Faster, Higher, Stronger: The Olympic Innovation Effect

The Olympic Games in Rio have officially come to a close.

And like all Olympics, they’ll be remembered for inspiring athletic performances, moments of glory and of heartbreak, and for that feeling of global connectivity only an international event can bring.


But there’s something else they should be recognized for — something that will be mostly overlooked by popular memory:

The Olympics are an innovation incubator

As the perfect confluence of fierce competition, a captive global audience, and lots of capital, the Olympics have a history of breeding innovation. Because when it comes to the Olympics, everyone — from athlete to executive — wants to be first (literally and figuratively).


You Gotta Spend Money To Make History

Think back to 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics. It was the last Olympics before smartphone technology was pervasive (or even evident). It was also the year Speedo launched their high-tech LZR Racer suits, effectively changing the landscape of competitive speed-swimming forever.


The suits altered swimming so dramatically that the National Collegiate Athletics Association once called them a form of “technology doping” and Time Magazine declared the LZR suits to be one of the best inventions of 2008.


Developed under what was described as a “very cloak and dagger” process, Speedo’s suits were a sleek combination of design and technology: water-wicking materials, strategic paneling, and a Comme des Garçons design based on optimized information gathered using NASA’s wind tunnel testing facilities and fluid flow analysis software.


Basically, these suits were extremely legit.


In the first year of their existence, 93 world records were broken by competitors sporting the LZR suits and even Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer (and possibly Olympian) of all time, said wearing them made him feel “like a rocket”.


Michael Phelps wearing the LZR suit, feeling like a rocket (presumably). Image via


And though they’re now banned, they forced people to re-think what even a simple bathing suit could be.


So as we look back on the Rio Olympics, we look to 2008 — not only because it was a turning point for swimsuits, but because it marked the start of new era in Olympic tech. The 2008 Olympic season marks the tip of the most recent Olympic-innovation iceberg.


Admittedly, some of the advancements are niche and unlikely to spread to mainstream use, but some have much broader appeal and impact. And now that Rio’s games are done, we have the chance to examine the big tech innovations of these games and look at what their impact will be going forward.


Faster: NFC & Wearables

Near Field Communication(NFC) has been on the cusp of mainstream use in financial transactions for years. Banks and credit card companies recently started putting NFC enabled chips in debit and credit cards and there's been a resulting uptick in NFC use among the masses, but even today, concerns over security and privacy have led to slow adoption of this incredibly versatile technology.


Following the Rio Games, however, NFC is poised to get a big push in popularity.


Longtime Olympic sponsor Visa introduced wearable devices that employ NFC technology for easy payment at one of 4,000 locations throughout the Olympic Park, enabling people with the devices to pay using a special watch, nylon band, or ceramic ring. And of course, their cards are already enabled with NFC technology in the form of an embedded chip.

One ring to pay for it all… Image via


Jim McCarthy, Executive Vice President of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships at Visa, said before the Rio Olympics that “in our 30 years of sponsorship of the Olympic movement, this marks the first games where wearable technology and mobile technology will be widely implemented.”


While we’ve seen increasing variations on NFC and wearable technologies in the past few years, these Olympics may end up being the launch-pad for a new era of NFC enabled devices.


With a relatively captive audience (attendees of the Games could pay with Visa or cash exclusively) testing the limits of the system under the scrutiny of the whole world, the security and functionality of NFC was on full display. Enterprise audiences in particular were paying close attention to how that worked and the success of the efforts will lead to greater NFC use in the coming months and years.


(And of course, having sponsored athletes promote the devices didn't hurt the push for mass-adoption either.)


Nick Matantsev, Myplanet’s Head of Product Engineering, says that “payment advances are going to be a big category,” adding that the ceramic ring and rubber bracelet were particularly interesting developments.


As NFC technology gets refined and paired more frequently with wearable devices, we’ll start to see more and more enterprise and consumer apps and devices making use of the tech.


Fortunately, the advances made in the lead-up to the Olympics in cloud technology will help ensure the ongoing functionality of the leap forward in NFC use.


Higher: Cloud Tech

The Olympic Games can hardly be credited with the invention of cloud technology — the changes in cloud computing have been steadily entering our lives for the past few years — but in an increasingly tech-enabled and security-sensitive world, cloud technology is a game-changer.


An event like the Rio Olympics — big, complicated, and quick — requires a lot of digitally enabled logistics.


Things like tightly monitored venues with safety and security demands far beyond those of a standard event and up-to-the-moment detailed event results are essential for a well-functioning games.


To make sure they had effective management of everything from accreditation and volunteer support to real-time results and 24hr aerial views of venues and city-sized spaces, Rio’s organizers relied on the cloud.


“In London, it was too early for the cloud because connectivity was not good enough. But now, we have seen the evolution,” said Jean-Benoit Gauthier, the IOC’s Technology & Information Director, in a pre-games interview with Donna Bowater for Motherboard.


Just how dramatic a shift is it? For the last summer games in London in 2012, the organizers used 710 servers. In Rio, they used just 250.


So even though cloud technology has been steadily gaining use over the past couple of years, Rio’s Olympics mark a turning point in stress testing and implementation.


With an IT budget of $1.5 billion, the use of the cloud on this scale is something few enterprise businesses could even fathom testing, let alone afford to do — and certainly not with as many disparate applications as Rio had.


And there will be some far-reaching possibilities for those varied cloud applications. For example, the security system—which featured a host of dynamic, first-ever use technologies—will have many potential uses outside of a massive global sporting event.


Before the games, Bowater noted that the Rio games were the first civilian application for many aspects of the system, but that they could be “used in border and port security, disaster relief efforts, and even protecting wildlife at national parks from poachers.”


And relying on cloud technology is also a greener solution.


From helping keep safety and security protocols running smoothly, to more reliable NFC tech, to an increased enablement of IoT devices, the massive use of the cloud at the Rio Games will shift the focus even more to cloud use for private companies and enterprise organizations looking to find solutions for their big data and resource needs.


Stronger: IoT

While many of the behind-the-scenes advances will impact the way enterprise organizations operate, consumers may not immediately feel or recognize the impacts of the innovation the Olympics bring. After all, even the cloud is meant to be somewhat invisible to user experience.


That being said, there are plenty of innovations that will trickle down to consumers directly.


In an interview, US Olympic Committee Director of Technology and Innovation Mounir Zok identified this likelihood as only a matter of time: “My job is all about gaining that extra 1% edge by leveraging emerging technology. We have to get our hands on it before it’s available to the masses.”


Of course, the masses won’t need to wait long before apps and devices begin implementing the advances Rio’s athletes have benefitted by.


Zok went on to note that “This Olympic Games will be the first wearable technology games. We’ve reached the stage where athletes can use it without interfering with their activity.” And if athletes incorporated them into their training leading up to the games, it’s only a matter of time before us lay-people have the same options available to us.


Sensors that measure distance, speed, height, and other athletic outputs will be put into consumer devices (with the vast quantities of data they track stored in—where else?—the cloud.)


And as our own Nick notes, ultimately it will be a more general impact we see. “There’s a lot of sport-specific stuff with sensors, but it’s eventually applicable to much broader areas of IoT out there.”


“A lot of the technology has changed only incrementally,” he continues. “Accelerometers existed 10 years ago, and you could’ve built a tool like Hykso then, but the advances come when people are given the chance to connect their fresh new ideas with existing technology. The Olympics connect the technological advances with specific ideas and needs.”


Which means IoT changes from the Olympics won’t just be about more cloud enablement, more connected wearables, and better sensors monitoring our actions. The quality of the products — not just their utility — will improve too.

Look cool while seeing cool stats. Image via


“A lot of IoT stuff from the games was about improvements to sensors, but the display options changed a lot too,” says Nick. “You saw advances in underwater visual displays and the introduction of things like the cycling visor heads-up displays — those are very specific and specialized changes that will naturally have spillover effects down the line.”


Not every advance in IoT will be due to the tide of Olympic innovations, but a great many will have their roots in the push leading up to Rio.


Going For Gold

The Olympic innovation effect has existed for as long as the modern Olympics have existed.


Ben Johnson, producer of Marketplace Tech, notes in a piece about camera technology at the Rio games that “there’s a long tradition of the Olympics driving technological development. We can count color television, high definition, and 3-D among the advances that were tested early on at the Olympic Games.”


Beijing and the ’08 Olympics marked a new era for the type of innovation being pursued — cloud enabled & fully connected — but the reality is we’ve long benefitted from the influx of capital and competition.


And it won’t stop with Rio. Upcoming games in PyeongChang and Tokyo will feature further advances, especially in categories like wearables and cloud-enabled data gathering. But, more than likely, there will also be advances in categories we can’t yet fathom. After all, innovations like the LZR Racer suits are developed under cloak and dagger, remember?


What technology were you most inspired by in Rio? Let us know in the comments!

Written by

Leigh Bryant

Leigh Bryant

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