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High Tech Gear Crucial to the Modern Olympics

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 "sound-wave-measuring microphones."

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 times.

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 hit.

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 services.

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 Constitution":

"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.