The top 5 olympic sports that have been influenced by technology: No 5.

Technology played a huge role in this summer’s Olympics; video systems to analyse boxers, touch sensitive suits in fencing and the revolution in communication due to social media systems that enabled us to feel like we are at every venue.

We received a thought provoking question from our ‘Ask a sports engineer’ project: “Has any sport been inspired by technology, and why?” To be honest we couldn’t think of a single sport which has been created purely through scientific influence, however technology has undoubtedly influenced, and changed, many of the sports we play.

This series of short blog posts illustrate what I think are the top 5 Olympic sports which have been most influenced by technology. I’m keeping the length of these posts down by restricting it to just one technological influence per sport. Just narrowing down to 5 sports was a difficult task, let alone just one technology; so if you think I’m wrong, please post some comments! What sport would you say has more influence? Which technology has caused the biggest change?

Number 5: Field Hockey – Artificial playing surfaces

Hockey made its first appearance in the 1908 Olympics in London; only 6 teams entered with the gold medal match being played between Great Britain (England) and Great Britain (Ireland) and the bronze medal match between Great Britain (Scotland) and Great Britain (Wales), it is little wonder we did so well that year. This shaky start led to the omission of field hockey from the 1912 and 1924 Olympics; the IOC claimed it lacked international structure. As a result, the FIH (International Hockey Federation) was formed in 1924 and since then, field hockey has been a part of every Olympic Games.

The biggest change in hockey since its introduction in the 1908 Olympics is the change in playing surface. Originally played on natural grass pitches, the 1976 Olympics in Montreal saw the tournament played for the first time on an artificial or synthetic pitch. The pitch in London was developed by Dow and consisted of polyethylene resin yarns. As well as being the first Olympic pitch to be blue and pink, the yarns used at the Riverbank Arena were said to improve ball speed, reduce injuries from abrasion and have greater wear resistance than previous synthetic pitches.

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Figure 1 – Riverbank Arena – Olympic hockey pitch (Image courtesy of Matthew Driscoll)

When synthetic pitches were first introduced, unlike footballers, hockey players relished the opportunity to evolve the game. Due to the uniform nature of the synthetic pitches, the reduced rolling resistance and harder surface, the speed of the game increased dramatically. A faster game meant new tactics, new techniques and new skills were needed. An example of this was the ‘Indian dribble’ where a player moves the ball quickly from one side to another, rotating the stick to ensure only the flat side is in contact with the ball (see the video below). This technique wasn’t possible on the natural grass pitch, the ball travelled too slowly, was easily intercepted and also had a much more unpredictable behaviour – a tuft of grass or divot in the turf could see the ball bounce over the stick.

The rules in hockey have also changed; these changes have allowed the game to adapt to the new surfaces, to enable non-playing spectators to understand and enjoy the game and to increase the safety of the players. Field hockey is now the second most participated in sport in the UK, however, relative to the number of participants, it still has the lowest TV viewing coverage. Hopefully the success of hockey at the Olympics will mean more televised coverage of international competitions and a greater awareness of the technology behind the sport.

Heather ‘hockey’ Driscoll

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