By Jen Booton / February 7, 2019
When Team USA travels to Tokyo next summer for the Olympics, athletes may be armed with new technologies meant to help them perform better against increasingly competitive international foes.
With other Olympic teams, including those of Australia to Britain, receiving significant support from their governments, the US Olympic Committee realized in 2017 that it would need to get creative if it were to remain competitive without a similar abundance of support from the US government.
And so, the USOC looked toward Silicon Valley. It began forging connections with prominent venture capitalists and tapped into both their intellectual and financial capital. The result has been the deployment of the USOC Technology and Innovation Fund, backed by such prominent VCs as Golden State Warriors co-owner Mark Stevens and Redpoint Ventures co-founder Geoff Yang.
The goal of the fund is to support performance-impacting projects for the Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Games (and beyond) with a broad device-agnostic system that aids athletes and coaches, via their respective National Governing Bodies, prepare for the coming Games.
“It comes from a humble spot knowing we were not keeping up to pace with our competitors,” said Fin Kirwan, the USOC’s senior director of high performance. “On the tech side, other countries were getting a jump on us. And there’s a certain irony to that: other countries don’t have the tech giants that we have in Silicon Valley and other places. We can now take advantage of the incredible tech talent we have.”
According to Kirwan, these technologies, which have so far ranged from video tech and wearables to machine learning, artificial intelligence, data mining, and drones, have already started to deliver tangible results for the track and field team.
The USOC has been experimenting with radar technology, such as the kind used to track golf balls on television, to offer discus and shot put athletes real-time feedback. Ryan Crouser, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist in shot put, lauded variables such as distance, velocity and angle trajectory as mechanisms for improvement.
“When you get those additional variables—with velocity especially, so you can see how much power is there—it gives you one more element to look for that really helps differentiate what made this throw better than the last one,” Crouser said.
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Thus far, much of the focus with the fund has been on the summer athletes preparing for Tokyo. The USOC is working to get as many of the more than 600 athletes heading to Tokyo into its athlete monitoring program, analyzing things such as training load, sleep, fatigue, and the impact of travel. Among the findings the organization hopes to derive is how long these athletes will need to recover from the 16-hour plane ride to Tokyo so that they can be fully acclimated and ready to go by competition day.
“The primary driver is to be able to impact in a positive way the performance of the athletes—help them succeed and hit their goals,” Kirwan said. “We have a great, deep pool of talent. Our job is to make sure that talent remains healthy because if they get to the starting line or field of play healthy, it’s a way to succeed because Team USA has an incredible depth of talent, particularly on the summer side.”
The long-term goal is to put into place a sophisticated technological system comprised of a number of third-party devices and platforms to help athletes manage training and fatigue. With the use of AI and machine learning, the system will grow smarter as it collects and analyzes historical data. Eventually, with the development of a comprehensive database that gives Team USA a “full picture of the athlete,” it will be able to recognize what patterns work and what don’t, freeing the USOC’s physiologists to focus on other tasks that will further aid in athlete performance.
Motion capture and analysis alongside video will be two areas of focus as the fund is built out. The USOC doesn’t want to put wearables and sensors on athletes because that could affect performance, and so it is looking at technologies that will be able to analyze such motion and data from afar. The overall goal of the tech fund is meant to help Team USA achieve podium wins in Tokyo, Beijing, and beyond.
“Tokyo will be a challenging environment: it’s hot and humid, and the travel component is something we need to be conscious of,” said Kirwan. “But we’re using tech to turn adversity into opportunity. If we have healthy athletes then I think we can succeed.”