Steeped in history, the Olympic Games is one of, if not the most important event in the sporting calendar and arguably, the world. For those competing, it is the pinnacle of their career and athletes, having dedicated much of their life to their sport, have understandably got a lot at stake. At this level, sport becomes a fine art of managing variables (nutrition, training loads, recovery, injury etc.) to ensure athletes are at peak fitness, both physically and mentally. Even then - although Usain Bolt may have won a gold medal with his left shoelace untied back in 2008 - for many athletes, at such an elite level, sometimes even their best is not necessarily enough to guarantee a podium finish, and so it then comes down to those all-important marginal gains; those tiny performance enhancing tweaks in technique or nutrition, equipment or apparel, that could give an athlete that critical 0.01% margin over his or her competitor i.e. the difference between first and second place.

Marginal gains as an area has almost become an innovation race in its own right; from motorsport through to swimming, sailing through to athletics. The quest for optimal performance has prompted a number of game-changing (no pun intended) innovations over the years: shark-skin suits for swimmers, hawk-eye in tennis, carbon bike frames and hybrid engines in F1 racing, to name but a few examples.

With Rio 2016 just around the corner, a number of exciting innovations have already been announced, which hope to make this Olympic Games a unique and successful experience for both athlete and spectator. In partnership with a Brazilian bank, Visa have launched a bracelet for visitors that can be used to pay for goods at the venue in much the same way as a contactless card, for example. Meanwhile in the swimming pool, underwater lap counters will make their first Olympic debut, allowing athletes to purely concentrate on swimming their fastest. Above the water, the US rowing team will be competing in seamless rowing suits that boast anti-microbial properties to protect them from the reportedly contaminated waters of Guanabara Bay and on the athletics track, Nike have developed a race bib which turns its back on the humble and much relied upon safety-pin. The new design features an adhesive back, so that it can be fixed directly onto the uniform, boasting better aerodynamics, ease and comfort for the athlete. Nike have tested this design rigorously against a range of weather conditions, to account for faultless performance in Rio – this in itself is a great example of how important prototyping and testing is in innovation.

Prospects for the Australian track cycling team look strong, following performance reviews after London 2012 which led Cycling Australia to appoint a motorsport engineer as their Performance Systems Manager. Over the past 4 years, the team have been working tirelessly to develop what they’re calling the ‘Speed System’, which is a complete, ultimate package of performance enhancing projects that look at every aspect of the track experience, from rider position to apparel. As a result, a new specialist carbon frame is set to debut at the Rio velodrome, in addition to an innovative track-specific helmet design. Perhaps most importantly though and an interesting example of how the ‘personalisation’ megatrend is playing out on a micro level, the ‘Speed System’ package is hyper-personalised to each rider because no two riders are the same. Ultimately, when put together, all of these speed enhancing elements aim to help the Australian track team go as fast as possible and will hopefully seal them a number of podium finishes.

So what can we learn from this as businesses? For those market-leading businesses the importance of marginal gains will no doubt resonate, but for those chasing the leaders there are still many parallels between elite sport and the business world. From sports use of insight and stimulus to support idea generation, to its prototyping and rigorous testing process, to its incorporation of trends such as hyper personalisation, there are many first rate examples of innovation systems at work. But perhaps one of the most important messages is to keep striving to be the best because as it remains to be seen, the race, competition or match isn’t won until you’ve got that medal around your neck, and even then, the cycle once again starts afresh, meaning that the field is always open for disruption. 

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