The Man With Olympian Doodads
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because wearable tech might help you get fitter, but it’s also revolutionizing the world of elite sports.
By Kevin Fixler
Much like the setting of Mounir Zok’s office, located in the newly renovated U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, his field of specialty remains largely a work in progress. But that isn’t stopping him in his quest to get more Americans on podiums, holding more medals, preferably gold.
His secret weapon? Well, we can’t say exactly what it is (that’s secret), but it’s about a host of cool little monitoring gadgets, some of which athletes are tucking in their shoes, wearing as bracelets or slipping into their shorts. It seemed like only a few Olympics ago that specialized training and nutrition were all the rage in gaining a competitive edge. But today, it’s all about these doodads that have become the magical third eye of coaching, little trackers on steroids for when, as Zok puts it, “the naked vision is not enough anymore.”
Zok is looking to the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo as the year when wearables will reach their full potential in high-performance sports.
All of which puts the 38-year-old Zok, as the senior sports technologist for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), at the epicenter of a growing — if controversial — movement in global sports: the uber-tech edge. Rival nations have long tried to outdo each other in their scramble for Olympic hardware, of course, but nowadays, they’re focusing on what has become a $14 billion business. And make no mistake: Countries that can afford this technology will have at least some advantage over the others, renewing old concerns about fairness in the Olympics.
Indeed, critics question whether technology like this should be allowed to be secret. For now, few standards are in place, and at least countries can take heart that no technology guarantees gold. Who can forget, for example, the so-called “secret weapon” that the U.S. speedskating team thought it had in the last Winter Olympics, with its new sleek uniforms that were rumored to be flawed?
As Zok sees it, using any tech edge makes sense, especially since almost any performance metric can now be measured and analyzed. He says the trick is figuring out what info matters, and what it does for each sport and each athlete. While weekend warriors might use a gizmo to track their heart rate or calories burned, their Olympic-level counterparts are being scrutinized for much more — sometimes through devices embedded in shoes to measure running mechanics, or in clothing for whole-body biomechanic analysis.
Zok, who sports trendy framed glasses and speaks with frequent hand gesticulations, has worked with a handful of teams so far, including U.S. women’s boxing and the entire American diving program. The Lebanese-born and Italian-educated biomedical engineer Ph.D. got his start in this field during its early days, in 2008, when he founded the Rome-based company Sensorize, one of the world’s first wearable-electronics companies. Though his team focused mostly on weight and endurance training, as well as the injury rehabilitation markets, big-time sports soon came a-callin’. Early clients, impressed by the customizability of programs that measured, say, how powerfully a soccer player kicked a ball, included Italian soccer clubs AC Milan and AS Roma.
For his ability to sift through all the numbers, Zok is regarded as one of the field’s leading figures among a small but elite group of brainiacs around the world, and is strongest at helping the USOC “determine what data is useful, and what is noise,” says Scott Schnitzspahn, a high-performance director at the USOC. And his genial, gregarious nature has helped persuade occasionally skeptical coaches and athletes that his expertise is worthwhile. It’s a disposition Zok says he probably picked up while growing up in Beirut, where he was nurtured within a particularly close neighborhood amid civil war.
But he’s far from the only one pushing into this field. Many companies have moved into the wearable tech market in recent years, including Google, Apple and Samsung, as well as Nike and Adidas, plus smaller players few have heard of. And the industry, which is forecast to grow to more than $70 billion within the next decade, has exploded over the past year, analysts say. Now, industry cheerleaders like Zok are looking to the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo as the year when wearables will reach their full potential in high-performance sports.
Before then, will the International Olympic Committee devise standards around wearable tech? If they don’t, experts fear that all of this technology will help crush many previously hallowed Olympic records. But Zok argues that it’s ultimately an athlete’s performance that will determine whether he or she stands on the podium. Still, he says, “Technology is here … and it’s a fact.”
Photography by Cary Jobe for OZY.