STEM Goes for Gold: how Tech is Transforming the Rio 2016 Olympic & Paralympic Games

The Olympic Games have changed a lot since the first event held in ancient Greece. For a start, you’re unlikely to see anyone competing naked at Rio 2016. Performance-enhancing drugs were still available in 776 BC, although the original Olympians were more likely to take magical wine-potions and eat animal testicles to improve physical prowess.

One of the most dramatic changes to this year’s Games will be the role of engineering and technology in Olympic and Paralympic sports. Equipment, scoring and event the role of spectators are changing in the Digital Age, in fascinating and often surprising ways.

For the London 2012 Games, designers Jay Osgerby and Edward Barber used 3D printing to make mock-ups of the Olympic torch. In Rio 2016, this relatively new method of production has opened up a host of new sporting possibilities. U.S. Track-and-Field athlete Allyson Felix will wear custom-built shoes featuring 3D-printed running spikes designed to curve around the individual shape of her feet. German Cyclist Denise Schindler is set to compete with a fully 3D-printed prosthetic leg: the first cyclist in Paralympic history to do so.

Sports technology will also make an appearance in the swimming events, making it easier for athletes to keep track of their progress without compromising performance. Underwater lap-counters by Omega will feature touch-pads at each end of the pool, recording how many laps have been completed in each lane and transmitting the information to screens attached to the pool floor.

Electronic scoring and timekeeping have also become increasingly popular at Olympic events, ensuring fairness and accuracy by removing the human element of bias from the judging process. Archery and Shooting will both use the latest electronic scoring methods, whilst touch-sensors will be included in Taekwondo body and head protectors. Pressure-pads in starting blocks will detect false starts and lasers spanning the finish-line- which send an electrical signal to the timing console- will ensure that race times are instantly and accurately captured.

The Paralympic Medals have also received an innovative update. At Rio, medals will feature Braille for visually impaired athletes and a device fitted inside which makes a noise when shaken, allowing athletes to identify which medal they’ve won. The silver and bronze medals will also be made up of 30% recycled material.

These advances in sports engineering and technology don’t just affect the athletes.  Those of us watching the Games from home this year will still have a chance to take part in the action using our smartphones. The official Rio 2016 App is now available for download, whilst the live-streaming video app Periscope will have its own dedicated Olympics channel. Twitter’s Moments feature will provide a collection of the best and most exciting Olympic events of the day, and there will also be 207 new emojis available for users following the Games. Simply tweet a hashtag followed by the 3-letter abbreviation of a country’s name for an image of the national flag to appear in your tweet.

If you have a bit more cash to splash but couldn’t quite afford plane tickets to Rio, the Samsung Virtual Reality Headset can transform your smartphone into an immersive Olympic experience. Users can pretend they’re taking part in the 2016 Opening and Closing Ceremonies by watching the events through this device, which turns your phone into a pair of Virtual Reality goggles. The Olympic Broadcasting Services will also screen one Olympic event per day to Samsung VR users.

Science, technology, engineering and maths have made extraordinary changes to the ways we watch, judge and compete in sporting events. Although the Games take place over a matter of weeks, the STEM advances made in the pursuit of Olympic and Paralympic dreams don’t have a Closing Ceremony to attend. They will continue to develop and improve the way we live our lives for years to come- whether you’re a gold medallist, an Olympics enthusiast, or one of those who’ll be avoiding the telly until October!

By: Tess Gallacher

Date published: 
August 5, 2016