By Chloe Coulson and Sam Crompton
Controversial kit and equipment
The role of design and technology in sport has often caused controversy, and just like the athletes, the equipment itself is increasingly subject to 'doping' scrutiny. The Speedo LZR swimsuit with carefully placed polyurethane panels to optimise water flow over the body was deemed to have played a huge role in the 23 world records that were broken at Beijing 2008 and was subsequently banned. So what happened this year? Swimmers at London 2012 had to return to 'jammers' (waist to knee for men, shoulder to knee for women). Speedo used 3D scanners and hydrodynamic simulators to develop its Fastskin3 system - swimsuit, goggles and cap - designed to work as a three piece to optimise body fit and water flow. So despite the Beijing-suit ban, at London 2012, eight world records were broken in the pool.
Team GB's cyclists were subject to raised eyebrows from the French team for their repeated record breaking track times. Was it their wheels (so called 'Magic wheels' by the French newspaper L'Equipe)? Their relationship with McLaren? Their half as light aerodynamic helmets designed by Crux? The coaching guidance of Dave Brailsford? It is probably a combination of all of those factors, but as 80% of a cyclist's effort goes towards pushing air out of the way, it is easy to see why optimising aerodynamics, through equipment and training, is paramount.
In pursuit of speed
Will we soon see the 9.5 second 100m race? Whilst icons like Usain Bolt are key to pushing the pursuit of speed, design also plays a role in their success. The athletic tracks now feature an underlay patterned with rhombus ridges designed to minimise energy lost through lateral movement of runner's feet.
Likewise, getting people out of the blocks on cue is key. The Omega starting pistol is now linked to speakers positioned behind each of the starting blocks so the b of the bang is heard simultaneously by all athletes, not first by the runner nearest to the gun. And in the velodrome, Ron Webb's Siberian pine track was praised by riders from many countries for its speed and design.
This is what helps athletes push the boundaries of what is possible.
As performances improve, the margins of winning become ever tighter, sometimes even technology designed to aid fair marshalling challenges the rules. During the US Track and Field Trials for London 2012, even the latest 3,000 frames per second photofinish could not distinguish a leader between Tarmoh and Felix, two athletes vying for the final place in Team USA. A tie had never occurred and officials gave the two women the option to flip a coin or have a head to head run off. Even in this year's games the woman's triathlon gold was controversially awarded to Nicola Spirig of Switzerland over Sweden's Lisa Norden by the smallest of margins - one which even the photofinish couldn't easily distinguish.
On your marks, set, glow
In heavily protected deals, brand presence in the Olympic venues is reserved solely for official sponsors and partners. Despite adidas' official IOC status at London 2012, other manufacturers still supply kit to teams and athletes. Under creative direction of Martin Lotti, Nike stole the stage with its hi-vis presence on the track. A stampede of neon yellow, orange and green track shoes became some of the most noticeable pieces of kit in the games and resulted in a smart piece of Nike branding.
Our favourite piece of branded design has to be the Mini Mini Coopers - remote control cars used to retrieve the javelins, hammers and discus' thrown by this years athletes. A functional and genius homage to the Mini but also something that probably everyone wanted to play with. (See photo 7)
Competing for a podium place on the world stage of the Olympics represents years of graft and discipline - not only from the individual athletes, but from the teams of coaches, researchers, technologists and designers helping them to achieve better, faster, stronger. Whilst the relationship between technology and sport is often controversial, it remains crucial in challenging and reframing the possibilities of human achievement.
Chloe Coulson is design researcher and Sam Crompton head of user research at London-based design and innovation consultants, Seymourpowellhttp://www.seymourpowell.com/