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In the moments before the start of an Olympic 100-meter final, a tense hush falls across the stadium. As the athletes take to the track and finish their warmup, nervousness and excitement plays across their faces. Years of training come down to 10 short seconds. It is widely considered the pinnacle race of the largest event in sports, and it is a moment worthy of special celebration.

As the world’s fastest women and men took to the track in Tokyo for their respective 100 meter finals on Saturday and Sunday night, the entire National Stadium, newly built for these games, was plunged into darkness as the house lights were suddenly switched off.

From the rafters, a single beam of light hit the track, expanding widthways to illuminate the Olympic rings and the entire length of the 100-meter straight. And then the track seemed to almost melt, turning into a rippling wave and series of cascading 3D blocks. A peculiar mirage created by the Tokyo summer heat, perhaps? No, this was an elaborately choreographed projection mapping presentation to kick off the Olympics’ blue-ribbon event, the 100 meter finals.

The pre-race presentation, an Olympic first, was the brainchild of Florian Weber and his team at World Athletics who work on sports presentation. They saw the potential to elevate the spectacle around these flagship races to something worthy of an Olympic Games.

“London was my first Olympics, and that was the point where this discussion around sports presentation really started,” Weber said. “I saw how much equipment there was already installed for the opening ceremonies, and thought, ‘Why can’t we use it?’ There’s a guy turning it on and off everyday, but we weren’t allowed to use the equipment.”

The Olympic Rings are projected along with the names of the athletes on the track before the start of the men's 100-meter final. | AFP-JIJI
The Olympic Rings are projected along with the names of the athletes on the track before the start of the men’s 100-meter final. | AFP-JIJI

In Rio, the team was limited by the fact that the athletics competitions weren’t staged in the same venue as the opening and closing ceremonies, but when it was confirmed that track and field would take center stage in Tokyo in the same stadium that would also host the opening and closing ceremonies, Weber knew he had an opportunity to put his mark on these Games. He started discussions on the idea back in 2017.

“We knew from the beginning, this was the chance to make something special happen,” he said. “We knew we might have the interest of TOCOG (The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) to make something special because they had this beautiful new stadium as well. And we knew it would take time, which is why we started the conversation early. It is a major shift in the philosophy and approach of how we do things with Athletics at the Olympic Games.”

The 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha were the perfect testbed for the show, and Weber used it to demonstrate the potential of projection mapping to create hype for the 100 meters to Tokyo Organising Committee and Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) officials.

Doha was also a valuable opportunity to finesse the show ahead of it being used at the world’s largest sporting event. One particular problem was resolving how to create a high-quality projected image on the non-reflective red surface of the track. For that, Weber turned to Panasonic, which makes some of the world’s most advanced projectors.

“We are in the homeland of Panasonic, so they also had an interest to do this right,” he said. “We have 12 projectors that cover the home straight for us, all the latest equipment, very, very high luminance to create the impression of a very bright track. The white canvas you have at the opening and closing ceremonies is super supportive for reflecting light, but the track is not, so you really need the latest tech and a lot of projectors to cover the canvas at high quality and high resolution.”

The end product was stunning: A track that melted in on itself, rippling into a wave, then a series of cascading blocks that transformed into the Tokyo skyline before introducing the sprinters one by one, with all the flair of prize fighters before a top-tier boxing match. Weber describes it as a journey into Tokyo, a journey toward the Olympic rings.

Athletes prepare for the start of the men's 100-meter final on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI
Athletes prepare for the start of the men’s 100-meter final on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI

As with all events at these Games, the sweltering temperatures posed a separate challenge. The projectors, hanging in the rafters of the stadium, are up to 80 meters away from the track at their furthest, and had to be calibrated each day to make sure the projection lined up perfectly with the track.

“The difference in temperature each day means that the projectors shift slightly, and even a few millimeters up there, with such a long throwing difference and over such a big canvas, can mean centimeters on the track, so you don’t hit the lines anymore. Basically every night the projectors need adjusting so that the light can hit the rings and not be outside of it, which would look awful,” said Weber, laughing.

Whether this kind of projection mapping will be seen again in Paris in 2024 remains an unanswered question. It is incredibly expensive to operate and design, and relatively few stadiums have the kind of modern in-house LED lighting that can be turned off and on again in an instant, a feature that is required to make these kinds of projections possible.

“It’s a great tool, but it comes at a massive cost,” says Weber, “We’re in a very different stadium with the Stade de France, and we’re also not in the ceremonies stadium, which I think they’ve already announced is downtown, so we’ll have to see what’s possible. But first we have to work out how to capture France: What about this says France? Why does this say Paris? And then we can develop further what we use as toys and tools.”

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