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The Dartfish Olympics

If you’ve been watching media coverage of the Olympics, you’ve probably seen Stromotion — that software that breaks an athlete’s fluid movements into stop-motion-style freeze-frames. The tres cool software is made by the Swiss company Dartfish, and apparently Olympians have been using it to train in an incredibly innovative way: They take a performance of a classic Olympian from the past and run it alongside their own, with both broken down into Stromotion frames. As the Associated Press reports, US pole vault star Toby Stevenson uses Dartfish to virtually “compete against” video of Sergey Bubka, the world record holder:

“I use it until smoke comes out of the machine. It’s great,” said Stevenson, who has secured a spot on the Olympic team.

Stevenson can review his practice jumps on a laptop within seconds of a vault. Within two hours of a track meet, he can watch himself on an LCD projector back at the hotel. Or he can have his day’s work burned onto a CD.

While Stevenson’s muscles tell him one thing, the digital video might reveal something else.

“It’s a big reason for my success,” Stevenson said. “I jump, and between every jump I watch my jump, and after practice I watch every jump on Dartfish.”

This reminds me of the idea of the “ghost” competition in many popular video games. I first encountered it in the original Mario Kart back in 1996: You could race around a track, and then do it again, competing against a recorded “ghost” version of yourself — to see if you could do it faster. Competing against your “ghost” — or that of a world-ranked competitor — is now a pretty common thing in many games, and it reminds me of how game innovations have constantly pioneered techniques that are transforming how we view, and play, real-world sports.

There’s even a debate about whether this is a good thing or not. Some famous judges — such as Cynthia Potter, NBC’s famous diving analyst — wonder whether Stromotion is harming the sport, because it’s encouraging judges to give demerits for things they normally wouldn’t see. As USA Today reports:

“With the naked eye, you don’t see these tiny little things that might be called deductions,” said Potter, as divers lined up for midday practice plunges at the Olympic venue Monday. “I don’t know if you’d even need judges if you could program all this into a computer.”

But, she says, “Human judges allow for artistic judgment — and it’s allowed divers to put personality in their dives.”

Of course, this isn’t an entirely new thing. The photo finish has been around for decades in many sports — and it’s caused huge controveries in everything from the 100-meter dash to greyhound racing. But modern media are likely to make things even stranger. I can easily envision the next few Olympics, when fans are getting personalized Stromotion streams sent to their mobile phones, which they can view and then vote on which athlete did the best dive.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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