Washington, July 16 (RFE/RL) - The 1996 Summer Olympics
are set to be the most technologically sophisticated Games yet, so move
over muscle, here comes the microchip.
Human strength, stamina and speed are no longer the only
attributes coveted by Olympic athletes. Today�s Olympic buzzwords
are "Teflon-coated microfiber suits," "infrared cells," and
This summer, U.S. cyclists will ride $1 million
computer-designed "superbikes" that were tested for speed and
durability in specially-made wind tunnels. The U.S. sailing team
will use a satellite-navigation system to map ocean currents. Marathon runners will have microchips attached to their shoelaces to precisely measure their split times.
Technology has clearly become an integral part of the Olympic Games.
Since the difference between a gold and silver medal in many events can be a fraction of a second, any edge technology can provide is
much coveted by athletes. For example, at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the difference between the gold and silver medal in sprints
was about two-tenths of a second.
It seems as if technology is creating a revolution in just about
every Olympic sport. Swimmers use new electronic starting
blocks that can sense the exact moment a swimmer's feet leave the
pad. Using this technology, they can determine if they are
taking too long to leave the block, adding milliseconds to their
Costa Rican swimmer Claudia Pol will try to trim seconds off her
time by wearing the latest in swimwear--a Teflon-coated microfiber
swimsuit. It is designed to slide through the water with the least
amount of friction and resistance.
Olympic archers use specially-made arrows made of aluminum, carbon fiber and epoxy, a compound in which an oxygen atom is joined
to two attached atoms to form a strong, hard enamel-type coating.
These arrows can be shot at speeds of up to 241 kilometers per hour.
Boxers are training with "smart" punching bags with computer chips that monitor the strength and precise location of the
Olympic shooters use a video laser sighting system to track
minute aiming flaws. Once the gun is fired, the bullet's precise
entry point on the target can be measured by a new technology called
sound-wave-measuring microphones. Tiny microphones located on the
target pick up sound waves that can determine precisely where the
bullet strikes the target. This technology replaces the
controversial practice of simply eyeballing the entry point.
However, not all of the new technology focuses exclusively on
sport. An interesting new technological innovation of the 1996
Summer Olympic Games is the new security badge worn by athletes,
officials and coaches. These new badges are able to transmit special
codes and information as the wearer approaches security checkpoints.
Once at the checkpoint, special machines measure the unique shape and angle of each person's hand to confirm identification. This
kind of expensive technology was once only used at nuclear power
plants and other high security facilities. Now, this type of
security technology is soon expected to replace personal
identification numbers at bank machines.
It is impossible to know the exact cost of technology investment in
the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, but it has certainly reached into the
hundreds of millions of dollars. Ten major corporate sponsors selected by the Olympic Committee were required to spend at
least a minimum of $40 million in technology, goods and
Some of the sponsors, such as IBM and Xerox Corporation, are believed to have spent far more than that. All of the sponsors have publicly said that they fully intend to receive a substantial return on their investment.
With all of this focus on technology and who has the best and the
fastest equipment, some people worry that the Olympics have become a
competition for large corporations, not athletes.
Jay Coakley, a sports sociologist at the University of Colorado at
Colorado Springs, told the Georgia-based newspaper "The Atlanta
"With corporations designing all this high-tech equipment playing such a visible role, we essentially have athletes representing companies like Speedo and Nike. We're commercializing human behavior. And the Olympics is the marketing vehicle."
Yet it seems difficult to see how the advancement of technology and its effect on the Olympic Games can be stopped. Many sports by
their very nature have always been a combination of athleticism and
technology. Cycling, sailing, rowing--any sport requiring equipment--is vulnerable to the advancement of technology. And with technological wonders as small as a microchip, even tennis shoes and swimming goggles are not immune to the change.
Perhaps it could be said that the Olympics have become more than
simply a competition of athlete against athlete. Perhaps the Games have become a new-age contest between man and the creation of his mind--the machine.