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“This is for everyone” -- Innovation and Technology at the Summer Olympics

“This is for everyone.”  Those words flashed across the Olympic stadium and around the world during the opening ceremony this past weekend, as British scientist, MIT professor, and Internet inventor Tim Berners-Lee waved to the crowd.  That opening ceremony shined a bright spotlight on the digital era and the evolution of innovation and technology in our daily lives – but technology’s impact at the Olympics goes far beyond the flash of the parade of nations.

While the games continue to pit the world's best athletes against each other, the inventions and developing technologies through the years have changed many of the traditions.  Each of the Olympic Games that has taken place in the shadow of Big Ben serves as markers to the world of how far innovation has taken us.

The first time the games were held in London in 1908, the much-anticipated men's 100-meter dash was decided by a single yard after three days of grueling qualifying rounds.  The winner, South Africa’s Reggie Walker, set the Olympic record in the semifinal, and then tied it during the final race, at 10.8 seconds.  Because the stopwatches were very basic, all times were rounded up to the nearest tenth of a second.  And how fast did the silver medalist go?  No one knows for sure, because the timekeepers only had one watch and used it for the winner. 

The next time the Olympics came to London, in 1948, women had begun competing for the gold.  When 30-year-old and mother of two Fanny Blankers-Koen ran the 100-meter dash, she edged out hometown favorite Dorothy Manly.  In winning, Blankers-Koen -- nicknamed “The Flying Housewife” -- tied the Olympic record of 11.9 seconds and earned her fourth gold medal of the Games.  Her race was timed with Omega’s Olympic chronograph with a fly-back hand, a stopwatch devised to create better consistency.  With the invention of this new stopwatch, the precision of timing had doubled since 1908.

Her victory was also part of the first Olympics to be broadcast directly to home televisions, enabling 500,000 fans across England to watch their favorite athletes live.  Innovation invited Brits to be part of the Even just opening the viewing pool that much gave citizens an opportunity to participate in the Olympics in a way that many could not have imagined possible. At this time, Americans had just begun to purchase television sets for the home, and radio broadcast was the closest many outside the arena could come to rooting for their country as the events unfolded.

These Olympics, the audience has grown from 500,000 Brits to billions of people around the world, and the technological advancements will far surpass stopwatches.  When Usain Bolt set the current 100-meter Olympic record in 2008, his 9.683 second sprint was broadcast live around the world not only on television but also through streaming over the Internet. The 16,000 athletes in London are accompanied by 450 computer network specialists and more than 200 timekeepers armed with 220 tons of equipment.  Games will be measured by cameras that record 2,000 frames per second and a new starting gun debuting in London will increase accuracy in measuring timings.  More than five thousand hours of footage will be broadcast live in high definition to televisions, computers, and mobile devices across the globe. 

Citius, Altius, Fortius.  Faster, higher, stronger.  That’s the motto of the Olympic Games, and it speaks to the ethos of innovation as well.  In the four years until the next Summer Games, technology will move faster, it will push us to higher standards, and make our world a stronger, better place. 

Enjoy the Games.