Olympics Tech in the 21st Century

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By Carl Weiss

Begun in 776 BC in honor of Zeus, the Olympics Games were a competition held every four years that tested an athlete’s ability to run, jump and throw.  While there were fewer events in the ancient games than there are today, one thing remained the same until quite recently: every competition was decided on the native abilities that the athletes possessed.  However, recent developments in technology have changed that basic tenet forever, as athletes and their sponsoring nations use science to give their team the competitive edge. On top of that, the internet has altered the way we learn about, watch, follow and compete in these games. Now add the Internet of Thing and we have entered into a brave new world for the 21 Century Olympics.

Ever since I was a kid, watching the Olympic on TV was a big deal. They only came about every couple of years (alternating between the Winter and Summer Games). Everyone knew that these were the premier sporting contest of the world. All the Major Networks, Radio, Newspapers, and Magazines were honed in on the multitude of stories that would come out of the games.

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Social Media takes Center Stage

Today, we are more connected that ever. We have pre-Olympic coverage that is almost as big as regular pro sporting events.  Athletes have their own websites so you can keep up with their training and progress. You can even donate to their cause via the internet. And it's not just websites. Most athletes have Facebook and Twitter accounts and huge fan bases as well.

Now the TV, Radio, and print media don’t just cover the sporting events, they cover the following of the events and the background stories of the athletes as well. A good example is how the TV networks added whole segments to their broadcast that specifically just covered who was getting the most tweets on any given day. Today, you can actually send direct messages to the athletes via Twitter and Facebook if you're connected to them. This can be a double edge sword for the athletes and messages can be both positive and negative. Some athletes actually have social media managers in place to deal with all the messages.

Enter the Internet of Thing

What we haven’t talked a lot about yet is how the Internet of Thing and hacker figure into the whole Olympic Picture. According to a CBS report, “hacking was widespread at the Sochi Winter Olympic and it's probably a forgone conclusion that the Rio Games will be hacked open season for all who attend. In fact, a CNBC reports headline was - “Experts warn of hacking threat at Rio Olympics” and USA Today’s headline wasn’t reassuring either because it reads: “Officials warn that U.S. travelers to Rio Olympics face hack risk”. We know that
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most Internet of Things enabled devices are not secure and people, both in RIO and worldwide will be glued to their SMART TV, Smartphones, computers and tablets, to stay in touch with the latest that the games have to offer. Unfortunately, this is also a golden opportunity for hackers to invite you into their Olympic Hacker Fest games by sending you phishing email and “special invites to Olympic special programs”! So be forewarned and on the lookout for these new hacker tricks using the Olympics as part of their bait.

The Need for Speed

As far back as the 1950’s technological advances were used to turn the tide in Olympic competition.    The late 1950’s saw the introduction of aluminum skis designed by an American engineer, Howard Head, that could outturn traditional wooden skis.  In the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics, French skier Jean Vuarnet won the downhill gold medal on skis patterned after Head’s principles and designed by Emile Allais, a former world champion skier.  Buoyed by this achievement, Head kept tinkering with his skis.  As a result, the Swiss national team began using Head skis in 1963.

The latter part of the 1960’s also saw advances in ski boots as another American inventor, Bob Lange of Dubuque, Iowa created the world’s first fiberglass ski boots.  An amateur skier, Lange’s boots got the attention of the Canadian Ski Team whose advice Lange took to heart.  At the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, five gold medals were won by skiers wearing boots made by Bob Lange. 

The 1964 Winter Games held in Innsbruck, Austria introduced everything from artificial ice making on bobsled tracks, to the use of fiberglass and steel sleds.  More than just a speed enhancer, these high-tech sleds proved more controllable than their older counterparts.  This reduced much of the danger that had been a hallmark of earlier competitions.

Germany’s George Hackl, won a silver medal in the luge during his very first Olympic
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competition in Calgary.  Then he went on to win the gold in 1992 and 1994.  At the 1998 Winter Games held in Nagano, Japan, Hackl again won the gold, but not before drawing protests from both the Canadian and American luge teams, when he sported aerodynamic yellow booties.  Before the 1992 Salt Lake City Games, Hackl again raised hackles by teaming with German Automaker Porsche in order to design a faster sled to aid in his quest to become the first Winter Olympian to win four consecutive gold medals.  However, his high-tech sled was not quite fast enough, as Italy’s Armin Zoeggeler went on to win the gold, with Hackl taking the silver.

98 also saw 18 speed skaters best the Olympic record set in 1994 by US skater Dan Jansen in the men’s 1,000-meter event when they all switched to Clap skates, which added a hinge that connected blade to boot.    That year also saw Dutch skaters who attached rubberized strips to their racing suits in order to reduce wind resistance, take both the gold and silver that year in the 1,000-meter event.

In a game decided by thousandths of a second, going for the gold in many competitions revolves around wind resistance.  Since the late 70’s when skier Steve Podborski first used a wind tunnel to test his equipment, aerodynamics has reigned supreme.  While Podborski’s efforts only brought home a bronze medal, by the turn of the millennium, everybody who was anybody started using space age materials and technology to bring win medals.  In the 2002 Winter Games, Catriona LeMay Doan used a wind tunnel to test the capability of the Canadian team’s racing suits.  In the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics saw carbon fiber plates set between snowboards and bindings to allow the Canadian team to make cleaner turns, as a result of which the Canadian team won more medals than any other nation that year.

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Today, wind tunnel testing and supercomputers are used to design everything from bicycle helmets and clothing to high-tech swimsuits that first made their appearance at the 2008 Summer Games held in Beijing.  The suits were said to reduce water resistance in order to cut a swimmer’s time by 2%.  The resulting flap was termed “technological doping,” where only the wealthiest nations need apply.  Indeed, a number of poorer nations have dropped out of technology-heavy competitions such as cycling, rowing, and sailing, citing sticker shock that prevents that precludes entry.

On the other hand, history has shown that tradition can sometimes trump technology.  After the 1992 Olympics that saw Chris Boardman’s Lotus-engineered Superbike takes the gold medal, the International Cyclist Union made an extraordinary declaration.  That year they turned back the clock so that the one-hour cycling record could only be broken on bikes like that used in 1972 by Eddy Merckx.  In 2009, the Olympic body tasked with regulating swimming competitions banned high-tech swimsuits after 94% of medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics were awarded to swimmers who wore them. 

Speaking of cyber augmentation, amputees have competed in the Olympics

2008 was also the year that Oscar Pistorius went to court to fight for the right to run against able-bodied runners.  He lost the battle at that time due to the fact that the court ruled his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage over runners with no prosthetics. Oscar has carbon fiber blades replacing parts of both legs and feet.

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This changed in 2012 when Oscar Pistorius’s became the first amputee to compete in any summer Olympics. At the 2012 Olympics, held in London, he was able to qualify and compete in the 400-meter race. During his qualifying run, he placed second and ran by some of the other competitors. His real battle was just to be able to compete at all. It took many hearing in front of the Olympic committees to convince them that he should be able to compete. During the games, he knew his personal best was not fast enough to contend for a medal, but it was fast enough to beat many and gain the respects of many other runners.

Where Do You Draw the Line with Technology?

In their quest to bring home the gold, athletes have not proven averse to augmenting their bodies as well as their gear.  Former track star and Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones pled guilty in 2007 to using steroids.  She is hardly alone.  Since 1968, 63 Olympic athletes have been stripped of their medals.  But that still pales in comparison to East Germany who made steroids mandatory for more than 200 athletes from the 1960’s to 1989.  

Fast forward to the 2016 Olympics in Rio which has been rocked by the Russian doping scandal.  Four-time Olympian Paula Radcliffe summed up the angst that continues to taint the athletic world when she stated in a CNN interview, “I feared athletics was going the way of cycling.  The public is in danger of thinking, ‘Can we believe anything we’re seeing?’”

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Of course, when it comes to biotechnology, steroids are just the tip of the iceberg.  There is technology available today that can deliver oxygen directly to the bloodstream via microparticles.  Not only could this technology provide an unfair advantage, but it would prove nearly impossible to detect.  With the advances in artificial joints, tendons, and limbs, will there come a time in the not too distant future when athletes willingly go under the knife to give themselves the competitive edge?  Will athletes be required to undergo an MRI before they are allowed to compete in future games? 

Even more dangerous is the emergence of gene editing technology that can alter human embryos.  While hailed as a potential boon with the potential of eradicating genetic diseases, other researchers have expressed concerns that gene-editing could also have unethical implications.  Just as the East Germans imposed their will on Olympic athletes in years past, will some other country decide to engineer its athletes in the womb all for the sake of national glory?

All I can think of at this point is, “What would Zeus say?”

In this article, I have discussed how the coverage, connections and competition of the Olympics have changed because of technology and the use of the Internet. This article looks at everything from doping, prosthetics to advances in equipment, training, social media connections and the threat of hackers running your Olympic experience. More importantly, it shows how the Olympics have evolved along with our world and the human experience has changed.

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Carl Weiss is president of WorkingtheWebtoWin.com a digital marketing agency in Jacksonville, Florida that routinely works with bloggers and other online marketers to grow their business

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