How Technology Continues to Change the Olympics

Advances in virtual imaging, timing, broadcasting, and social media are changing how we watch the games

8 August 2012

It wasn’t hard to tell that China’s Ye Shiwen was about to break a world record in the women’s 400-meter individual medley on 28 July. Viewers could clearly see she was outswimming not only the other competitors but also a vertical yellow line down the pool, as she broke the record of 4:29.45, winning in 4:28.43. Dozens of world records have been broken at this year’s Olympics, including another in swimming by American Missy Franklin in the 200-meter backstroke [shown above].

As the world watches the London Olympics, I think it’s worth noting that the way we watch the games has been profoundly transformed by technology over the decades. For starters, that world record line that we see in so many of the Olympic events wouldn’t be possible without advances in virtual imaging. Granted, not everyone is a fan of that yellow line; one blogger recently called it “the most distracting technology at the Olympics.”

But occasional gripes aside, the world record line seems like it’s here to stay. It debuted at the 2000 Sydney Games and was developed by Orad Hi-Tec Systems, which makes a variety of virtual technologies and advertising and sports broadcasting tools. The line—which is superimposed on the water’s surface and shows an estimated pace based on 50-meter splits of the record-setting time—was first used during Australian Nine Network’s TV coverage of the Olympic qualifying swimming trials, according to an article on the IEEE Global History Network, “Technological Innovations and the Summer Olympic Games.” Since then, Orad and other companies adapted it for use in such sports as track and field, cricket, rowing, and American football, where it’s used for the first-down line. Learn more about the technology behind the first-down line and one of its developers, IEEE Member Stan Honey, in this IEEE Spectrum article.

A slew of other technological advances have revolutionized the Olympics over the decades. Developments in timekeeping have perhaps played the biggest role. After all, accurate timing is at the core of judging who wins so many of the events. From the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, (the ancient Olympic Games can be traced back to 776 B.C.) until the 1932 Los Angeles Games, judges used their personal stopwatches, which led to “varying degrees of accuracy and legitimacy in results,” according to the IEEE GHN article. “But official automatic timing was introduced at the 1932 Los Angeles Games, when [the watch-making company] Omega unveiled its Olympic chronograph with a fly-back hand. This marked the first time in the history of the games that a single manufacturer supplied identical stopwatches with observatory precision-rating certificates for timekeeping, and it increased the accuracy and reliability of results dramatically.”

Further advances in timekeeping came in 1964 at the Tokyo Games. The theme of the games was the Scientific Olympics. The official time-keeping company of the event, Seiko, unveiled its new electronic automated timing system, further boosting accuracy. “The system linked a starting pistol with a quartz timer and a photo-finish apparatus to record finish times, making it possible to record results down to the 1/1000th of a second,” the article states. Based on that timer, the company went on to develop the Seiko Astron, the world’s first commercial quartz wristwatch, which in 2004 was named an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing.

In addition, improvements in broadcast technology have brought the games from the stadium into our homes. The first games televised were the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but only a small audience could watch. “Thousands of local residents watched the Games [for] free on 25 large screens housed in newly constructed television halls around Berlin,” according to the article. The 1948 London Games were the first to be broadcast on home televisions, reaching about 500 000 people in the British Isles. Over the next few decades, advances in broadcast technology and satellites eventually made possible the live footage people around the world enjoy today. Live, of course, unless you’re watching NBC in the United States. The network has generated quite a bit of controversy for delaying its coverage so that it appears in the evening when viewership is highest.

Social media has played an increasingly important role in how we experience the Olympics. Some are even dubbing this year’s London Games the Twitter Olympics, thanks to the real-time tweets about the latest results and funny commentary. See, for example, the NBCDelayed Twitter account created to poke fun at the network’s coverage, by posting old news. A recent tweet read, “SPOILER ALERT: London to host 2012 Olympics.”

For some, the social media coverage has been aggravating. Those who want to be surprised when watching the delayed primetime broadcast must basically avoid all news websites, which prominently highlight the latest results, as well as all social media sites. In our world of instant news, someone’s bound to have tweeted or posted a spoiler.

What are your thoughts on these technical advances and how they’ve affected the Olympics? Are you having a hard time avoiding spoilers before watching the events, or is your country broadcasting the games live? And feel free to share your favorite Olympic memories as well.



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