JIN Yuanpu 金元浦

From the original ancient games to the modern Olympics, the central focus of Olympic competition, and of competitive sports in general, has been the development of the human body in order to achieve victory over an opponent. Originally, however, many sports were designed for religious and ritual purposes and to foster harmony between body and soul—and even balance between man and nature.

Yet a technological approach to sport has been present at least as far back as the 1890s, when Baron de Coubertin, who revived the Olympic Games in 1896, said, “Exercise science has devised several means for strengthening professional performance. It views the body as a complex performance machine comprised of many parts. Each part is independent and interchangeable.”

Feelings about the role of technology in sports are often mixed. On the one hand, athletes’ application of new sports technology makes competition more exciting and enjoyable, but on the other, some worry that such an approach encourages athletes to ignore the nature of the human body.

A high-tech Olympics has several goals. First, it aims to demonstrate the advanced technology and innovation of the new China, which made possible a clean, beautiful, safe, and convenient Olympic environment. Second, it seeks to integrate advanced Chinese and foreign technology. Third, it hopes to stimulate further development of high technology and to increase the use of such technology in everyday life.

The technology used in competition, however, represents only a small part of the application of technology at the 2008 Olympic Games. Most of the technology goes into serving the needs of the Olympic spectators. Olympic security, transportation, communication, the construction of venues and other assisting facilities, the management of the games, even the way people think about the games are all affected by the use of modern technology. This has been true from the time that Berlin broadcast live Olympic programs on worldwide television in 1936 and has only become more true with each technological advance in communications, engineering, and so forth. The spread of the Internet has made the games even more available to the public; in 2004, nearly everyone had firsthand, instant access to event results.

Technological Innovation and the Olympics

Innovation improves performance, opportunity, and interest. The fastskin swim suits which ignited controversy at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, significantly reduce drag in the water and thus the swimmer’s time. Sprinters now wear Lycra bodysuits to cut down on wind resistance.
Composite skis transformed skiing into a popular recreational activity and allowed for innovative designs which led, decades later, to shape skis that allow previously blue skiers to quest black diamond trails. In the 1980s, by moving the center of gravity of the javelin forward, those athletes with precise technique were able to achieve victories that went previously to physically stronger athletes.

The International Olympic Committee is dedicated to protecting the integrity of its games by assuring that victories go to athletes and not engineers. The IOC allows each sport to write its own rules for technology policy but requires that new innovations be available to all the athletes to make sure no one athlete has an unfair advantage. The individual sports are thus charged with determining which innovations will be permitted on the field of play during sanctioned competition. After the 1960s the policy of ignoring technological innovation as many organizations did (cycling and golf are notable exceptions) created crises for many sports governing bodies.

J. Nadine Gelberg

The main stadium for the Beijing Olympics, the “Bird’s Nest” 鸟巢, is a good example of technology in the service of the Olympics. It is a steel web that can hold 100,000 people. The outside looks like a nest formed of branches. Its gray steel grid is like a transparent outer membrane, surrounding a red bowl-shaped stadium. The entire building is free of supportive pillars; the bleachers form a bowl without any obstructions, creating a unique theaterlike feel and a huge field of vision.

Another special feature of the Bird’s Nest is the designed-in “bulges” that contain 20,000 seats’ worth of additional spectator facilities. This bit of architectural ingenuity saved money and spared Beijing from further excavation and building. GUAN Zhaoye 关肇邺, the president of the Appraising Committee and a China Engineering Institute scholar, remarked that the Bird’s Nest had not one bit of wasted material or space. The shape is a product of its function; its form and its structure are unified.

High-tech media broadcasting is also crucial to a successful Olympics, and China has been making rapid advances in this area. In the overall strategy of the Beijing Games, digital technology will play an important role in Olympic entertainment. The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games will be the first in the history of the games to use high-definition broadcasting. Mobile phone transmission in color will be among a series of advanced-technology services provided during these games.

In sum, the technology that supports the games, whether physically, as in the actual infrastructure and transportation systems, or electronically, for communications and media systems, represents perhaps an even more important portion of a “technological Olympics” than the technological advances that help the athletes themselves.

Source: Jin Yuanpu. (2008). The technological Olympics. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 116–117. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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