NEARLY SIX MILLION PEOPLE will converge on London for the 2012 Olympics. It will host more than 10,000 athletes from 205 countries. For 16 days, it will become the center of the broadcast universe, with over 4 billion people tuning in via television and the internet.
It’s an irrational thing, the Olympics. But it’s one of those beautiful human aspirations, like a skyscraper or space mission, that unites a massive group of people to make an impossible situation possible. And like the athletes themselves, it drives each Olympics to improve, to build rapidly, and to see just how far we can push our minds, machines, and manpower to change the world we know.
456 B.C.: The Temple of Zeus
The Olympics originated as a religious festival. Which, compared to present day, would probably resemble something closer to Bonnaroo than World Youth Day. Over time, the annual Olympic site of Olympia grew to become the focal point of the entire pantheon, which eventually led to the construction of the Temple of Zeus — one of the most influential structures of all time.
Way back in ancient Greece, they didn’t have cranes. They didn’t have AutoCAD. To build such a massive and beautiful structure — on top of a hill, no less — required some incredibly innovative skills. The Temple of Zeus would eventually become the standard by which all other classical Greek Doric order structures are measured, not to mention an influence for future iconic buildings an monuments, such as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
1932 and 1964: Consistent and synchronized timekeeping
It’s crazy to think that at one time, Olympic judges each brought their own stopwatches to keep time during races and other time-centric events. It wasn’t until 1932 that Omega developed its own Olympic chronograph, made with a fly-back hand, which allowed every judge to use an identical, observatory precision-rated timepiece.
Later, we’d see electronically synchronized timing invented specifically for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 by Seiko, who coordinated a quartz crystal timer with the shot from the starter’s pistol and employed a photo-finish mechanism to get results down to 1/100th of a second accuracy. Perhaps more importantly, Seiko says that creating this technology for the Olympics helped them invent the quartz wristwatch in 1969 — a technological milestone for society at large.
1936, 1948, 2008 and 2012: Televised sports
In 1936, the Berlin Olympics became the first-ever televised sporting event in history. All around Berlin — Nazi Berlin — thousands of residents watched the Games on 25 big screens inside of specially designed “television halls.” Interestingly, due to problems with the visuals, the audience could only see dark-colored horses during polo and equestrian events — the inspiration for the phrase “dark horse.”
After two concurrent hiatuses of the Summer Olympics during World War II, London hosted the 1948 Olympics, which became the first-ever Games broadcast over the air to home televisions, with over 500,000 people tuning in. 60 years later, the 2008 Olympics witnessed the first-ever High Definition broadcast of the Games to 4.7 billion people.
But perhaps the most impressive Olympic TV milestone will occur this year, as BBC has promised to broadcast every. single. event. of the entire Olympic Games, streaming up to 24 simultaneous high-definition feeds at once.
2008: New athlete technology
The 2008 Games in Beijing saw a deluge of sports technology innovation, like the Nike PreCool Vest, which aims to cool muscles down before events, because studies have shown athletes who use it gain 21% more stamina during their competition.
And of course, shoes have long been a focal point of innovation. For the 2008 Games, Adidas made a shoe designed for runners who only turn left (i.e., every competitive track runner ever), Nike created a BMX biking shoe modeled off Lance Armstrong’s cycling shoe, and Nike’s special Taekwondo shoe — the TKV — implemented a brand-new leather to help judges hear the “smack” of impact more loudly.
But perhaps the most impressive footwear innovation for the 2008 Olympics came in the form of Hitoshi Mimura’s shoe made of rice. Yep: rice. By integrating rice husks into the soles of the shoes, they purportedly offered 10% better traction during a marathon.
And then, there was the air-conditioned tennis racket…
2008: The DiveCam
Bringing the billions of viewers a new, exciting way of watching — and understanding — the Olympics is part and parcel to the entire mission of the Games’ innovations.
In 2008, the guy who created the SteadiCam (you know, that thing that’s used to film pretty much everything ever filmed) developed the Drop-Gravity Camera, or DiveCam, by using a very simple but innovative take on a rope-and-pulley system originally designed by Galileo. By allowing the camera to shoot motion steadily in a free fall, it captures the feeling and experience of being alongside the diver like no other camera before it.
2012: The portable stadium
London’s new Olympic stadium will seat around 80,000 people — but only 25,000 of those seats will be permanent. The other 55,000 will be composed of “flat pack” materials — similar to the easily broken-down assembly-line parts of Ikea furniture — making it possible to export the additional stadium seating to any other venue in the world.
What this amounts to: making a megastadium more than a giant, unsuable monolith long after the Olympics has ended, and in turn creating an incredibly innovative piece of sustainable technology.
2012: The boundless athlete
Oscar Pistorius doesn’t have legs. He’s competing in the 2012 Olympics as a runner. Making him the first-ever prosthetic-legged Olympian in history.
This may be the biggest evidence for the amount of game-changing technology the Olympics is responsible for — spawning the development of prosthetic legs so strong and fundamentally sound that a legless human is able to use them well enough to compete against the best in the world.
Of course, this emerging technology begs the question: Is it fair? Certainly, Pistorius doesn’t have as much body weight as the typical runner, and the prostheses themselves aren’t subject to lactic acid buildup or any other type of muscle fatigue.
2012: The social Olympics
One very big piece of technology available to the 2012 Olympics that all previous Olympics did not have: the current human propensity for sharing every minute of their experiences with their network of contacts. As in, Twitter.
To account for and accommodate Olympic spectators’ connectivity needs, the city of London is implementing free wifi throughout much of the London Underground for the duration of the Olympics — a huge first for public transportation.
Another social media-minded technology spawned as a result of this year’s Olympics is something called the Zeebox. Essentially, it’s like Spotify for your television. It monitors what you and your network of friends are watching, and allows for two-way communication, adding a yet-to-be-tapped potential for creating live conversations around the events.
2016: Kitesurfing and rugby
As we look to the future of the Olympics, we can only expect further innovation to come along with the inclusion of new Olympic sports. One of the most exciting announcements for the 2016 Olympics was that kiteboarding will replace windsurfing as an Olympic sailing sport.
Given the fast-paced and high-flying nature of the event, think about the technical innovations that could go into providing an enhanced viewing experience — from developing specially designed, kite-mounted GoPro kits, to using miniature drones to fly around and capture the action in hovering real-time.
Another new sport for 2016: rugby. As one of the most popular sports around the world, it makes sense that rugby has finally found its way into the Olympics — but what makes it interesting is how different the sport is from others. With so much physical contact and fifteen players on the field at once, one can imagine a scenario in which tackles are measured via sensors broadcasting impact data, discreet cameras capture intra-scrum moments, and new sports technology is developed to keep athletes safer than ever before.
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