As the world’s eyes turn to Tokyo for the postponed 2020 Olympic Games, delayed to this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth also looking back at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Known as the “Technology Olympics,” the 1964 Games represented not only a rebirth of sorts for Japan following World War II, but also a turning point for sports technology.
Hosted by a rebuilt Tokyo — featuring new highways, new luxury hotels, a new sewage system and a new monorail between the airport and downtown — the 1964 Games also were the first to be broadcast live around the world. NASA and the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation worked together to launch the Syncom III communications satellite (originally designed for telephone use) and employ compression technology to transmit TV signals around the world.
One-third of viewers worldwide could watch the Olympics in real time. Several events were broadcast in color, including the Opening Ceremony and gymnastics. Coverage also incorporated use of slow-motion replays and close pickup microphones, as well as statistics tracking via computer, allowing results to be displayed on screen.
Technological advances in the Olympic Games events
Home viewers weren’t the only ones to benefit from new technology. Athletes did, too. 1964 was Seiko’s first outing as the official timekeeper for the Games, introducing a starting gun linked to a photo-finish camera. The 1964 Olympic Pool was also the first to have touchpad sensors on the walls for swimming competitions.
All of these technologies seem routine to today’s Olympic viewer—but it’s no wonder that in 1964 journalists called the Tokyo Games the “science fiction” Olympics.
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