Discover the Hidden Tech of London 2012 Olympics

No, this is not about the technology behind you being able to watch the live stream of events from the comforts of your laptop without paying a cent. It’s also not about the apps involved in getting you the latest medal counts, broken records or controversial calls. This post is about the technology used in the Olympic games themselves, the ones that help give you the best view of each dive, jump and fall, and help keep technicalities and results in check.

The Olympics may be about the spirit of competition but with a little help from science and technology this can make the games to be solely about the athlete’s performance. From timekeeping to camera technologies, photo cells to awesome 3D replays, this post will reveal some of the coolest technology that help keep the Olympic Games running smoothly, and you at the edge of your seat.

Time is of the Essence

Ever wonder how they figure out who wins in swimming races? It’s not like you can take a photo finish, and since water splashes, that makes it even tougher. But not when electronic timekeeper brand Omega has something to do with it. The Swiss timepiece maker carries huge responsibilities in determining who takes the gold medal home in mega sports event like the Olympics. And they do this with a lot of technology, including “contact pads”.

Four fingers and 6.6 pounds

Whenever you see swimmers finishing up the last lap, it all becomes a blur and spectators there and at home refer to the scoreboard to find out who won. Each swimmer’s best times is registered by the contact pads once 6.6 pounds of focused pressure is applied to the pad.

This technology is so sensitive that the pads could register a time difference of one one-hundredth (0.01) of a second, which was exactly what gave U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps the gold (and an Olympic record of 50.58 seconds) during the 100-metre butterfly event in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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From Start to Finish

In track events, even the starting gun and the finishing line is electronically timed. Once the starter pistol is shot to start the race, a timing console is also triggered, mainly to detect false starts. A false start is determined when the runner starts at less than a tenth of a second, the time it needs for a human to react to the starting pistol.

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Image source: Omega

On the other end of the race, when the runners reach the finishing line, they will pass a laser beam that cuts across the track. This beam is received by a light sensor on the other side of the track. When a runner blocks this beam, the time is recorded, and as there are two photo cells placed at different heights to measure this, this will ensure that the runner’s torso (and not an arm) crossed the finishing line first.

Photo finish cameras complete the rigorous measures taken to determine who wins the race, as well as give judges and spectators a look into how technology can showcase the competitiveness of athletes in sports. With 2000 frames per second, there can be no question as to who takes which medals home.

Smile, You’re on DiveCam!

But what about that camera at diving events, the one that follows the divers as they make their somersaults and drop in through the surface of the water? It’s actually an invention called the DiveCam and it’s not as high-tech as you’d like to believe. It works with two things: a pulley system and believe it or not, gravity.

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The man responsible for the DiveCam, Garrett Brown, is also the maker for SteadyCam – a mechanical arm that gives cameras that smooth moving run – and SkyCam – the camera that gives you the overhead view of football players as they run the field.

The Contraption

WIth DiveCam, the camera is placed inside a 50-foot long tube (yes, it’s that out-of-place flattened tube to the side of the diving boards) that extends well under the surface of the water. The cameraman times the diver as they leave the springboard, then drops the camera as the diver makes his or her descent.

Based on laws of physics, the diver and the camera should drop at the same time, giving spectators a perfect view of the dive as it happen. A brake system stops the camera from breaking from impact and it is pulled back up for the next dive.

Time-slicing: the Coolest Instant Replay

Also in the mix is the Matrix-effect replays of gymnasts in mid-air. While I haven’t been able to pinpoint a video of this effect that is available for all (unless if you’re in the UK, in which case, here’s an example) but if you have been watching the gymnastics event you would have been seen these awesome 3D replays, which is something like what you see below .

Aiding Referees

Using feed from cameras taken from different angles, stop motion and rotation view, game referees can use the video feeds to get an all-round view of the action and in some cases settle controversial disputes on the spot. While the technology has already been around since the Matrix hit the big screen in 1999, it wasn’t used in sports until 2001, to be specific in the Super Bowl.

The Debut

Everything was kept under wraps until the day of the event itself but the 33 strategically placed cameras used in the system, called EyeVision, gave the spectators a brand new look into the sports event. One drawback to this is that the costs of the equipment can really add up and their area of focus is quite limited. However, it does add the coolness factor to stunt-filled sports like gymnastics and extreme sports.

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Image Source: 360 Replays

The Olympic Torch

From 1964, the Olympic flame has been lit in Olympia, Greece before carried all over the host country of the Games for the year then lit in the Olympic Cauldron for the entirety of the Games. Throughout this long journey known as the torch relay, the torch must always stay lit, so a lot of technology is put into making this event a success.

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Image Source:

As the torch makes it journey from Greece by air, land and across the seas, it has to be designed to be light enough (less than 1 kg usually) for the torch bearer yet sturdy enough to carry its own fuel supply and internal burning mechanisms.

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For the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a combo mixture of butane and propane became the preferred liquid fuel, producing the desirable yellow flame without the accompanying smoke. Further enhancements made to the torch gave it a double-flame design allowing it to be kept alight even underwater as it crossed the Great Barrier Reef.

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Image source: Telegraph

Despite all the technological input, the flames occasionally go out when weather conditions are less than conducive but the torch can be relit from backup torches that were also lit from the same fire in Olympia. Each torch is remodeled and symbolically designed for each Olympic Games. Click here for an interactive view of the beautiful evolution of the Olympic Torch in the past century.

Further Reading:

Here are some other sports-technologies that are (or will soon be) making waves in major sports events.