The number of technological advancements introduced at the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964 was such that a British journalist at the time described it as the “science fiction” Games. The most innovative advances came in the broadcast coverage of the Games, which used satellite technology to relay live pictures to a global audience for the first time.
A collaboration between the Japanese government and NASA facilitated the launch of a communications satellite which had originally been designed for telephone use. A new compression technology application enabled it to transmit TV signals, making it possible for Olympic competitions to be broadcast live to an international audience, covering one-third of the globe in real time. For the first time, an entire marathon race was broadcast live.
Other novel innovations such as close-pickup microphones and slow-motion replays were also implemented across the television coverage. While most viewers watched on black-and-white TV sets, some events were broadcast in colour for the first time, including the Opening Ceremony, wrestling, volleyball, gymnastics and judo. Academics who have since analysed the technological legacy of Tokyo 1964 have credited the Games with showcasing Japanese broadcast technology to the world, and helping the nation’s TV industry make inroads into the global market.
The technological breakthroughs at Tokyo 1964 were not only limited to the Games’ TV coverage. Others took place on the field of play. Lighter and more flexible fibreglass poles were used for the first time in an Olympic pole-vaulting competition, replacing the previous aluminium versions. This made it easier for athletes to translate the energy of their run-up into vaulting height, and this innovation ultimately led to the development of current poles, made from carbon fibre and fibreglass composite materials.
Tokyo 1964 also featured improved timing and scoring technologies, including the first use of computers to record statistics, enabling athletes’ times to be shown on television screens. Seiko made its debut as Official Timekeeper of the Olympic Games, linking the starting gun with a quartz clock and photo-finish camera, making it possible to record results down to 1/100th of a second, an accuracy which had never been possible before.
The company now credits the technology it developed for Tokyo 1964 as the impetus for other breakthroughs in timing technology. Five years after the Games, Seiko used the technology it developed for Tokyo 1964 to bring the world’s first commercial quartz wristwatch to market.