News

Technology gold medals

29 August 2012

Olympic athletes have excited, moved and inspired millions over the past few weeks. Just as inspiring though are the huge advances in technology that are continually challenging the boundaries of sporting achievement.

The contrasts between the London Olympics of 1948 and 2012 have been well chronicled, but mainly from a human perspective. It is also worth exploring the strides in technology supporting the current achievements.

Take a look at just one event, the cycling road race:

1948 2012
Competitors 101 144
Finished 28 110
Distance 194.6 km 250 km
Winning Time 5:18:12 5:45:57
Average Speed 36.717 km per hour 43.353 km per hour

Jose Beyaert
Jose Beyaert
France

Alexandr Vinokurov
Alexandr Vinokurov
Kazakhstan

It's clear to see that we are now stronger and faster; but just what are the main differences behind the two performances?

Engineering: In 1948 a racing machine would weigh in at around 23 lbs. Now it's around 16 lbs as manufacturers have turned to carbon nanotechnology to make machines that are both lighter and stronger. Science has moved so fast that the professional cycling governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), has imposed a lower weight limit of 14.99 lbs to try and keep a more level field of competition.

Aerodynamics: Hidden cables, clipless pedals, aerodynamic clothing are all features of the modern cycling scene - rigourously tested in wind tunnels to get the optimum results. Racing jerseys are made from synthetic fibres that wick moisture, dry fast, and are anti-microbial as well as water and wind resistant.

Information technology: Training at altitude and using oxygen tents has become common place for elite cyclists, but the biggest revolution has been through the monitoring of power - the ultimate training metric. Power is defined as force times distance over time, and is measured in watts. These days modern on-bike power meters make the bike they're attached to a rolling laboratory, recording and storing data on power, speed, distance, time, cadence and heart rate. No different from the concept of 'telematics' insurance for cars. Thus training becomes all about 'the numbers' and 'information technology' skilfully applied.

Our view:

Sport is a great example for business - keep up with advances in technology or get left behind. There is undoubtedly a cost for being at the cutting edge, but there is a much bigger cost for being left behind. At the Olympics the difference is between winning and loosing - and it is exactly the same in the world of commerce.

David Brailsford, the performance director of British Cycling, ensured his team applied the most advanced science to support their elite athletes. The results speak for themselves - improving from just four cycling medals in 2004 to dominating the discipline and winning twelve medals eight years later.

But science and technology will not deliver success by themselves. Unshakable focus, incredibly hard work and having the right people are equally essential. The best technology in the world will not deliver without the right application - and that comes from the people. One without the other is just not enough.

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