How tech won gold at the Rio Olympics
Great Britain returned from Rio 2016 with its largest haul of medals since the 1908 Olympics – and tech was at the heart of that golden effort.
In sports from rowing to taekwondo, a host of highly skilled and dedicated backroom staff – “the team behind the team” – harnessed the latest technology to help Britain’s athletes deliver and to give them and their coaches that competitive edge.
Team GB returned from Rio with 27 golds in total – a haul of 67 medals altogether – putting us ahead of China in the final medals table.
It’s all a far cry from 20 years ago when the team returned from Atlanta with just one gold medal between them.
The journey from Olympic no-hoper to powerhouse began shortly afterwards. It has been fuelled by hundreds of millions of pounds of National Lottery cash. And investment in technology has played a major part.
“There is quite a machine behind the scenes to help people win,” English Institute of Sport research and innovation manager Glenn Hunter told BusinessCloud.
“We’re here to support and help the athletes on their performance journey.”
Established in May 2002, EIS is a grant-funded organisation that provides sport science and medical support services to elite athletes.
EIS experts help coaches and performance directors to improve the performance of their athletes by delivering services which enable them to optimise training programmes, maximise performance in competition and boost their health and wellbeing.
Hunter, who has seen first-hand the work that has moved Team GB up the medals table, said a winning culture is important – success breeding success.
“When I joined we were 36th in the table, now we are second. Part of that is UK Sport creating a culture where you are expected to go out and win,” he continued.
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Tech on its own cannot win medals, but providing coaches and athletes with the tools to decipher how to achieve marginal gains is critical.
“The athletes and their coaches are the important people, they do it all. We provide the support,” he added.
“It’s also about continual forward planning and trying to get better.
“The only really true competitive advantage you have is to learn faster than the opposition.
“We have a whole range of projects based around that idea.”
One example was British cycling legend Jason Kenny, who won his sixth gold medal in Rio.
Kenny’s record equalling gold – his third of the Rio Games – came in the keirin event. But if it had not been for two members of Team GB’s backroom technical staff he might well have been disqualified.
It appeared Kenny and another rider had come close to illegally overtaking the pace motorbike before it had left the track. The race was stopped, the nation held its breath.
That’s when two data performance analysts from British Cycling – Will Forbes and Dr Debs Sides – entered the picture.
From their vantage point in the gallery at the Olympic velodrome they sent GB’s head coach Iain Dyer video footage of the incident.
Beamed through the team’s own internal WiFi system it was available less than a minute after the gun was fired to stop the race.
As the tension mounted and millions of TV viewers waited anxiously, Dyer was able to show the race officials – who did not have their own on side-on camera to prove that the riders were over when the pacemaker left the track - Team GB’s footage.
Dyer said later: “I offered our footage, not really knowing how it looked. It was a big call in hindsight, but we didn’t have anything to lose.”
Fortunately for Kenny the officials were willing to accept the help Dyer offered. The video showed it was too close to call, no-one was disqualified and the race was re-run with all six riders.
Frustratingly that second attempt was also aborted and Team GB’s video evidence again came to the judges’ aid, preventing the eviction of a German rider.
Finally, on the third attempt, the race was completed, Kenny powered his way to victory – and the rest is now Olympic history.