Publish date:

Making Change



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.

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.

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.

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.


Contrary to how it may seem, there will be a men's golf competition in Rio, marking the sport's return to the Games after 112 years. But a dispiriting string of withdrawals by top players has undoubtedly diminished what could have been a marquee event. The loss of Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy (Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the world, respectively), who all cited concern over the Zika virus, is damaging. But there are still a few good players willing to endure a flight on a private jet and stay in a five-star hotel for a chance to represent their country and take a run at Olympic glory.

The U.S. will trot out Bubba Watson (5th in the world), Rickie Fowler (7), Patrick Reed (13) and Matt Kuchar (15). (The 60-person fields for the men's and women's competitions are drawn from the World Ranking. Any player in the top 15 qualifies, though no country can have more than four players; in all other cases, it's a maximum of two golfers per nation.) The newly built Olympic course, with its linksy look, evokes the great courses of Australia's Sand Belt, such as Royal Melbourne. Says course designer Gil Hanse, "It will favor a player who is creative with the short game given the varied recovery options around the greens."

There are many potential Cinderella stories in the men's field—16 players are ranked lower than 200th—but the Olympics will be four days of stroke play, which favors the strongest players, as opposed to the vagaries of match play.

In the absence of the top men's players, the women will get more of the spotlight. All of the best will be in Rio, including world No. 1 Lydia Ko, a New Zealand national; Korea will send a powerhouse quartet to Rio, led by Inbee Park (3). The U.S. will be represented by Lexi Thompson (4), Stacy Lewis (9) and Gerina Piller (15), who squeaked in with her eighth-place finish at the U.S. Women's Open.

Golf is guaranteed a spot in the 2020 Games but not beyond. (Its fate will be determined by an IOC vote in 2017.) So expect a spirited competition in Rio; not only will the assembled golfers be trying to make a good impression, but they will also understand that their Olympic window is small, and already closing.


Ninety-two years after winning gold in Paris, the U.S. men's rugby team will finally get to defend its title in Rio. This time the rules are different—rugby sevens rather than 15s—and the Games will include men's and women's tournaments. Despite past success, Team USA is not a favorite to take gold, but the men and women, which both finished sixth in the 2015--16 world series, might still be contenders for a medal in Brazil.

"The beauty of sevens," says Remi Mobed, a senior physiotherapist with England's Rugby Football Union, is that "it's such a difficult game to predict, and it's going to be anybody's for the taking."

Played on a full-size rugby field at Deodoro Stadium, but with just seven players a side and seven-minute halves, the minnows can compete with the big fish. In 15s, Fiji's men, for instance, rank No. 10, but they took their second straight world series sevens title in May. An island nation without a single Olympic medal will be the favorite to take gold in the men's competition.

The men's semifinals could be an exclusively Southern Hemisphere affair, with Fiji facing Australia and South Africa taking on New Zealand. After the first four rounds of last season's world series, Fiji, South Africa and New Zealand were tied for first place, but pivotal losses by the Kiwis in the last three events meant the teams finished in that order. Fourth-place Australia struggled against the top three, with a combined 3-16-1 record.

The U.S. men are led by captain Madison Hughes, who was born and raised in the U.K. He topped the 2015--16 world series in scoring with 331 points, edging South Africa's Seabelo Senatla, who had 330. Sonny Bill Williams, a two-time World Cup winner with New Zealand's 15s team, also switched for the Olympics, and his sister Niall plays on the Kiwi women's team.

Barring major upsets, New Zealand and Australia's women should make the semifinals, where they will likely face Canada and Great Britain. The Aussies, led by Emilee Cherry, only lost two games en route to the 2015--16 world series title, while runner-up New Zealand narrowly led its neighbor in total scoring, behind Portia Woodman's 120 points. Woodman only switched to rugby, from netball, in 2012, but both her father and uncle were All Blacks.

Team GB—which includes players from England, Scotland and Wales—and Canada, which has the leading scorer of the world series in Ghislaine Landry (158 points), won tournaments this past season. Their head-to-head season record is tied at two wins apiece.

There are three pools of four teams each in both the men's and women's tournaments. The top two from each group plus the two best third-place teams advance to the quarterfinals. The U.S. women kick off their quest on Aug. 6, while the men, sharing a group with vaunted Fiji, begin against fifth-ranked Argentina three days later.

With 68 fast-paced matches played every half hour over six days, rugby sevens could be the viral sensation of the Summer Games—like curling, only a bit more bruising.


In 1971, Oregon track and field coach Bill Bowerman made a prototype for Nike's first shoe, with a waffle iron. Four decades later the company has turned to 3D printing. Just before London, Nike launched a project to design a better track spike for Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won gold in the 100 meters in Beijing and defended her title in 2012.

After closely analyzing her times and her stride, Nike's Sports Research Lab sought to make a shoe with the ideal stiffness to maximize energy return late in races, when she would feel fatigue. They used 3D printing to rapidly produce more than 20 iterations of the base of a shoe made out of a custom thermoplastic. Then, using the final result, they molded the outsole of the Zoom Superfly Elite (above) out of polyvinyl acetate for greater durability. The unique honeycomblike foundation is 50% lighter and four times stiffer than the carbon fiber plate it replaced. Says Bret Schoolmeester, a senior director of running footwear at Nike, "To be able to make all those tweaks, test, refine and iterate again and again" compressed years of development time into months. This wasn't the first time the company has used 3D printing to design a shoe (the Vapor Laser Talon football cleat was released in '13), nor the last. (The Magista 2 soccer cleat was unveiled last week.)

"We did four years of work to help Shelly-Ann get 0.148 seconds faster," Schoolmeester says. "Her margin of victory in London was 0.03 seconds."

At worlds in Beijing last August, Fraser-Pryce ran 10.76 to win gold in the 100 meters while wearing prototypes of the Zoom Superfly Elite; she will wear the final version as she vies for her third Olympic 100 title next month.

The colorful athletic tape that has become standard treatment for sore or injured muscles will be all over Rio, but look for short strips of black tape on some runners. Another Nike innovation, these patches of AeroSwift, covered in small triangular bumps of soft silicone, are designed to reduce drag. Like the dimples on a golf ball, the bumps induce turbulence and help air flow more efficiently around the body. U.S. distance runner Galen Rupp (left) was sporting them on his arms and legs at the U.S. trials. "The fastest moving parts of your body would see the most benefit," explains Michelle Miller, apparel concept director at Nike. "Over the course of a race for a sprinter, this could mean the difference between not making the podium and making the podium."