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May 14, 2021 Friday 01:27:41 PM IST

Sport Tech

Sports & Games

The 2008 Beijing Olympics will be remembered for some spectacular performances – Usain Bolt’s record breaking wins in the 100 and 200 metres, Michael Phelps’ record eight gold medals, Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva’s world record-breaking pole vault performance with a leap of 5.05 meters, the amazing opening ceremony. Branded as the Hi-Tech Games, this Games showcased China’s emerging technological advances in various sectors.

Ironically, it was in this Olympics that technology turned villain. The introduction of full body swimsuits, made famous by Phelps and others, was found to cut down on fatigue, gave swimmers more buoyancy, speed, and led to an unprecedented number of world records. Phelps’ full-body, 50-percent polyurethane swimsuit was supposed to have enhanced his performances.  This sparked off a controversy.

Improvements in swimsuit technology followed, accompanied by a significant rise in elite performance across the majority of the swimming events. The unprecedented numbers of world records set at the 2008 Olympics and the 2009 Rome World Swimming Championships prompted FINA, the governing body of swimming, to question the use of the swimsuits. An investigation was held and new swimsuit specifications implemented. The new regulations banned all advances in swimsuit technology. However, all previously established records were allowed to stand.

Technological advancements have affected every aspect of our lives and hence sports industry too.

A Boon

It’s true that when administering and officiating sports, technology can succeed where humans may not. This guarantees fair judgment of the performance and ensures that athletes win fairly. In most cases technology has certainly proved to be a boon to sports. Instant replay, sensor tools, timing systems, equipment development are all examples of remarkable technology being used in sports today.

However, technology in sports, as in every other field, can turn into a Frankenstein. As the English novelist and scientist C. P. Snow said, ‘Technology ... is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other.’ Every time new technology is introduced is brings a share of squabbles.

For Golfers

From swing sensors and grip guides to shot trackers and virtual caddies, golf has seen a quiet transformation. You still have to swing the club yourself but technology has had a huge impact on the game in the last 15-20 years. Changes in clubs, balls, shoes and the equipment have made the game easier and more enjoyable. It has altered the game dramatically. Those tools did not exist in previous years, and they have given the golfer a better chance to enjoy the game and improve.

Some governing bodies of golf have pre-empted this by requiring any new equipment designs to be submitted to them prior to obtaining any approval to be used in matches to thwart controversies.

Football’s VAR

Glitches have been noticed here and there in sports technology, some have learned to live with them, while others have attempted to iron them out. Perhaps, the two major and popular sports disciplines that seem to have issues with some of the technological innovations are football and cricket.

Take football. After a decade of consideration, the Video Assisted Referees (VAR) was introduced at the 2018 World Cup. These video replays were meant to assist referees. The VAR system comprises of a team of assistant officials, located in a video room, who use technology to help head officials make calls. The VAR team uses an automated three-dimensional line system that will help referees spot infractions, such as red card or offside penalties.

The technology draws an invisible line from the ground into the air around each player, giving officials the awareness to call off sides even if just an arm, shoulder or head is over the line, and not just easier-to-spot legs or feet. The tech is assisted by multiple cameras placed around the stadium.

VAR Glitches

The VAR system had been used in a few European and Australian leagues before and had faced problems. And these problems continue to persist.  VAR was intended to prevent controversies in league football but had the opposite effect. In fact, there are now serious doubts over whether it’s a long-term solution, with many calling for big changes or scrapping it.

When using VAR, supporters attending games have no idea what’s going on during stoppages – a big problem considering delays can sometimes last three or minutes in extreme cases. But this isn’t something cricket fans have to worry about, as they usually get to see the same footage as the video umpire on the big screen. This could have a massive impact on the average supporter’s match day experience.

In English Premier League (EPL), the VAR has been a constant source of controversy. The system produced so many questionable calls during its debut season that many fans were hoping it’d be axed altogether. In the current season the system has continued to cause issues. It often seems that every game week features at least one questionable VAR decision, whether it’s to do with a handball, offside, or penalty call.

The VAR system consists of three referees analysing video replays of major decisions made by the main referee in a match. During the game, a VAR team can either recommend that a decision be overturned, or be reconsidered by the acting referee to review an incident. This new development, with its direct impact on game-changing decisions, has split football fans into two camps. Some oppose VAR in disrupting the flow and nail-biting decisions of the game, while others feel it can save us from consequences of misjudged refereeing.

Completing Goal Technology

The VAR complements the goal technology used at the 2014 World Cup. Goal-line technology provides a means of instantly determining whether the entire ball crossed the goal line. Match officials wear smartwatches and receive a signal on their wrist within one second if a goal is scored. The system uses both cameras and magnetic fields to make a determination about the ball’s location. Other technological developments in the game include data analytics for game preparation and post-match analyses of matches, insights about opposition players etc., wearable technology to monitor player fitness, speed and other training metrics. The equipment has also seen a huge transformation. There has been innovative manufacturing tactics and materials for boots, jerseys and even the ball, which can have an embedded chip to enable communication with mobile devices to unlock new fan experiences.

Pitch Tech

Cricket has integrated technology through trial and error and the effort is not to take important decisions away from humans but to enhance their ability to get the decisions right.

1. The third umpire.- to supplement the role of the two umpires on the ground. The third umpire sits off the ground with access to television replays of disputed catches, boundaries and run out to advise the central umpires.

2. Hawk-eye, a computer system which traces a ball's trajectory and sends it to a virtual-reality machine. It uses computer-linked television cameras situated around the field. The computer reads in the video in real time and tracks the path of the cricket ball on each camera. These views are then combined together to produce an accurate representation of the path of the ball.

3. Snick-o-Meter, a very sensitive microphone located in one of the stumps, which can pick up the sound when the ball nicks the bat.

4. The hot spot technology that is mostly used to review whether the bat has hit the ball, particularly when there is a faint snick. If there is contact, the small amount of heat generated is indicated by a change to that area of the bat. It uses  infra-red cameras positioned at either end of the ground.

Pros and Cons

Stump cameras, improved equipment, and many other technologies have found the way into the game. Controversies and disputes still continue. The International Cricket Council (ICC) makes constant reviews and changes in the system. Recently the ICC Cricket Committee approved of changes to the Decision Review System (DRS). The Committee informed that the contentious ‘Umpire’s Call’ will continue to be a part of the DRS.

There has been a lot of debate around the ‘Umpire’s Call’ with current and former cricketers asking for a re-look into the DRS regulations. The Committee approved other changes to the DRS and Third Umpire protocols. For LBW reviews, the height margin of the Wicket Zone will be lifted to the top of the stumps to ensure the same Umpire’s Call margin around the stumps for both height and width. A player will be able to ask the umpire whether a genuine attempt has been made to play the ball before deciding to review an LBW decision. The 3rd Umpire will check a replay of any short-run that has been called and correct any error prior to the next ball being bowled.

Endless Options

With so many sports and their intricate rules, we need a pointer or two here and there. Technology has made it easier to understand what is going on in a game; anyone with a smart phone can download applications that make following sports as easy as receiving text messages. And you can catch almost every game on television, in high definition. Options are endless. We now have better equipment and life is so much safer for sportsmen.

Induction of technology is generally welcomed because of its positive impact but sometimes technology can be a useful servant but a dangerous master too.

K Pradeep

Sports Writer and Former Senior Deputy Editor, The Hindu Read more articles..