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Sochi Olympics

Faster, Higher, Smarter: Olympic Inventions Win Gold Medals

Shani Davis (left) of the United States and Junho Kim of South Korea skate in the men's 500-meter Olympic competition at Adler Arena Skating Center in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 10. Paul Gilham / Getty Images

The athletes aren't the only competitors at the Sochi Olympics: High-tech companies are also vying for supremacy, with innovations ranging from stronger carbon composites to aerodynamically optimized speed suits. Eventually, some of those innovations could show up on the street, at your neighborhood gym or schussing down your favorite ski slope.

"The Olympics are a great stage to introduce new technologies," Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, told NBC News in an email. "The bobsled that BMW designed for Team USA might not find its way into your garage, but consumers can and do benefit from the inventions developed and showcased at the Olympics."

In honor of National Inventors' Day — which is celebrated every Feb. 11 on Thomas Edison's birthday — let's take a slalom run through some of the innovations that made an Olympic splash:

1912: Swedish inventor Ragnar Carlstedt developed the first electronic timer to provide more accurate results for the Stockholm Games. He also introduced the finish-line camera, which was used to decide who won the silver medal in the men's 1,500-meter finals. (It went to U.S. runner Abel Kiviat.)

Latest high-tech Olympic gear for gold 4:41

1936: Moving television images date back to the mid-1920s, but the Olympics became the first live televised sporting event during the Berlin Games in 1936. The broadcast of Adolf Hitler's opening speech figures as one of the plot points in "Contact," the novel by Carl Sagan, as well as the 1997 movie based on the book.

1960: Speaking of TV, the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., saw the debut of instant replay as a technique for verifying how a performance unfolded. This innovation wasn't exactly planned in advance: When officials were unsure whether a skier had missed a gate in the men's slalom, they asked CBS if they could review the network's videotape of the race. The rest is sports history.

1960: Aeronautical engineer Howard Head developed lightweight laminate skis in the late 1940s, and the technology was developed further during the 1950s. But it wasn't until the Squaw Valley Games that a medal went to a skier using metal skis rather than wooden skis. Frenchman Jean Vuarnet's gold medal helped turned the tide for the ski industry.

1984: Van Phillips, a biomedical engineer and amputee from Illinois, invented the Flex-Foot Cheetah artificlal leg — which was put to the test by Paralympic athletes. One of the Cheetah's biggest fans was South Africa's Oscar Pistorius, who became the first amputee to compete in track at the Olympics during the 2012 London Games.

2013: Athletes are not only the beneficiaries of high-tech inventions; some of them are inventors as well. Take U.S. Olympic speedskater Brian Hansen: The 23-year-old Olympic medalist and his brother, an engineering student, invented a combination water bottle and foam roller that can slake a thirst and loosen up tight muscles. The product is now being marketed via Bottlebark.com.

2014: High-tech skating suits have been the focus of a technological arms race for more than a decade, but Under Armour and Lockheed Martin kicked it up a notch this time around by equipping U.S. speedskaters with motion-capture markings. Then they studied high-speed videos to find out which new twists helped them zoom more quickly across the track. The result? A suit with friction-reducing patches and drag-reducing dimples that its designers hope will provide the margin of victory for Team USA.

Speedskating isn't the only sport in Sochi to benefit from the high-tech treatment:

  • The U.S. ski team used sensors adapted from missile guidance systems to help Spyder create this year's speed suits.
  • Olympic skier Ted Ligety's Shred goggles for the Sochi Games feature a wide-screen double lens, with air-permeable filters to reduce warping.
  • Easton redesigned its hockey skate to push the foot forward and encourage a more natural outward leg extension — all aimed at helping a hockey player skate like a speedskater. Easton says the redesigned Mako skates are 13 percent faster — but they don't come cheap. Retail price is in the $700-to-$800 range.

That just goes to show that it takes a while for some Olympic technologies to make their way into the mainstream. "That is stuff that the average consumer, civilians like us, can't even get," Clint Carter, senior associate editor at Men's Health magazine, said on TODAY. "This is just for the athletes."

But other technologies can make the leap to consumer applications almost as quickly as U.S. skier Lindsey Van can jump down Sochi's slopes.

"Think about the parabolic skis that Elan debuted in the 1990s to provide tighter turning for slalom, and how soon thereafter nearly all recreational skis on the market were shaped," Schuler said. "Or the sharkskin swimsuits — a great example of biomimicry — that swimmers began wearing at the 2008 Olympics in Sydney. The results may be questionable, but you can buy them on Amazon."