Opinion | Cool tech was everywhere at the Tokyo Olympics, but we should be wary of how it can affect social progress


By Rebecca Widdowson, Third Year, Sociology

The 2021 Tokyo Olympics have been a spectacle to behold. Not only have we seen the introduction of 18 new events, with sports such as surfing, skateboarding and softball. But we’ve also seen real evidence of social progress, as transgender athletes have been openly competing, like Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter for New Zealand.

And that’s not all. This year has seen the development and implementation of technology that doesn’t just help combat COVID, but also human error.

But do these technological advances come at the cost of social progress?

At first glance, the technology utilised in this year’s Olympics doesn’t seem to have made much of a social impact, instead focusing on tracking an athlete’s physical progress. We have specially designed clothing and equipment that can monitor body temperature and heart-rate, thus enabling athletes to reach peak performance. And peak performance they have reached.

A couple of weeks ago, Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, a track and field athlete from Puerto Rico set a new Olympic record for the 100 metre hurdles. She ran 100 metres in 12.26 seconds – whilst literally leaping over hurdles. It takes me that long to get downstairs in the morning, never mind jumping over obstacles deliberately put in my path! This is a huge achievement for her, and Olympic history.

We have to show our support, now more than ever, embracing those courageous individuals who don’t stick to the status quo

But one thing still bugs me … if we’re living in such a technologically advanced age, why are we still safety-pinning the numbers onto the athletes?

Joking aside, the social progress we’ve seen during these Tokyo Olympics is truly something to marvel at, and it’s all thanks to technology. The Games wouldn’t even be taking place were it not for the leaps and bounds technology has made in terms of COVID prevention measures, allowing for more countries to safely send their athletes safely to compete.

And let’s not forget the Paralympics. An entire set of Olympic sports, that sees athletes with physical, visual and/or intellectual impairments competing, made possible by technology like prosthetic limbs.

Prosthetic limbs at the Paralympics / World Para Athletics

But that’s not to say we haven’t seen our fair share of hurdles (sorry, not sorry for that pun) on the path to fairer representation and equality. Despite the progress we’ve made through the inclusion of a wider range of athletes than ever before, this evolution is relatively new.

Cast your minds back to 2012, when the fashion trends were things like glitter pumps and the Hunger Games had just arrived in cinemas. That was also the first year that each nation sent a female competitor because women were able to compete in every event without restrictions. That’s living memory people. Living. Memory.

You may also be surprised to learn that transgender athletes have been able to participate in Olympic events since 2004, but it’s only this year that the athletes have done so publicly, discussing their transition.

We should be wary of our reliance on technology, especially given the negative social impacts it can have through social media

And even now, transgender athletes have been harassed both online and in-person by transphobes, reducing the likelihood of them openly identifying as trans at games. That is simply unacceptable.

We have to show our support, now more than ever, embracing those courageous individuals who don’t stick to the status quo because they’re not extras in High School Musical. And good thing too. Qualifying for the Olympics is a huge achievement, one that deserves to be celebrated.

This is a poignant example of how technology can conflict with social progress. Yes, apps like Instagram and Facebook allow for like-minded individuals to come together, despite distance, and share their opinions. And for many LGBTQ+ people, online communities are their lifeline.

For others, it’s a hunting ground, where low-life’s gather like trolls under a bridge. Ironic, since that is what they’re known for. Trolling. In this way, the internet is something of a double-edged sword.

And let’s not forget the technological inequality gap at play here. Because not everyone can afford 3D printed shoes, like the ones worn by the Chinese boxing team. The shoes are made from fabrics designed to reduce the chances of their opponents grabbing them, which is … okay, it’s actually pretty cool. But who’s to say this won’t give them an advantage?

The wider implications of these technological advances go way beyond a robot uprising. High-tech innovations don’t automatically equate to social progress. In this way, we should be wary of our reliance on technology, especially given the negative social impacts it can have through social media.

So where does that leave us? Of course, nothing’s going to change overnight. We’re not going to wake up tomorrow and realise that all the transphobe trolls have disappeared … unless …?

No. Because we don’t live in a perfect world. This one is filled with record-breaking hurdlers and the potential for robot uprisings. So, it’s up to us to change things. We have to keep going, keep working to create change, keep supporting each other. So, take to Twitter, to Facebook and Instagram, and show your support for the underdogs. Don’t let the haters win this race.

Featured image: Erik Zunder

What are your thoughts on the role of technology in sport? Let us know!