Elite RecordbreakerKneeskin”. The Pulse-Power Hydro-K fabric is more tightly woven than any other swimming fabric before and mixed with 3-D compression technology it ensures the swimmer has 16.6 per cent less drag.
The French cycling team has speculated that the dominance of the British cycling team is due to “magic” wheels, hidden by wheel covers at the end of each race. But at the velodrome, engineering innovation isn’t restricted to just the bikes. Britain’s track cycling team are sporting revolutionary battery-powered hot pants. The team’s physiologist believes the technology will change track cycling forever, in a similar fashion that high-tech suits have changed elite swimming. Much like tyre warmers in Formula 1, the quick release suits will keep the muscles warmed up to an optimum 38 degrees until moments before they compete. 4 years in the making, the suits are a collaboration between British Cycling, Loughborough University and designer Adidas.
Bladerunner – an Olympic first for engineering design
For me, the long lasting image of London 2012 will be the “bladerunner” Oscar Pistorius. Despite failing to qualify for the 400m final, the double amputee won the crowds over with his embodiment of triumph over adversity. Controversial technology surrounds the South African who competes on carbon-fibre prosthetic legs or “blades” fitted below the knee. Although ruled ineligible to compete at Beijing by the world governing body of track and field, this was later overturned after an appeal declared the blades gave him no competitive edge. Pistorius’s efforts are a fitting eulogy to the Olympic spirit where the need to balance innovation and tradition remain a compelling challenge for the most dedicated athletes.