As we start the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that the Olympic games deliver more than just entertainment, competition and national pride.
The technical and logistical challenges of hosting these massive events and sharing the results with billions of people worldwide have resulted in innovations that find their way into our everyday lives.
Technology and a rethinking of current way we do things doesn’t always start with the Olympics, but the scale of the competition and the massive audience often results in it being perfected and hitting the mainstream. Here are 10 things the Olympic Games have made popular.
Olympic History – 10 Things the Olympic Games Have Made Popular: Live Video Streaming
The Olympics weren’t the first live event to stream video over the Internet, and companies like Netflix (NFLX) can certainly lay claim to popularizing commercial video streaming. But the Olympics have been the testing ground for live video streaming and providing live, online updates on a massive scale.
Instead of having to be content with reading about medal results in the morning newspaper or watching recaps on the evening news, modern Olympics fans have been able to watch competitions live and access instant updates using their smartphones or from their work computers.
At the 2012 Summer Games, Comcast’s (CMCSA) NBC said its NBCOlympics.com website received more than 744 million page views and streamed 75 million video feeds, the most in Olympic history.
According to Akamai Technologies (AKAM) — the company whose cloud-based streaming services will be used by NBC this year — the 2014 Olympics mark the first Winter Games where every competition for all 98 events will be live-streamed over the Internet.
Olympic History – 10 Things the Olympic Games Have Made Popular: Televised Sports
While they may not have been the first to employ streaming video, the Olympics did start one of the more profitable crazes in history: broadcast sports.
That’s right, Disney’s (DIS) incredibly popular (and valuable) ESPN and the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for watching sports on TV instead of in an arena or stadium can be traced back to the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin.
A controversial chapter in Olympic history, what’s often overshadowed by the Nazi element in the 1936 Berlin Olympics is the fact that 72 hours of live footage was broadcast to TV booths in several German cities — a first.
Olympic History – 10 Things the Olympic Games Have Made Popular: Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology — manipulating tiny particles at the atomic or molecular scale — seemed like science fiction, but broke into the mainstream in a big way at the Olympic Games.
The 2008 Beijing Summer Games were nanotechnology’s big coming out party and Speedo’s LZR Racer bodysuit was the star. The fabric of this high-tech suit featured nanotech material that reduced drag, and was worn by nearly every gold medal swimmer in 2008, when 168 swimming world records were broken.
Nanotechnology was subsequently banned for swimsuits in future competitions, but the practical application of the technology was proven. The public saw the results on a wide scale, and nanotech is now used for everything from bedding sheets to golf clubs and cleaning products.
Olympic History – 10 Things the Olympic Games Have Made Popular: Wearable Technology
Over the course of Olympic history, a fraction of a second has often meant the difference between winning gold and being an also-ran. And when it comes to truly appreciating the experience of hurtling down a snow and ice-covered hill on a pair of skis, jumping off a ramp and sailing for hundreds of feet, it’s tough to beat a POV (point-of-view) camera.
The Olympics has proven the value of wearable technology, from the motion sensors used in training to capture every nuance of an athlete’s stride — allowing them to shave fractions of a second from their time — to the POV cameras worn by referees at 2006 Winter Olympics hockey games.
The Olympic Games have helped to popularize wearable technology that we’re new seeing in a big way through motion capture used in ultra-realistic video games, consumer POV cameras like the GoPro and of course a flood of wearable fitness tracking gear and smart watches.
Olympic History – 10 Things the Olympic Games Have Made Popular: 3D Printing
Stratasys (SYSS) has good reason to trumpet the role that 3D printing played in the 2012 Summer Games — everything from customized running shoes to prosthetics and models of the Olympic stadium. After all, along with other 3D printing industry leaders like 3D systems (DDD), it’s making a concerted effort to take 3D printers into the consumer mainstream.
Even while manufacturers struggle with challenges like expensive hardware, long print times and costly plastics, 3D printing has taken off at the commercial level, and the Olympics has helped to popularize the technology.
Shoemakers in particular are leveraging what they learned during the Olympics and making the most of commercial 3D printing technology to churn out sports shoes that are lighter, more specialized and faster to market than ever.
For a good example of how 3D printing is reshaping the sports shoe market, check out the 3D-printed cleats on the Nike (NKE) Vapor Carbon shoes worn by NFL players at Superbowl — and available in stores.
Olympic History – 10 Things the Olympic Games Have Made Popular: Recyclable Stadiums
When it comes to mass sporting events, stadiums are one of the biggest expenses — Olympic stadiums are no exception, costing a fortune. And once the Olympic Games are done, or a pro sports teams decides to move to another city, that stadium is often an expensive white elephant.
The most expensive stadium in Olympic history is the 1976 Montreal Olympic Stadium, which cost $1.47 billion in today’s dollars. I visited it last year, and … let’s just say it takes up a lot of space and seems very under-utilized.
Besides helping to popularize the building of massive stadiums for outdoor games throughout the world in the first place, the Olympics is now helping to jumpstart the idea of recyclable stadiums.
The 2012 Summer Games in London featured an 80,000 seat stadium, but 55,000 of those seats were designed to be easily removed and shipped off to another venue. A 12,000 person basketball arena at the same Olympics could be completely broken down and shipped off after the Games, with the intention to use it in Brazil in 2016.
This innovation in intelligent stadium design with recyclable components (and sometimes entire venues) is helping to popularize portable structures and should help to offset one of the biggest lingering costs for Olympic Games hosts and professional sports teams in general.
Olympic History – 10 Things the Olympic Games Have Made Popular: Synthetic Track Surfaces
The track has played an important role in Olympic history. In early Olympic Games, runners had to make do with gravel, cinders, dirt and other natural materials.
However, the 1956 Summer Olympics in Sydney featured an artificial warm up track and by the 1960s, these artificial surfaces had become the norm.
Companies like 3M (MMM) have created product lines around synthetic track surfaces (in 3M’s case, that would be Tartan APS), while tire manufacturers have found a good use for recycling their worn products — in the form of tire crumbs.
Today, the synthetic track surfaces first popularized by the Olympics are standard issue at high schools, colleges and many horse racetracks. They also provide the safety cushioning being used in many playgrounds.
Olympic History – 10 Things the Olympic Games Have Made Popular: Timekeeping
It’s hard to overstate the importance of accurate timekeeping to the Olympics. So it probably makes sense that throughout history, innovations in timekeeping have been developed at the Olympics before making their way into commercial products.
A good example is the quartz watch movement, one of just 1,278 timing devices Seiko created for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As the technology was commercialized, it began appearing in wrist watches in the 1970s, went big time in the 1980s (when combined with the new digital watches) and is now the most widely used time-keeping technology in the world.
More recent time-tracking advnacements employed at the Olympics combine high speed cameras, lasers, motion sensors and RFID (radio frequency identification) tags for accuracy to one one-hundredth of a second.
All of these technologies are making their way into consumer products from digital cameras to interactive store displays. But they were all a part of Olympic history, first.
Olympic History – 10 Things the Olympic Games Have Made Popular: High-Tech Sporting Gear
Every event in Olympic history that involves equipment has seen athletes, trainers and manufacturers working together to design better versions.
The Olympics have become a testing ground for exotic materials like carbon fiber before they go mainstream. The Olympics also use computers and wind tunnels to make equipment as streamlined as possible, and introduce new safety features in sports gear.
So if your new skis seem to make you fly down the slope, your hockey stick lasts for months instead of weeks and you can pick up your bicycle with one hand, you can thank the Olympics. These high-tech equipment innovations were all popularized by the Olympic games.
Olympic History – 10 Things the Olympic Games Have Made Popular: Sports Apparel
Outside of the technology introduced with Olympic-grade gear, the Olympics have proven to be a powerful marketing platform that has helped to make sports apparel big business.
Perhaps it’s a fashion statement like Ralph Lauren’s (RL) $145 USA Sochi 2014 polo shirt. Or maybe it’s the sales boost among professional and amateur athletes that Under Armor (UA) hopes to see by supplying equipment to U.S. and Canadian 2014 teams.
Either way, the Olympics has helped to make sports apparel a very big business. Forbes says the sports apparel market will reach $178 billion by 2019.
Some of these innovations are more world-changing than others, but there’s no doubt that technology and innovation have been a major part of Olympic history.
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As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.