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Olympics and Technology

August 31, 2004

A public radio commentary

I watched the Olympics this year, thrilled to see athletes break world records. Now that the medals have been awarded I celebrate the unsung hero when it comes to setting world records: Technology.

Take time keeping, for example. For the first thirty-six years of the modern Olympics the judges brought their own watches. This mishmash of precision made it murky whether a record was really broken. In 1932 the Olympic Committee outfitted all judges with identical precision stop watches, and that year they even used newsreel footage to settle a disputed call. By 1964 the Olympics moved to quartz watches, which could measure a 100th of a second. From there the timing keeping and measurement has only got more high tech.

The Olympic committee now employs full time engineers to design and improve the timing devices. The uprights of the pole vault use light emitting diodes to determine the height an athlete rises. In the swimming pool the racers slap a special pad at the end of the pool shutting off their clock. It's specially designed so wave action doesn't affect it. And sprinters cut through a light beam at the finish line, which measures the time to one thousandth of a second.

This super accurate time keeping allows records extended as the measure of a performance becomes finer and finer. It works like Zeno's Paradox where the tortoise and the hare cut the distance they race in half every time and never, in Zeno's world, reach the finish line.

But the story of sports records and technology doesn't end there. The height of a world record pole vault has got higher and higher as the pole changed from bamboo at the turn of the century, in the 1950s, and then glass-fiber composites today. Since 1912 the world record has increased by 53%, compare that to the 18% increase for the long jump, which doesn't benefit that much from high tech improvements. And in 1996 a new kind of blade revolutionized speed skating - and even the ice is different: Sophisticated temperature and humidity controls keep all the ice in prime condition for maximum speed. This control of the environment extends to other sports: For example, swimming has changed because today engineers design pools to minimize wave action.

And lastly even training has changed. Today athletes in endurance events measure the amount of oxygen their bodies use, thus allowing them to train optimally.

Now, with all this talk of technology I don't mean to take away from the athletes' superb performances, but I would like a change in the Olympic motto. Since 1896 it's been Citius, Altius, Fortius, which means swifter, higher, stronger. I'd like it to become Citius, Fortius, Altius Techne, that is swifter, stronger, and higher tech.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises