The following is a Q&A with Bernd Leukert, Head of Products & Innovation at SAP SE.
As the head of products and innovation at a global software company, you have led many industries through the digital transformation. How has technology impacted sports?
Bernd Leukert: Let me answer that by telling you the story of a major sporting event.
It happened in Europe. Fans traveled hundreds of kilometers to be there. Before the event, they prepared a feast and were filled with excitement. Then, at last, the moment they were waiting for arrived. They stood all day in the hot sun, cheering on the athletes in contests of speed, power, and endurance. When it was over, the victors were rewarded with fame and fortune. They became heroes in their hometowns. They had statues built in their honor.
I’m talking, of course, about the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece—more than 2,000 years ago.
But I could just as easily be describing the World Cup or Wimbledon today, or even the modern Olympic Games which will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this August. Even though there are more than two millenniums between then and now, not so much has changed over the centuries.
Just like today’s Olympians, Ancient Greek athletes prepared with rigorous training. They arrived a month before the games and were housed apart from society, much like a modern Olympic village. There they could focus solely on defeating the competition. Winning was everything. Training was essential.
The road to Olympia in those days was not much different than the Road to Rio—except today’s athletes have innovative technology to support them along the way.
On the Road to Rio, technology is transforming how athletes prepare and train. From innovations that improve collaboration between athletes and coaches, to technology that simplifies complex sports with real-time analytics, some of the world’s best athletes are betting on a digital training strategy. And as athletes feel the pressure to be better, faster, and stronger than those who came before, the best strategy can be a big differentiator.
American Gymnastic Olympian Kerri Strug put it best: “I’ve always said that pushing yourself further than you think you can go is what separates the good from the great and that starts at practice. Today’s Olympic athletes are working harder and smarter to excel on the world’s largest stage and I believe technology can be a true competitive differentiator in their training.”
Many of us use wearable technologies like smartbands or smartwatches to reach our own fitness goals. How do Olympians take this data collection to the next level?
BL: For elite athletes it’s more than just measuring steps, sleep and heartbeats. Athletes on the Road to Rio are using the Internet of Things to integrate an unprecedented amount of data and also improve collaboration with their coaches and teammates. The Ancient Greeks relied on years of practice to refine their skill, strength, and insight. Today’s athletes complement that skill and intuition with hard data analysis.
This is especially transformative for complex sports. Take sailing, for example.. One of the key differentiators for Sailing Team Germany (STG) on their Road to Rio is an innovative solution that helps sailors take a deep dive into their performance—and the performance of their competitors—through extensive data analytics. This enables them to make improvements for every single race as they progress toward the Olympics.
What kind of data is collected and analyzed?
BL: STG uses SAP Sailing Analytics, which delivers real-time analytics around race rankings, speeds, maneuvers, bearings, and more. The team has also captured data on Rio’s local currents and wind patterns to ensure their Road to Rio is highly targeted.
Since implementing this technology after failing to make the podium in London, STG has secured 32 gold medals and first place wins at some of the most prestigious events around the world. They hope Rio will be the next world stage for their success.
Take soccer as another example. During the European Championship in France, Germany’s coaching staff used technology to analyze thousands of pieces of real-time data of players’ performance to better prepare the players for the next opponent and upcoming matches.
Sailing and soccer are both team sports. Do individual athletes use similar techniques to refine their personal competition strategy?
BL: They do. German equestrian star Ingrid Klimke is a good example. She knows what it’s like to go for gold—her father won an incredible six gold medals across five Olympic Games from 1964 to 1988, and she has topped the podium in both Beijing and London. Now she has her sights on a medal in Rio, and she is using data analysis to stay ahead of the competition.
Klimke tells us that SAP Equestrian Analytics has been a tremendous help in her Rio preparations. She regularly reviews speed and other course data, digitally-fused with video from a helmet camera, to improve those last small details that are necessary to get a competitive edge on the course.
In a world where the competition keeps getting stronger, it’s really all in the details. A few data points, a small strategic adjustment, and one last push of energy might be all it takes to cross the finish line first.