Technology behind the Games

6 January 2010

Opening spread of Flipside feature on Vancouver Olympic GamesWhen the first snowboarder catches air and turns in the half pipe cut into the side of a Canadian mountain in February's Winter Olympic Games, the obstacle between them and a gold medal is a row of human judges. But the day is coming when machines will be able to decide whether the move was good, or the athlete fluffed it.

For the past 70 years, the Olympic organisers have slowly brought more and more technology to try to make sure the gold medal goes to the right person.

It used to be so simple. In the 1930s, a technician from the Swiss watchmaker Omega turned up with 27 stopwatches that had to be used for all the Games. To time the cross-country skiing event, judges had to synchronise two timers and then send one of the judges off on their skis to the start line to write down the time each contestant started off.

In the 1940s, the Winter Olympic Games saw the first electronic sensors, or magic-eyes as they were dubbed then. They were just on the finish line to sort out the winners in contests where having a human press the stop button on a watch was no longer good enough. Since then, electronic eyes have spread all over the Winter Games courses. But it's taken 50 years to get here. When gold medals are at stake, no-one but the competitors likes to take chances.

"Very often I get asked 'what's new at the Games?' But we use very tried and true technologies that are mainstream. We want to be sure nothing goes wrong," says Ward Chapin, senior information officer for the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games organising committee.

Even with the computer network, a mini-Internet of 600 servers - cities are run with fewer - no-one is taking chances. For years, computer maker Sun Microsystems has been beavering away, getting the network ready so that it can deliver gigabytes of video and data.

Barry Caswell, head of IT at the Vancouver games, says: "Any score you read has come across this. It has to be ready for February: you cannot miss a date at the Olympics. So you have to test, test, test."

The machines cannot miss anything. At these speeds, bobsleighs and luges pass the finish line, a split second difference could separate the winner from the losers and human reactions are not enough. So, light sensors along the track watch for the carts as they whizz by. In the bobsleigh, the competitor even starts and stops the timer by passing through light beams.

With systems like this installed, no-one can blame the judges. "Ok, you can have a cell that doesn't work, but there is no human judgement." says Christophe Berthaud, head of Olympic timing at Swiss-based watch manufacturer Omega.

Measuring distances and times is easy for computers. What about the sports that need human judgement such as ice hockey and figure skating? Even these now get computerised help.

Judges used to have to wave coloured cards around as though they were on Strictly Come Dancing to show their scores so someone could tot them up and work out who won. Even when electronic buttons came in so the numbers would light up on the big screen rightaway, the way judges worked out the scores the same way.

To let judges make better decisions, some now have super slow-motion replays to analyse, just like the third umpire in cricket. Shot at a definition that would not be out of place in a movie multiplex, these replays let speed-skating judges work out if an athlete has tripped another, or if a figure skater has messed up a landing. Critics argue that bringing in these slow-motion post-mortems has made the judging too focused on technical tricks and not on the overall performance.

What technology has made worse, it can fix. Keen Australian snowboarder and scientist Jason Harding has been working with athletes and judges to come up with a way of getting computers to take over the job of watching for mistakes so the people with the scorecards can focus on the art of the half pipe. Harding and colleagues stuck lightweight motion sensors, just like those in a Wii nunchuk, to the athletes themselves. They transmit how they move to a computer which pieces together the moves. It will take years for this kind of technology to make it to the Olympics - it takes time to be trusted after all - but it's one more way that technology can make sure the right people win gold.

This is the main body copy for the feature that appeared in the January 2010 issue of Flipside.