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The Olympics have been a test of man’s strength, his ability and spirit but as the modern era has revealed it’s ultimately man’s use of technology which has put him today, in the position that he has wrested for himself from the forces of nature, as the master of all beings. Not just in areas of thinking, skills and talent but also in sports. Sounds unbelievable, can technology play a decisive part in the performance of a sportsperson. Let’s, take a look at it as objectively  as possible. Today, we have technology solutions like the revolutionary BatSense, designed and developed by to analyse, evaluate and improve batting in cricket. No one, today, doubts the contribution of technology even in performances where pure skills or strength is being tested but for the sake of simplicity, in evaluating this mystery let’s move from cricket to sports which traditionally fit the motto of Olympics, Citius, Altius, Fortius or Faster, Higher, Stronger. Also because cricket is a team game and the variables at play are more than the number of players.  What if we took a sport which, at least seemingly, has a  minimum number of variables and see if technology can really make a difference. Like for instance running. No fuss, no frills, just plain effort, strength and spirit of man. 

The first modern Olympics held in 1896 had a new event, to its repertoire of worldwide sporting events, the marathon run. In memory of the soldier who ran from Marathon to Athens and gave the news of the victory of Greece over Persians in 490 BCE. It’s a sport that tests the spirit, will, strength, character and courage all at once. But it’s a sport where man is against the elements alone. Competing, it appears, only with himself. In the 1960 Summer Olympics at Rome, Abebe Bikila, from Ethiopia, won the Marathon creating a world record. The surprising feature of the effort was that he ran bare foot. Nothing can be more exposed to the elements than this. It was the purest human effort against nature. No technology, no science, no method, just human spirit. What is distinctly curious that Bikila in the next Olympics ran with shoes and again won the gold medal breaking his own World Record.  This had never been done before in the history of modern Olympic games. Did the shoes play a part in Bikila improving his own performance and achieving what no one could before him, no one knows. We will hold that thought for now and move to another segment in running, the 100 meters. 

There’s a barrier in marathon that till date has not been overcome, the 2 hour barrier. Though there have been attempts where this barrier had been broken but they are not considered as legitimate records because of several reasons. The length of the race is one. The degree of slope at various points of the track assisting the competitors. Even the degree of tail wind helping the effort is looked at as a valid reason to reject a performance as record breaking. In the 100 meter sprint for a long time it was the 10 second barrier. 

In 1968, Jim Hines broke this barrier with an effort that took 9.95 seconds. But then there was another parameter that started playing a spoiler and that was altitude. Apparently, at a higher altitude you can run faster. The athletics association started keeping a track of low altitude performances. At low altitude Sacramento, USA, Jim Hines clocked a 10.03 seconds in the same year. It took nearly 20 years for the low altitude record to equal or break the high altitude record. But by then everything had changed in athletics and technology was a equal partner in bringing out the best performances from athletes.

The track changed from flattened cinders to a tartan track to rubberized all weather running tracks. From digging holes to get into a starting position there were now Starting Blocks that isometrically preloaded the muscles of a sprinter for an enhanced performance. The running spikes which use to be made of heavy metal spikes turned into spikes made of canvas and rubber and transitioned into spikes which were sometimes as light as 142 grams. Everything changed, the training, the diet, the supplements, everything. Yet, you can’t take away anything from what Carl Lewis was able to achieve when he equalled the high altitude record in low altitude world championships in 1987, Rome by clocking 9.93 seconds and breaking it in Seoul Olympics by clocking 9.92 seconds. You can’t because that was not all that he accomplished that day. He became the only man to have won the 100 meters in two successive Olympics. The first time in 1984 Olympics he created another history.

In 1935, at a Big Ten Track Meet in Ann Harbor, Michigan, Jesse Owens, within an hour set 3 world  records and tied another. It is still  called as the “greatest 45 minutes ever in sport.”

Jesse Owens went on to win 4 gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. 48 years later, in 1984 Olympics, Carl Lewis repeated the achievement by winning 4 golds in the same categories that Owens had won. To say that it is incredible would be the understatement of the century. You can’t take that away from him. 

The current world record for 100 meters is with Usain Bolt at 9.58 seconds. The physics of going faster than that is already being seen as highly improbable with Usain’s achievement being termed superhuman. Science is already speculating a new impossibility, the 9 second barrier. Maybe the new addition to the motto of 2021 Olympics in Japan, “Faster, Higher, Stronger, And Now Together”,  apart from talking about collective effort in “and now together” might also suggest “with every resource.” Especially technology.

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