Three ways technology has changed the Olympics since London

Every four years, the Summer Olympics are a showcase of the latest in sports technology, and the Rio Games are no exception.
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Technological advancements have played a major role in changing sports and athletic performance in the last century. Just look at how much changed in the 1970s when Nike released its waffle-sole running shoes, and again in 2008 when Speedo released its now banned LZR racing suits.

Even in the four years since the 2012 Olympics in London, sports technology has already had a massive impact on these Rio Games and the athletes that are competing in them. Here are three ways technology has improved in this Olympiad and what to watch for in 2020 in Tokyo.

1. 3D printing and body scanning

Engineers have long been advancing the materials they use to make athletic gear to help to reduce weight and friction. In some cases, such as with Speedo’s LZR suits co-designed with NASA engineers, the innovation works so well that it’s deemed an unfair advantage. This time around companies are still working to create the best gear possible, and with the help of advancements in 3D printing and body scanning, the gear is more impressive than ever.  

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The design, testing and customization improvements that have come with 3D printing and body scanning help to ensure that the right materials and fit are used for each sport and athlete. In 2012, many swimmers were wearing Speedo’s “FatSkin” caps that mold to their head to help them glide through the water more effortlessly than with regular caps. To make the fit even better, Speedo is now doing 3D scans of swimmers’ heads to get customized caps for an even more streamlined fit.

Nike was one of the early pioneers in 3D printing athletic gear and has stepped up its game with tiny 3D-printed silicon protrusions that will be attached to their runners’ tracksuits. The silicon attachments, which were tested in a wind tunnel, redirect airflow around the runner to make them faster. The attachments will also be available as a tape that runners can stick on their arms and legs. When a tenth of a second is the difference between gold and silver, these tiny improvements could have major advantages.

2. More precise motion-tracking wearables

Wearable fitness and motion trackers have been around since before the 2012 London games, but improvements in tracking and analytic software have turned simple trackers into a now integral part of training for many Olympic athletes.

Endurance athletes like runners and swimmers often use trackers to measure anaerobic output, nutrition needs and other biometric stats. But what about for sports where precision matters more than exertion? There are now motion trackers for that too.

Team USA divers are using waterproof wearables to help measure movements like the height of their jumps, the angle and speed of their somersaults and their body alignment while entering the water. Similarly, former boxer Tommy Duquette has created Hykso, a small sensor that fits inside of a boxing glove that is helping Team USA boxers track and improve punch speed, accuracy and more.

Katie Ledecky

3. Drug testing

Russia’s recently discovered state-sponsored doping program, which nearly cost the country the chance to compete in the Games altogether, brought a lot of attention to the need for enhanced anti-doping testing. Thanks to tech companies that have stepped up to help officials keep the upper hand in finding and stopping illegal substance use, this Olympics could be one of the cleanest in recent history.

One such new process doesn’t just test samples for known substances that are already banned, but tests samples to ensure that they look normal compared to other athletes at the games. Part of this strategy includes using big data methods to test as many samples as possible, and then compare those to athletic performance to look for trends and abnormalities.

Another anti-doping enhancement new to these Games is performance-enhancing gene therapy testing. This tests if athletes have been given synthetic DNA that works to give the athlete a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO) that increases red blood cells and thus athletic performance. New technology that makes this test realistic on a larger scale is underway to test athletes from these games, as well as from 2012 and 2008.


What to watch before Tokyo 2020

The games in 2020 are already preparing new major technological implementations. The Tokyo officials are planning for self-driving taxis, facial recognition stadium entry and more. For the athletes, it’s the same. Far more advanced equipment and tracking devices are already being developed that we’ll see by 2020.  

Of course there will be new tech advancements that we won’t have seen coming, but we can watch trends to see what is being focused on now. One of those trends is the use of big data, and how athletes are getting more data than ever from their own body and from their competition to improve training. With an increase in wearables, better tracking software, and more data-focused companies partnering with teams and athletes, expect big data to play a much larger role in the most competitive team leading up to Tokyo 2020.