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Lord Sebastian Coe, the former chairman of the organising committee for London 2012 Olympic Games, says technology has changed sport in ways he couldn’t have imagined when competing in the 1500 metres and 800 metres in the 1970s and 80s.
Speaking during the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the current chair of the British Olympic Association (BOA), explained that IT has become an increasingly integral part of the planning process for major sporting events in order to keep up the increasing demands and expectations of athletes, officials, the media and spectators.
“Science and technology, in particular, have changed the way we train for sporting events, how we take part in them and how we experience them as spectators,” he said.
Thirty years of progress
London 2012 was underpinned by a major technological operation that had evolved from basic functionality such as timing and scoring to become essential to the smooth running of an event. It now encompasses vast wired and wireless networks, data feeds, management systems, ticketing and official websites.
“We had more website traffic on the first day of London 2012 than the entirety of the Beijing Games,” said Lord Coe, adding that the difference between the most recent games and Sydney in 2000 was extraordinary.
Twelve years before the London Games, there was no Facebook or Wi-Fi, while all ticketing was done on paper – although Coe joked that at some points during the controversial ticketing process for London, it had been done on paper.
He added that it makes him smile that events like the Olympics and Commonwealth Games are “completely flooded with paper.”
Even in Glasgow, journalists were provided with a hard copy of results from each event, but in general, members of the media have a much easier time than they did in the 1980s.
Lord Coe recalled competing in the Yorkshire county championships in the early 1980s in a location where it was difficult to get phone lines out for journalists who still filed stories over the phone. He described it as a “bit of a shock” for London-based hacks, but this was not limited to provincial events. At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Lord Coe said the world’s media formed “memorable” queues for payphones.
“Today, everyone has access to laptops, tablets and wireless Internet that allow them to file from anywhere at any time – bringing stories to readers faster and changing the whole nature of real-time coverage,” explained Coe.
In recent Olympics, the international press centre has been well equipped with phone lines and Ethernet networks, but even at Beijing there was precious little demand for Wi-Fi. Two years ago in London it was a key part of the infrastructure and in Glasgow 2014, it was central to the planning process.
Members of the technology team at the Commonwealth Games did mention that the evening shift was among the most stressful because any problems with the Wi-Fi network coluld not be tolerated by journalists who had deadlines to meet.
For London 2012 and this year’s Commonwealth Games, viewers were treated to multiple streams of TV coverage, while commentators were supplied with feeds of detailed information that they could turn into insight in real-time.
Unsurprisingly, this was not the case three decades ago. Much of the data was collected manually during Coe’s career and handed to the television companies hours after the event had finished.
Lord Coe recalled a cross-country event where athletes were only distinguishable by cardboard numbers pinned to their vests. However heavy rain caused many of these numbers to fall off, leaving the legendary David Coleman without a clue as to who was leading the race. Nowadays, Steve Cram, the current BBC commentator has radio technology to tell him about athletes’ positions.
But it’s not just spectators and organisers who have benefited from this technological revolution, its athletes too.
“I was probably the first athlete in the modern era to use sports science,” noted Cole, explaining how this field informed his training regimes despite its wider perception as “voodoo science” in the 1970s and 1980s.
Sports science has now evolved to the point where athletes have access to nutritionists, physiotherapists and even psychiatrists, while advances in medicine can speed up the diagnosis and treatment of injuries.
But athletes have simpler demands too. Prior to the Commonwealth Games, Welsh cyclist Elinor Barker toldTechWeekEurope that a good Wi-Fi network in the athletes’ village was important because she wanted to make use of social media.
She’s not alone. Facebook and Twitter are widely used by many sportspeople who want to convey more of their personality to their fans. Not everyone has had a positive experience though, with some believing it can be a bit intrusive.
Lord Coe, one of three vice presidents of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), said there was no way to turn the clock back now and that social media was instrumental in getting young people interested in the sport.
“The athletes are going to have to get used to that,” said Lord Coe. “We can sit here and say it’s an intrusion, but we want track and field to prosper.”
“In the 30 years since I ran in the 1984 Olympics, technology has infiltrated and improved every aspect of athletes’ lives in a way that I could barely have imagined then.”