Friday, 3 August 2012

Technology and the Olympic games, now and in the future.

So I made my predictions two days ago that Team GB would improve their medal totals and so it has come to pass. Day 6 and the Brits are up to 5th in the medals table. There's been some disappointments (Victoria Pendleton and Jess Varnish missing out on getting to the final by an illegal overtake in the team sprint), but the medals kept on coming today, and the track and field hasn't even started yet.

What I'm picking up through these games from taking an interest in the home athletes, is the impact of technology on athlete training, measuring performance and how this is translating into Personal Best times and how much harder athletes are having to work to be in the medals. As mentioned, Rebecca Adlington finished 3rd to claim a bronze in her first race, a quicker time than a gold winning performance in China 4 years ago. In the pool, there have been many records broken, as commented on by colleague Rob Robson and 'old timer' Sir Chris Hoy in winning his 5th gold, posted a personal best time in his leg of a World record time.

Amateur runners, riders, triathletes and bikers can tell you that the technology and information to feedback to performance in the form of GPS watches, Heart Rate monitors (HRMs) and apps for phones and computers is as good as the pro's had in recent times. The elite have moved further on still, with instant feedback on technique and performance to even more precise level of detail, as stated in this article about Team GB swimming with help from the Universities at Loughborough and Southampton.

With the increase in funding to Team GB overall and other leading World powers in athletics of all disciplines, this has translated into better performances all round, so the margins for victory through to fourth place have become narrower. Considering improvements in the levels of nutrition, conditioning, what is know about rest etc., being an elite athlete in this day and age has become a full time job to stay on top of the pressures of training to maintain consistently high performance. So crucial is this to athletes, that in some cases they are willing to give over all of their technical data to be able to get their hands on the latest technology.

But this is a reflection of societies enhancements in technology. I watch my TV and despite working for the BBC's Research and Development team,  I sometimes struggle to work out all of the functions you can use to get the most out of the information being provided as an armchair fan! Being privileged to glimpse near future developments and kit, I then also get to see what is around the corner for viewers/consumers, but I do think that as with social media, athlete data will eventually become more readily available for fans to see how their favourite sport stars are on or off the pace. Dual screen technology is already delivering this to us, particularly if you think about some of the offerings to viewers of football and motor racing.

However, with athlete data, as we go beyond just the stop watch, and are able to compare all career previous splits, use HRM data and more sophisticated measuring devices, we will be able to chart athlete progress or decline to a level of detail never previously seen before in real time, simultaneously, as fully as an athletes coach and support team are receiving the same information.

The reality of rapid development for viewers was shown to me this week at a demonstration of Super High Vision, a project between BBC and NHK of Japan. A short edit of the Olympic Opening ceremony and a live broadcast from the Olympic Aquatic Centre, gave a glimpse of how real our feed of the action will be within a few years. Having kept up with technology so far and been impressed by HD, the latest demo showed that it is almost possible to feel 'as if' you are at an event without having to travel miles. So as well as feeling as if you within touching distance of your favourite stars, you will be able to review all of the relevant physiological (and who knows one day, even psychological) data relating to the performance you are watching.

In my own research, I see applicability to how more rich data can be derived from athletes to inform and back up the psychological lived experience. Will it be possible for us as sport scientists to be able to use this battery of information to help account for the emotions experienced, the behaviours exhibited, and in turn, track the effect and impact on better or worse performance? I truly think so, and am working on a proposal for a study to do just that.

Having spent 10 years working in industry as a tech guy, I moved into sport thinking that it was useful experience to have to fall back on. As I look further into the future I think that knowledge of the possibilities of technology to inform approaches to performance and athlete psychological experience are going to be crucial in sport science support and assistance for all practitioners. How we interpret and then work with athletes to get the most from this and support their needs will be the challenge that all of us face.