We are in the midst of a summer of sport. We’ve endured the disappointment of England once again proving football doesn’t have to be ‘the beautiful game’, followed closely by the almost-success of Andy Murray failing to beat the formidable Roger Federer. Londoners will soon complete the sporting season by spending a month negotiating crowded tube trains during The Olympic Games – an event it is estimated over two-thirds of the world’s population will watch.
In the modern age, huge sporting events such as these require vast technological support, whether for compiling data, delivering information to the billions keeping track online, or making sure proceedings go off without a hitch. One of the firms building the communications and computing infrastructure for this year’s Olympics, Atos, has compiled a notable list of ten technology facts about the games, which may give you an idea of the scale of the workload involved.
Impressive as this list is, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Technology has been enhancing the world of sport, both for competitors and spectators, for years now. The following are just some examples of how.
Years ago, athletes were judged on important factors like the size of their biceps, the audacity of their haircuts and their assumed ability to kick, throw, or hit an object or human very hard indeed. This all changed when the Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Bean, implemented statistical analysis (known in baseball as sabremetrics) to identify underrated yet effective players that could help him win the World Series without spending the GDP of a small country on ‘big names’.
Software for collecting data and aggregating performance information is now used worldwide in a variety of sports to cut the wheat from the chaff, and highlight the various strengths and weaknesses of athletes. As The Guardian’s Secret Footballer writes in his article about ‘soccernomics’, this kind of technology can provide a tactical advantage to teams that, more often than not, find themselves facing technically superior opposition.
The technology is now advanced to the point where not only can coaches tell which of their players are performing well in which areas, but we, as fans, are also privy to insightful information from the vantage point of our armchairs. The upshot of this that when we find ourselves screaming at our televisions in a fit of pique because Dimitar Berbatov is lazy, we now have statistical evidence to back up our assertion that it’s taken him forty minutes to run six metres. The downside is that when Andrea Pirlo singlehandedly completes more passes than the entire England football team, as he did when Italy knocked them out of the European Championship last month, we can’t just pretend it didn’t happen. This is mostly thanks to these guys.
If the stories my father tells are anything to go by, then forty years ago footballs were made from lead, wrapped in pig skin and coated with some special sort of gossamer that was designed to break your foot if you kicked them or flat out kill you if you attempted to head them. Still, they just got on with it back then. It was a different time, you see.
These days, the use of CAD (computer assisted design), computerised testing, and synthetic fabrics mean that everything is lighter, more comfortable, designed to regulate body temperature, increase speed, or unlock a super power via a tiny button incorporated into the performance-enhancing stitching.
For instance, American football and ice hockey teams in the US are currently in the process of replacing their traditional padding with bullet-stopping, Kevlar super-vests – as used by soldiers trying quite hard to stay alive in areas of extreme conflict. The actually-quite-good side of this is that serious head and back injuries will be greatly reduced and the much-loved physical aspects of these sports will remain unaffected.
Remember John McEnroe? Remember how he used to throw his racket around and swear at umpires and generally act like a teenager who’d been asked to turn his television off and go to bed every time his serve was broken? Well, I’m not saying it was entirely because of him that technologies like Hawk-Eye were implemented, I’m just saying…they have been.
Hawk-Eye is a company that offers a range of sporting solutions, including a variety of ‘sports simulations’ and ‘coaching systems’. The technology most of us are familiar with is the 3D ball-tracking featured in cricket and tennis that uses six cameras positioned around the arena, recording at 60fps to map ball trajectories. This technology is soon to be implemented in Premiership football, finally bringing an end to the perpetual non-debate over the use of goal line technology.
The Future of Sports and Technology
One can only speculate as to the further advancements technology will bring to sport. For the most part technology has brought improvements to the playing field, although it is worth bearing in mind the dangers involved – too much emphasis on tech could lead us to a place where ESPN is full of stuff like this:
Which doesn’t seem a million miles away from this: