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Records tumble at Tokyo 2020: How technology is 'changing the Games'

  • Publish Date: Posted about 2 months ago
  • Author: Zara Winstanley
When an athlete’s training cycle is geared towards peaking at one specific time, how do they deal with it being pushed back a year?
As the global pandemic put a grinding holt on many athletes strict training regimes, a new wave of sports technology has been rapidly adopted, transforming the ways athletes train and optimise performance. Sports tech is now at the foundations of any Olympic preparation, and as records tumble in Tokyo, it’s clear that digital innovation is pushing sports performance to new all-time highs.
In this article, we look at the tech behind the fast track, wearables, high tech running shoes and AI-powered coaching to uncover how technology has become both a 'games-changer' and source of controversy at Tokyo 2020.
Records tumble at Tokyo 2020: how technology is changing the Games

The tech behind the fastest track ever created

Japan is a country known for invigorating and avant-garde technologies, so it’s unsurprising that the Tokyo athletics track is being deemed the fastest track ever created. So, what’s the tech behind the track? The surface, made by Olympics track creation legends Mondo, features "three-dimensional rubber granules specifically designed with a selected polymeric system that is integrated into the top layer of MONDOTRACK WS that are added to the semi-vulcanized compound creating a compact layer. The top layer is vulcanized rubber to help with elasticity. There are also "air-filled cavities" in the lower layer, which assist with "shock absorption, energy storage and immediate kinetic response."

Translation… it’s speedy.

"Oh, it's fast," American 800-meter runner Clayton Murphy said. "Might take world records to win."

AI-powered coaching

Heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson won gold at the 2019 world championships, with her British record-breaking score. With the 2020 global pandemic bringing all training to a halt, athletes like Katarina have found it hard breaking their 4-year Olympic cycle, but technology has facilitated the ability to mould and change training regiments at a moments notice.

The inability to travel and meet face to face whilst trying to optimise performance was answered almost exclusively by tech. From augmented reality training, Zoom sessions, 3D modelling, AI coaches, antigravity treadmills and electronic massage recovery to more complex systems that combine wearable devices with GPS, cloud computing, slow-motion cameras, and artificial intelligence all have been used for coaching and coaching analytics.

For team sports such as Basketball, Chinese tech giant Alibaba Group and US chipmaker Intel partnered to run a 3D athlete tracking system that uses AI to understand biomechanics and the movement of athletes enabling coaches to probe into every minute movement of their athletes. 

It’s clear that innovation has played a key role in breaking the 4-year cycle, enabling athletes to push beyond their limits. Indeed, Katarina herself commented on how training for such a vastly competitive event, would have been almost impossible without the aid of pioneering sports technologies.

The wearable tech revolution

Olympic athletes from several countries are pushing their performance limits using different kinds of wearable sports technology for different goals.

Watches that can measure our activity levels, such as Fitbits and Apple watches, have been a part of our society for the average person for a while. However, scientists, data analysts and coaches have come together to find new ways to censor, track and enhance athletes. Here are a few examples:

  • Sports clothing which collects data through micro-electromechanical systems placed in fabrics, regulate body temperatures, increase endurance and performance levels. You may have seen Team USA's Olympic flagbearers air-cool jackets in the opening ceremony.

  • The Japanese basketball team, among others, are using wearable microelectromechanical systems to record and transmit big data like vital signs, positions, and movements.

  • Olympic cyclists are using augmented reality glasses for training that monitor vital rates and create high fidelity simulations of the actual track.

  • Swimmers are using high tech Speedo swimsuits to measure forces and movement and deciphers biomechanical patterns.

Feeling (Vapor)fly

Nike's Vaporfly shoe shook up the world of distance running a few years ago, with carbon-plated technology credited for helping runners achieve records. But in Tokyo, it’s all about track spikes.

On the track, a new generation of super spikes, loosely modelled on the foam-and-carbon-plate marathon shoes are transforming the sprinting game. While other companies now have similar shoe models, Nike looks set to dominate and is priding itself on being a leader in the technology. 

In addition, force-sensing resistors have been embedded into sport’s shoes, used by a wide range of Olympics sports teams, from running to volleyball, to deliver a continuous stream of data throughout the entire training sessions.

However, these advancements are not universally embraced. Usain Bolt said that advances in spike technology that could help wipe out his world records are laughable and that the new shoes also give an unfair advantage over any athletes not wearing them.

Which brings us nicely onto tech controversy...

The controversy: technological doping

The debate on just how much technology should be accepted has been heating up with new terms like ‘technological doping’ being a sign of how the issue controversially affects the spirit of the Olympics. Sports technology that monitors technique and apparel to improve performance is clearly an important part of the modern-day elite athlete’s preparations. But critics say this can equate to ‘technological doping’ and has worsened inequality between well-funded teams and those from developing nations.

Technological doping is recognised as a threat and regulations are in place. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has initiated a consultation on technology doping - the decision to allow or ban a new technology remains the responsibility of each sport’s own governing body.

Regardless of the debate, one thing is for sure – sport will never be the same again.

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