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Olympic change: In with the old (golf, rugby), in with the new (technology)

Golf and rugby are making their Olympic debuts in Rio, but if you look a little closer, you'll find that there are tons of changes throughout the Games, from rule adjustments to advancements in how fans watch.

For six weeks, from the Olympics opening ceremonies to the Paralympics closing, men and women represent their country with one common goal in mind: Gold. Subscribe now for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s in-depth coverage. This article appeared in the July 25, 2016 issue.

The Olympics of 2016 will be a Games of many firsts: the first Summer Games to be held in winter—though the Sydney Olympics were also in the Southern Hemisphere, their September start put it in spring—the first in South America, the first in a Portuguese-speaking nation, the first to feature a refugee team and the first Games for Kosovo and South Sudan. They will also be the first in 52 years without Kuwait (suspended due to government interference with its national Olympic committee) and in 32 years without a track and field delegation—and perhaps other athletes—from Russia or the former U.S.S.R. (sanctioned for systematic doping).

On the field, golf and rugby sevens are making their contemporary debuts, though most sports changes are subtle shifts in regulations. Scores from the qualification rounds of the shooting competitions will be wiped before the finals—gold will be decided in a head-to-head competition. Swimmers brought to Rio to compete only in relay events must compete in either heats or finals, or their team will face disqualification. The weight classes in wrestling have been revamped in order to achieve more parity between men's and women's events. Now there will be six men's freestyle divisions, six men's Greco-Roman divisions and six women's divisions. Field hockey games will now consist of quarters of 15 minutes, instead of 35-minute halves. Badminton, handball, judo and modern pentathlon also have changes in format since London 2012.

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The biggest alterations to existing Olympic sports apply to boxing and soccer. For the first time since Moscow in 1980, male boxers will compete without protective headgear. And for the first time, professional prizefighters will be eligible for the Olympics. The decision to allow pros to compete was made only on June 1, and thus is unlikely to have a significant effect this year. The highest-profile pros in Rio will be former IBF flyweight champion Amnat Ruenroeng of Thailand and former WBO middleweight champion Hassan N’Dam from Cameroon.

In soccer, teams will be allowed a fourth substitution in knockout games that are tied after regulation. Adding fresh legs in extra time could help break the deadlock between closely matched teams and reduce the number of games settled by penalty kicks.

Four years after London, there have been dramatic advancements in the way we watch the Olympics too. In addition to its planned 6,755 hours of coverage (up from 5,535 in London), NBC is aiming to broadcast 85 hours of virtual-reality content through Samsung's Gear VR, which turns a Samsung smartphone into a VR headset.

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Google has scanned Olympic venues with its Street View cameras allowing those at home a chance to explore Rio's stadiums through Google Maps. A company called Mark Roberts Motion Control is also deploying a robotic system it calls Polycam that will allow photographers to set up multiple cameras around a venue and control them simultaneously. With the ability to pan, zoom and focus to match a principal camera's target, the system—which will be used by Getty Images, the official photo agency of the Olympics—allows photographers to capture the same action from different angles.

At London 2012, the U.S. women's track cycling squad, operating on a shoestring budget and using a primitive data-driven approach, won the country's first track cycling medals since 1992. This year the reigning world champions in team pursuit will ride on bespoke bikes and will be watched over by IBM's Watson cognitive computing platform. Dubbed Project 2016, the Felt TA/TRD bike features a departure from cycling tradition: The gears are on the left side. Why? Track bikes travel counterclockwise around the velodrome; moving the drivetrain to the inside will reduce exposure to airflow and reduce drag. As simple as that alteration might sound, no one had broken the right-side convention before. "We cyclists have our preconceived ideas of what a bike should look like," says Sarah Hammer, a two-time silver medalist in London, "[but] to get the best, the most revolutionary ideas, you've got to think differently."

According to Andy Sparks, the U.S. head coach, the German track cycling team, which has been working out at the USOC training center in Colorado Springs, was so impressed by the idea of switching the gears that it is now hoping to redesign its bikes in time for Rio. However, Sparks says, "the gear side is actually one of the smaller things in my opinion." A host of other, less obvious aerodynamic tweaks, including narrower wheels and bars, have helped reduce drag by as much as 20%, he says.

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IBM is helping the team analyze each rider's data—power, cadence, speed, heart rate, muscle oxygenation—and make run-by-run adjustments. "It's completely real-time," Hammer says. "The second we step off the track, we can see everything."

According to Mounir Zok, the USOC's director of technology and innovation, connectivity will be one of the key new features of Rio 2016. "As soon as the athletes get on board the shuttle [back to the Village], they will have access to videos from their competition that they can begin reviewing," Zok says. "All of our athletes, coaches and staff will be using a specifically designed app that will help us get all the latest information regarding logistics."

The most exciting advances are still on the horizon, though. In May, the USOC established a Technology and Innovation group, but with just three months to prepare for Rio, the unit's impact on this summer's Games will be small. Instead, Tokyo 2020 could mark the time when wearable technology and the Internet of Sports come to the Olympic Games.