Tokyo Olympic Cauldron
Photo: Tokyo Media Center

5 tech and design innovations at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Japan shows off advanced robotics and new inventions to make this Olympic Games a sustainable, forward-thinking event

Lim Chee Wah
Written by
Lim Chee Wah

The Tokyo Olympics is finally here, one year later. In the long, storied history of the Games, this is certainly a historic and unusual one, brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Aside from the unprecedented one-year postponement and empty stadiums, the Tokyo Olympics also make headlines for more cheerful reasons. Here we take a look at the awe-inspiring ways Tokyo 2020 is reimaging the Olympic Games with hopeful, futuristic and sustainable innovations.

Autonomous electric vehicles at the Tokyo Olympic Village

With more than 11,000 athletes converging at the sprawling 44-hectare Olympic Village, ferrying the Olympians around the facilities is a mammoth task. For that, Toyota, a worldwide partner of the Games, is employing its fleet of driverless electric vehicles (EV).

Known as e-Palette, these autonomous EVs have been slightly modified to suit the needs of the Olympic Village. They now have larger doors as well as electric ramps for easier and quicker access, even for Paralympians. Each of the EVs can fit up to 20 people and even though it’s autonomous, there’s still an operator on board to ensure things run smoothly.

Robot basketball player

During the USA vs France basketball match on Sunday July 25, a seven-foot-tall robot wearing a No 95 jersey rolled out during half-time and proceeded to make a perfect three-point shot from half court. Cue, as it’s known, is another invention from Toyota.

The life-sized droid is equipped with sensors to analyse its surroundings (ie, measure the distance) before using AI to adjust its arms and determine the force and angle needed to execute the perfect shot. Cue made three shots that night, all with 100 percent accuracy. What’s the point, you ask? It’s an eye-catching way to show off the country’s latest developments in AI and robotics.

Olympic and Paralympic Village
Photo: ©Tokyo 2020

Cardboard beds at the Olympic Village

As athletes started to arrive at the Olympic Village prior to the Games’ opening ceremony, some were perplexed at the cardboard bed frames. This led to misinformation circulating on the internet that the beds are fragile because they’re ‘anti-sex’, a tactic by the organisers to discourage close contact to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Well, that’s fake news. Many Olympians took to TikTok to prove that the beds are (mostly) sturdier than they look. In fact, each bed can hold up to 200kg. The material was chosen for sustainability reasons: cardboard can easily be recycled after the Games and not discarded as single-use waste.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic medals
©Tokyo 2020

The Olympic medals are recycled... sort of

Tokyo 2020 Olympics organisers have always wanted to make this a sustainable event – and the medals are one way of achieving that goal. But don't worry, they are not repurposing old medals.

For two years from April 2017, a donation drive was put in place to collect disused electronic devices from people in Japan. Precious metals were extracted from 78,985 tonnes of consumer electronics and 6.21 million mobile phones and turned into 5,000 Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals.

Olympic Cauldron
Photo: Kisa Toyoshima

First ever emission-free hydrogen gas used for the Olympic fire

The gorgeous flower-like cauldron, which was lit by tennis superstar Naomi Osaka at the opening ceremony, made Olympic history for a very important reason. For the first time at any Olympics, the fire is powered by hydrogen, which has no colour and doesn’t emit carbon dioxide. Sulfur was added to give the fire its usual yellow glow.

Previous Olympic flames have mostly used propane, alongside magnesium, resin and even olive oil on some occasions. The eco-friendly hydrogen used in Tokyo 2020 is supplied by a Fukushima factory operating on renewable energy – another way the Games is putting its support behind the recovery of that region, which was devastated in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Interested? You can go see the Olympic cauldron and flame at Ariake.

Keep up-to-date with our guide to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as well as our Tokyo 2020 Olympics medal tally for Japan.

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Where to get official Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic merchandise in Tokyo

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