Blazing the trail: Innovation and the Olympics

The Olympics are not just about sports. Much as athletes have constantly pushed the boundaries of human ability at the Games, technology too has moved forward, improving our experience of the event. Now 20 years on from the first Olympics website (launched in 1996 for the Centennial Games at Atlanta) we review some of the advances in technology and the communication lessons that can be learned from them.

First dedicated website and information network

The 1996 Games saw many firsts in events: a Superbike II that used special carbon-fibre frame and new Reebok shoes that used sharkskin material to improve aerodynamics. But the biggest new arrival was the internet. For the first time, a dedicated website aimed at publishing news, photos, results and other event highlights. There was additionally a results system that delivered results of the events to on-site reporters within one-tenth of a second and a commentator information system which allowed media commentators to see the event details and competitor bios.

The system was a significant step forward in communication and a milestone in the provision of, and easy access to, information. This was realised even within the Games themselves when the results system temporarily went down, resulting in staff having to run information on paper to the media. Such ‘night and day’ moments in technology reflect the importance now of having information at our fingertips.

Virtual pace imaging

The innovation, announced as “one of the greatest advances in Olympic television ever”, took place at the 2000 Games at Sydney. Virtual pace imaging began in the swimming pool, placing a virtual line on the water’s surface depicting world record time. A game-changing moment for broadcast media, pace imaging added an entirely new dimension to swimming events: no longer were competitors simply racing each other; they were racing against the best athletes in recorded history. Adding one simple piece of comparison information tells a much bigger story about success, and offers an important lesson about the importance of communicating achievement.

High-definition broadcast

The 2004 summer Olympic Games were the first-ever international broadcast of HDTV, undertaken by NBC and NHK. The use of spectacular images and high quality of broadcast saw a spike in television audiences to 3.9 billion TV viewers in 220 countries. While not all would have been viewing in HD, it was proof if ever needed that an improved experience for viewers increases the audience.

The 2004 Olympics were also the first where satellite and cable channels began dedicating their entire programming to the coverage of events, and where 3G technology was used to allow streaming of video and highlights from the games to mobile phones. This was one step in the trend towards personalisation of experience – something that all consumers now expect from their online and media interactions.

Hi-tech Beijing Olympics

One of the themes for the Beijing Games was innovation and technology. Among the many advances were the 8000fps camera, underwater skateboard cam and anti-rain missiles, vying for attention at the Beijing Olympic Games. But perhaps the biggest advance was the appearance of prosthetic blades. Blades represented not only an advance for disabled athletes but claimed to be a challenge to able-bodied runners. The athlete most associated with blades has since fallen from grace, but there is a lesson here that the right application of technology can take disadvantage and elevate it to a superior position.

Social Media Games

Dual-lens camera, ultra-HD broadcasts and quantum timers were all prepared for London. Yet the item of perhaps most impact was well away from the track and field: contactless payments. The ability to pay simply by tapping a card against a contact reader offers a clear message about the power of technology to simplify and thereby improve experience.

The London Olympics were also dubbed the “Social Media Games”. Hashtags became key communicators, with a significant amount of live tweeting and posting on Facebook, and other channels becoming the repositories of all media and opinion. The organising committee launched an Olympics social media hub for the fans to make the most of this channel content. This allowed both for the capture of more audience-generated content that might otherwise be undiscovered and for the increased sense of engagement between organisers and spectators, playing to the great strength of social media.

Virtual reality and beyond

For the 2016 games in Rio, VR is the buzzword, with up-close, 360-degree viewing possible for some events from the Rio games. Mobile is now expected to be the dominant screen for viewing, with an official Olympics app created for all the major mobile ecosystems, following in line with trends seen across nearly all streams of digital communication.

Beyond Rio, the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 are already being touted as the most futuristic to date. A robot village, 300mph trains and TV in 8K detail are all on the cards. The most practical advance, however, is the promise of instant translation for athletes and judges (and likely the media). This massive technological step forward in communication would transform the Games experience in ways that can’t be fully envisaged yet and will make the Tokyo Olympics necessary viewing in 2020.

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