Few sports events have evolved more dramatically, or seen more advances in technology and technique, than the Olympics. The London Games will showcase a spectrum of new ideas, designs and equipment, from giant Lego-like blocks at the whitewater course, to superlightweight soccer shoes made of plant fiber and recycled plastic bottles, to a colorful television diving meter that is sure to make a splash
FACE OF THE FUTURE
Using 3-D mapping to determine head shape, Speedo custom-fit some Olympians with ultrasleek caps and goggles that are part of its new, drag-reducing Fastskin3 system. Rival outfitter Arena has introduced carbon-fiber-weave suits that it says offer greater body compression (for streamlining) and take on less weight when wet.
LeBron James and a few other Dream Teamers will wear Nike's new Hyperdunk sneakers, which measure—and transmit to a smartphone or tablet—the height of a player's jump and his steps per second. For now, there are no plans to make Dream Data public.
An adjustable back-foot ramp has been added to swimming starting blocks (above) to give competitors more stability and a better angle from which to dive. Track blocks will have wider footrests and, like swim blocks, a speaker linked to the starting gun.
From a velodrome (above) made of sustainably harvested woods to an Olympic Stadium built with one quarter as much steel as the Bird's Nest in Beijing, London organizers have focused on green design and eco-technology. In a similar vein some players will be wearing Nike's new Green Speed soccer shoe, which weighs just 5.64 ounces and incorporates recycled plastic bottles, castor-bean oil and fibers from the kenaf plant.
Swimmers in the open-water 10-kilometer event will wear transponders on their wrists that will transmit their official split times as they pass beneath gates on a course set up in the Serpentine in Hyde Park. The times will be posted on a scoreboard for spectators.
SEEING THE LIGHT
A water polo pool is divided into playing zones, indicated by lines across the pool bottom. In London, for the first time, underwater lights will mark these zones—an illuminating innovation, developed by the Italian company Aqvatech, that is designed to help both referees and spectators.
Omega's new Quantum timing system results in a resolution 100 times greater than that of any past system. Finish-line cameras capture 2,000 frames per second and combine with computers to offer the most accurate readings ever, down to a millionth of a second.
Olympic whitewater canoe and kayak racing has almost always been contested on a man-made concrete course with permanently embedded obstacles. The London course will instead use large, Lego-like plastic blocks (called RapidBlocs), invented by former U.S. Olympic kayaker Scott Shipley. The blocks can be moved to alter the water flow and course difficulty.
NBC's new Splashometer graphic will show how much splash a diver creates when he or she enters the water, as well as the diver's angle of entry. It produces its readings by measuring the quantity of white pixels a splash makes on the screen.
To reduce reliance on judgment calls by referees—a common source of disputes in the sport—taekwondo will introduce the use of electronic sensors embedded in athletes' socks and in their padded vests. The sensors will register blows that have landed.
Olympians use a wide range of technological training aids, from motion-capture videotaping to computer analyses of their biomechanics. Hypoxic (low oxygen) chambers like the one above, while not new, are booming; Michael Phelps slept inside one regularly to help his body recover from workouts.
U.S. cyclist Taylor Phinney will ride a $15,000 time-trial bike, the timemachine TM01, which has an extra-stiff carbon-fiber frame, a riding position adjustable in 30 ways, a weight of 17 pounds and a truncated profile to allow better airflow. Phinney, however, won't be using battery-powered electric shifting, opting instead for a manual shift.
New technology will let athletes and fans communicate and follow the Games as never before. Watch for tweets from the likes of @MichaelPhelps and @usainbolt. Olympic coverage apps will include SI's Live from London for the iPad.
FIELD OF DREAMS
For ball control and consistency, Olympic field hockey pitches are always covered with artificial turf. The London fields feature layers of adhesion and elastic shock absorption below a Poligras turf made from the latest tear-resistant polyethylene yarn. For the first time the fields will be bright blue, not the traditional green, to enhance ball visibility for players and fans.
The U.S. women's eights (among others) will debut a high-density carbon-fiber rowing shell said to be stiffer and steadier than previous models. The shell also has streamlined carbon-fiber riggers (holsters for the oars) to reduce wind resistance.
FIRSTS IN OLYMPIC HISTORY
The opening heat of the men's 100-meter dash was the first race of the modern Olympics. U.S. sprinter Thomas Burke had the fastest time in the heats and went on to take the gold medal in the final with a time of 12.0 seconds.
A group of wooden cabins was built in the Parisian suburb of Rocquencourt to accommodate the 3,089 athletes—a 15% increase from the 1920 Games in Antwerp—in the first Olympic Village.
The first Olympic flame was lit at the top of a 40-meter tower called the Marathontoren. Architect Jan Wils wanted the flame to contrast with church towers because Christian politicians had opposed holding the Games in the country.
Starting blocks were used in the Olympics for the first time during the 1936 Berlin Games. Before, swimmers took off from the edge of the pool deck; with the elevated blocks, they were able to enter the water farther out and with greater velocity on their opening dives.
Melbourne's Olympic Pool (now named the Westpac Centre) was the first fully indoor Olympic swimming facility. The venue—which was constructed using the most modern technology at the time—housed swimming, diving and water polo.
Electronic scoreboards were first used at the Rome Games in 1960. Both the Olympic stadium (Palazzo dello Sport) and the main indoor arena (Palazzetto dello Sport) used the screens to inform the crowd of scores and standings.
MEXICO CITY: 1968
A track with an artificial surface was used for the first time at the Olympics in the Estadio Olímpico Universitario. The all-weather synthetic material—Tartan—created a smoother and thus faster running surface than the traditional cinders.
SPEEDO (SWIM CAP)
NIKE (LUNAR HYPERDUNK)
COURTESY OF OMEGA (STARTING BLOCK)
MYRTHA POOLS (WATER POLO)
COURTESY NBC (SPLASHOMETER)
MARC PISCOTTY/GETTY IMAGES (TAEKWONDO)
THOMAS LOVELOCK (VELODROME)
BILL FRAKES (RUNNERS)
HYPOXICO ALTITUDE TRAINING (HYPOXIC CHAMBER)
ADVANCED POLYMER TECHNOLOGY (TURF)
COURTESY OF OMEGA (SWIMMING)
COURTESY NIKE (SHOE)
AFP/GETTY IMAGES (KAYAK)
COURTESY BMC/SWITZERLAND (BIKE)
ALLISON FREDERICK/USROWING (ROWING)
HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
MONDADORI PORTFOLIO/GETTY IMAGES