Olympian Technology: Higher, Faster, Stronger
Davi Sommerfeld via flickr
(ISNS) -- The Summer Olympic Games enjoys a long tradition of spectacular technical aids which have significantly improved athletes' achievements, from sprinters' starting blocks to composite fibers in badminton rackets.
"It's hard to imagine any sport hasn't been touched dramatically by technology," said
Janice Forsyth, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Canada.
Individuals have employed numerous illegal forms of technological assistance, from using performance-enhancing drugs, storing and re-injecting athletes' blood, to adjusting the electronic sensor in a fencing sword to record hits when none were made.
But in many cases, the Olympic movement has welcomed technical changes that have arguably improved the Games.
The Tokyo Games in 1964 saw the Olympic debut of pole vaulting poles made of fiberglass instead of aluminum, which in turn had replaced bamboo.
The flexibility of fiberglass poles allowed athletes to translate the energy of their run-ups into vaulting height more effectively.
"You still had to have pretty good speed, but you could hold the pole higher up and get the pole to help you," said Robert Vigars, professor of kinesiology at the University of Western Ontario.
As a result, the Olympic record set in 1960 jumped from 15 feet, 3 inches to 16 8-3/4 in 1964.
"That was the single greatest increase in Olympic records ever recorded in the pole vault," stated J. Russell VerSteeg, a professor at the New England School of Law, in a written report.
At the Barcelona Games in 1992, British rider Chris Boardman astonished the cycling world by winning the 4,000-meter individual pursuit race on a "super bike" designed by engineers at Lotus, a company associated with racing cars.
To overcome air resistance, the cycle's frame consisted of a single structure of lightweight carbon fiber. One wheel used the traditional spokes while the other consisted of a solid disc. An aerodynamic helmet completed the picture, and it has influenced elite cyclists ever since.
This year's London Games will feature a new way to score taekwondo, a sport in which fighters score points by punching and kicking their opponents.
To replace often-controversial scoring by human judges, the World Taekwondo Federation has introduced an electronic system that relies on sensors in the fighters' body armor and socks. The sensors register a successful kick or punch automatically.
Other new technologies are less visible but nevertheless significant.
Dow Chemical Company has developed a high-performance polyethylene resin for the artificial turf on which Olympians will play field hockey in London. Dow claims that the new turf will ensure a surer grip for players' shoes, helping to reduce injuries. It should also allow more accuracy in passing and better ball control, leading to faster, more exciting matches.
Sometimes, sports make changes that reduce performance.
By the mid-1980s, improved design and materials had made javelins so effective that male athletes could throw them more than 340 feet.
Even though they threw from one end of the stadium, those distances put spectators in the other end at risk.
So the international body responsible for field events called for a scientific fix in time for the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. It required each javelin's center of gravity to be moved back by about one and a half inches.
That change caused the javelin's nose to dive late in flight instead of continuing to glide.
A further adjustment before the 1992 Barcelona Games banned marks on javelins' tails intended to compensate for some of the lost distance.
Since then, no man has thrown a javelin further than 323 feet, a record set in 1996.
But the poster child for over-the-top technological advance comes from swimming.
The 2008 Beijing Games saw the introduction of new swimsuits based on polyurethane. They acted like extraordinarily tight girdles. By compressing swimmers' muscles, the manufacturers claimed, the suits reduced friction in the water.
Swimmers who wore the suits broke 25 new world records, the largest number since the 1976 Montreal Olympics, which coincided with the first use of swimming goggles.
This amounted to a "technological doping" effect, and FINA, the international swimming foundation, banned the swimsuits from competition, although it allowed the records to stand.
"The regulation of suits was a win for the sport, because it could be argued that the suit that was worn became a determining factor in the outcome of a race more than the actual skill of the swimmer," said Russell Mark, director of biomechanics at USA Swimming.
"The Olympic committee was very concerned about rate at which world records were being broken," Forsyth added. "They had to slow down the rate at which new technology was introduced into the games."
The affair indicates the pressure faced by the organizations that oversee competitive sports.
"Technology is always in advance of the sport," Forsyth said. "The international federations have to decide what's allowable in their sports."
Of course, modern athletes rely on more than new technology as they hone their skills.
"There's much more of a holistic approach by competitors – better nutrition, better designed training programs, and more attention to overuse and recovering from workouts," Vigars said. "That's not technology; it's science."