Doug Bonderud

Feb 14th 2018

The History of the Olympics and Sports Technology: Raising the Bar


Politics, pressures and profits aside, the Olympics remain a source of inspiration for athletes and fans alike. From the inception of the modern games in 1896, to the offset of the Summer and Winter Games in 1992, the history of the Olympics is fraught with change, struggle and ultimately evolution. As the Winter Games have grown, so has the sports technology needed to improve athlete performance, enhance audience experience and answer the ultimate question every two years: Who is the best in the world?

Timing Tech

Timing is everything, especially at the Olympics. The games have come a long way from sideline judges holding analog stopwatches. Official timekeeper Omega is rolling out new technologies at Pyeongchang, according to SportTechie, to help viewers at home better understand how close high-level competitors are when it comes to timing and technique. For example, the company’s STROMOTION sports technology will capture ski jump athletes’ performances frame-by-frame, then overlay previous skiers’ jumps to compare technique.

Podium-Worthy Prosthetics

Paralympians have also benefited from the evolution of sports technology. As noted by CNN, the first athlete-focused prosthetics were heavy, clumsy and painful to wear, but new iterations, such as Ottobock’s Genium X3, include micro-processors that automatically adjust to users’ stride patterns, while companies like Northrop Grumman are developing custom-fit sockets for prosthetics that could help improve overall comfort.

Clothing Considerations

Olympic athletes’ clothing is a highlight of the games. Consider the significant reaction garnered by Team USA’s reveal of fringed leather gloves for their entrance into Pyeongchang this year. But according to Scientific American, athlete outwear designer Ralph Lauren is also leveraging technology to help mitigate extremely cold temperatures in South Korea. Using strips of heat-conducting metallic ink composed of silver and carbon, self-warming jackets help American athletes stave off hypothermia during the opening and closing ceremonies.

Digging Into Data

In a world dominated by big data, athletes can’t afford to ignore critical information that could improve their overall performance. The challenge is finding effective ways to capture and analyze this data. Consider the Winter Olympic sport of curling, which sees both teams sliding granite rocks down a sheet of ice and “sweeping” that ice correctly to maximize speed and rock placement. Traditionally, great curlers relied on technique but lacked ways to measure the efficacy of their sweeping and brushing. Enter the SmartBroom. As noted by the New York Times, each broom contains four sensors that relay stroke force and rate to help analyze performance. This Canadian invention helped both the men’s and women’s teams sweep gold at Sochi and is now used by professional curlers worldwide.

Virtual Reality

Seeing is believing, but when it comes to the Olympics, it’s easy to miss critical shots or key jumps because the action simply happens too fast. But technology companies are upping the ante at Pyeongchang by streaming much of the games in virtual reality, allowing viewers to see what they want, when they want and from any angle. According to Business Insider, NBC will air more than 50 hours of live VR coverage during the games. South Korean telecommunication companies are also using the Olympics as a test run for lightning-fast 5G networks that could reasonably support real-time VR experiences, said Business Times.

The U.S. Olympic team is also using VR to shore up training efforts since they’ve had precious little time to practice on South Korean courses. Coaching staff hope that virtual reality training simulators will help give American athletes the edge when their moment in the spotlight arrives, said Fast Company.

Wearable Winners

Athlete-enabling wearable sports technology is also in development. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have recently developed a line of smart tech that measures the local metabolism of an athlete’s muscles using near-infrared spectroscopy. This lets coaches determine how fast athletes are burning energy and provides critical data for athletes recovering after injuries.

The history of the Olympics has established the games as a worldwide phenomenon that drives not only evolution in athlete performance but the creation of new technologies to better understand and appreciate the incredible talent on display. With the rise of VR, smart devices and big data, Pyeongchang 2018 promises to be a tour de force.