Olympics 2021: when the coronavirus upsets “the most technological Games in history”

Robots, autonomous cars, facial recognition … The Tokyo Olympics next July will be a real show of innovation, assure the organizers. “The Technology Games”. “The best global technologies will be integrated into our competition venues and used during the Games”, affirmed in 2019 the steering Committee.

The first one ? The robotics. Not less than six models different robots will be used in Tokyo. Their mission will be to promote a “Widespread social use of robots” and provide assistance to spectators and staff. They will, for example, facilitate the entry and exit of people with reduced mobility, or even pick up hammers and javelins thrown by athletes. To give access to as many people as possible, some robots equipped with cameras will allow you to live a virtual experience, as if you were at the heart of the Olympic venues.

This system will be all the more interesting as the presence of foreign spectators will not be authorized. “The Japanese know that they are a small country and that it is not through sport that they will shine on the international scene. Thus, they have chosen to take advantage of sport to display their technology,” explains François Bellanger, director of Transit-City, a structure specializing in foresight and innovation, specialist in Japan, and member of the scientific council of the Solideo.

The Tokyo Games will also use autonomous cars electric. About twenty of these shuttles will circulate in a loop in the Olympic Village and the Paralympic Village, in order to ensure the transport of athletes and staff. Beyond the purely practical aspect, technology has also been used for the security aspect. A facial recognition system will be used to verify the identity of athletes, officials, other staff and journalists. For the organizers, the desire is to increase the level of security “By preventing the usurpation, falsification and use of lost or stolen accreditations”. This technology will be used for the first time at the Olympic Games.

The "Human robot support" (HSR) from Toyota is an automated robot that will provide assistance to members of the organization and spectators.  (ALESSANDRO DI CIOMMO / NURPHOTO / AFP)

Behind hosting major sporting events like the Olympics, the goal for a host country is to go beyond demonstrating its organizational capacity. “Here, Japan wants to present itself as an innovative state facing the United States, China, and Europe”, analysis Estelle Brun, research fellow at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) within the Sport and Geopolitics program. “For a very long time, the Games have not only been a sporting affair, continues Jean-Loup Chappelet, professor emeritus at the University of Lausanne and specialist in Olympic issues. In order to organize the Games, solutions must be implemented in many areas, such as security, health, diplomacy and innovation. And precisely, Tokyo, and Japan more exactly, played a lot on this for the 2020 Olympics as for those of 1964. ”

All these innovations are reminiscent of those seen fifty-seven years earlier during the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. “When they organized the Games in the aftermath of the war, Japan was beaten, and it was rising from its ashes. And he impressed the whole world with the organization of these Games. For example, he inaugurated the Shinkansen, the Japanese TGV, more than 20 years before the French TGV ”, says Jean-Loup Chappelet. More than this major rail revolution, the 1964 Olympics used for the first time computers to decide between competitors to the hundredth of a second ready. Also, they are the first to allow the broadcast live and around the world Olympic satellite images.

The innovations of 1964 brought by Japan transformed the city of Tokyo but also the Olympic venue. “Whenever there is a national bid from a country for the Olympics, there is a need to write a national Olympic story. The Japanese have always taken advantage of the Olympics to switch and change their urban and technological visions. The example of 1964 and the launch of the Shinkansen speaks volumes ”, remarks François Bellanger.

This file photo, dated October 1, 1964, shows the departure ceremony of a Tokaido Shinkansen high-speed train from Tokyo Station.  The Tokaido Shinkansen line began operating to coincide with Tokyo's hosting of the Summer Olympics.  (Kyodowc114241.JPG k / NEWSCOM / SIPA)

Building on this heritage, Tokyo 2020 will offer, as a habit, a technological breakthrough that could, once again, revolutionize the event. “For the first time, a” cloud “ (data storage system) will be inaugurated. In other words, the images produced by the Olympic Broadcasting Service OBS will be sent to this cloud and can be taken and edited by those who have purchased the rights directly to it. Even if little is said about it, this innovation is major because the image work can therefore be done remotely, without sending technicians on site ”, adds Jean-Loup Chappelet. In the context of a global pandemic, this innovation falls rather well.

If Japan wanted to shine on the international scene through its technological innovations, the coronavirus pandemic and the absence of foreign spectators may make the event less breathtaking than expected. “They wanted to put the package on transport, but since there will be no foreign audience, this risks being compromised. They might stick with the original ideas, but will it make sense and speak to the general public? I doubt. I think the Tokyo Olympics could have been a springboard for Japan. At best, it will only be a small stepping stone, but it will not have the effect of the Shinkansen in 1964 ”, believes François Bellanger.


However, when it applied in 2011, Japan had already largely exported internationally through its manga, video games, robots and autonomous cars. The Japanese desire for innovation went beyond the framework of the Olympics. “At the time, we wondered what the city, transport or energy of tomorrow would look like”, analysis François Bellanger. But ten years later, and a global pandemic, what will be the real legacy of these Games? “The image that will remain, regardless of the story that has been made or what they have done concretely, risks being that of OJ new formulas with three quarters of the stadiums empty”, supports François Bellanger.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared disguised as Super Mario during the closing ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 21, 2016 (PHILIPPE LOPEZ / AFP)

Due to Covid-19, Japan will not shine on the international stage as it intended. But as Estelle Brun from IRIS explains, this situation is also “the opportunity for the Japanese to say” Look, as a society, we have managed to keep these Games safe, with a precise health plan and with technology to serve it. On the long term, she concludes, it could serve as an example for the next big sporting events. ”

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