Trevor Luyt, Managing Director Expleo South Africa

Controversy is never far behind advancements in sport-related technology. Does it suppress the human qualities of courage and natural talent? Or should we be grateful that breakthroughs in software and engineering have become a source of entertainment and personal improvement?

Earlier this month, Formula One legend Alain Prost asked that the sport “focus a little bit less on technology” and seek “more ingenuity”[1]. Speaking to the FIA’s Auto magazine, the advisor to the Renault F1 team said: “Of course we need to have that extreme engineering but I think we need to have more of a [human] balance.”

The use of technology in sport can often prove divisive. Even a standard feature like the 24-second shot clock in basketball was criticised when first introduced in 1954. But the detractors soon hushed up. Players scored more baskets, the games become more exciting, and the number of spectators grew in step.

Prost is right, of course, that we live in a technology-driven era. Some of the world’s oldest and most traditional sports have changed dramatically in recent decades, in response to new gadgetry. For example, the Hawk-Eye app, which uses intelligent software to predict the trajectory of the ball, has brought profound changes to cricket. This innovation has not only improved the accuracy of umpiring decisions, but also enhanced the viewing experience, both on television and in the stadium.

It wasn’t so long ago that cricket broadcasters fixed a single camera at one end of the ground. That was our lot. At this summer’s World Cup in England and Wales, viewers will enjoy pin-sharp, super-slow-motion pictures from 360-degree angles. Advanced algorithms will provide coaches and commentators alike with a constant stream of insights. We will see the whites of the players’ eyes, and share their agony and ecstasy in real-time. I can’t wait.

Technology envy?

The use of technology has spread from one sport to the next. For example, tennis has adopted Hawk-Eye to see whether the ball is on the line or out. A player challenge will add to the drama on important points. Rugby union imitated rugby league, introducing the television match official (TMO) referral system to double-check key moments, such as the scoring of tries or suspected foul play.

Now, soccer is making the video assistant referee (VAR) increasingly mainstream. Penalty decisions are given and overturned. Match-winning goals are disallowed. Again, opinion is split on whether this is progress or a step too far. Some argue that luck and resilience is all part of the game. Just get on with it. For others, there’s too much at stake for human error to decide a match, relegate a team or end a career.

Yet, technology has no room for complacency. The Rugby World Cup in Tokyo this autumn may well be decided by a TMO decision. Likewise, in the Olympic 100m finals in the same city, the following summer, an inconclusive result would prove catastrophic. With hundredths of a second separating the top athletes, the provision of accurate software is the difference between immortality and obscurity.

Of course, technology stretches far beyond the action on the field of play. There’s the pitch itself. Why are some swimming pools, velodromes or running tracks faster than others?  Think of the floodlights, ticketing and security for stadiums and events. Improvements in performance-enhancing drug detection. Gaming, gambling, sponsorship and marketing, loyalty and merchandise, multimedia coverage. The fact that Liverpool and Manchester City fans in Lagos and Beijing will know who has won the Premier League almost as quickly as the players themselves is surely worth celebrating.

Levelling the playing field

Some still hark back to the ‘good old days’ of wooden tennis racquets and stopwatches, when batsmen faced fast bowlers with sunhats and a prayer. Are the racing drivers of today less courageous than Prost and his contemporaries? Arguably, yes. But that doesn’t degrade the advances in reliability and safety in recent years. 

Motor sport is perhaps the most obvious example where engineering will prove the difference between athletes of a similar standard. But it’s not alone. In the final of the 1954 World Cup – still celebrated as the Miracle of Bern – Germany overcame the favourites Hungary with the help of their superior studded boots on the muddy pitch. Kit man Adi Dassler, the founder of Adidas, was arguably man of the match! Above all, the impact on the nation’s morale proved immense.

Technology in golf is another discussion point. Players today can hit the ball further and more accurately than ever before, aided by the enhanced design and composition of clubs and balls. Instead of reducing their range, they are extending the courses! Does it matter, especially now that golf is much more fun to watch? The ProTracer feature on television, which tracks the flight of a ball, has proved hugely popular with golf fans. How long before augmented reality becomes commonplace in the amateur game? Imagine playing with ‘unlosable’ golf balls!

While the advantages in professional sport will always remain contentious, they soon filter down to the rest of us mortals. Just as F1 moves the commercial car industry forward, so software, data monitoring and sports science from the professional arena is now affordable and accessible on the high street. With the use of smartphone apps and wearables, we can all take greater control over our fitness, improve our standard of play, and connect to sports brands and insurance companies that incentivise healthier lifestyles.