Sport and technology are inextricably linked and perhaps this statement couldn’t be truer than it is in 2020.
Now, more than ever before, the role that technology is playing in all disciplines of sports is unable to be ignored. Think back to the beginning of lockdown in mid-March when the ‘run 5k’ phenomenon took off — the fuel behind it was technological advancement. Being able to track your runs and share them with your social media companions.
At the top level, however, is technology fuelling successful development within sport or is it simply destructing any form of competition? In this article, Charles Tyrwhitt take a look.
On 12th October 2019 Eliud Kipchoge took part in what was titled the INEOS 1:59 Challenge — a bid to break the sub-two-hour marathon barrier. On that cold, misty morning in Vienna, not only did Kipchoge successfully complete the challenge, he did it with 20 seconds to spare, and added another incredible achievement to his already impressive list.
Despite eclipsing his own personal best and the world record by almost two minutes, the 1:59:40 did not stand as an official world record due to the conditions under which it took place. It wasn’t a race by definition or in the words of running commentator Toni Reaves it was “a second chance marketing exhibition for a plastics manufacturer and springy shoes.”
A laser-like system projected from a car moving along in front of Eliud detailed the required pace of the runner to beat the time, road markings on the track suggested the quickest possible route, and aerodynamic specialists had labelled a seven-person windbreaking system as the best possible way to counteract drag.
The most contentious aspect of the feat however centred around the athlete’s shoes—the Nike Vaporfly have caused ructions between the manufacturer and World Athletics, with critics suggesting they should be banned because they are virtually ‘technological doping’. The shoe, which combines a rubber known as Pebax with carbon fibre plates in the sole, works to deliver a percentage of the energy the runner puts in back.
Despite the shoes not being banned by the governing body, it has been suggested that the advantage which they offer users is incomparable to alternatives. Effectively, if you can afford the crème de la crème of Nike running footwear, you’re going to go a long way in the quest for glory.
While innovative technologies are often on the receiving end of abuse, one area they impact upon, which cannot be discredited, is fitness and prevention of injury. However, even the most technophobic fans wouldn’t be able to suggest that this inhibits competition.
In rugby for example, we have seen the introduction of a number of new pieces of equipment that reduce the risk players are placed under. GPS trackers sewn into the back of shirts return data that allows coaches to see when the body is being placed under significant strain, such as in scrums or in periods of contact. These various data points allow for decisions regarding training, substitutions, and even additional training.
Concussion is a main area for concern in rugby, with players who’ve suffered from head injuries in the sport going on to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy. With doctors on the touchline having to depend, in some degree, on the players honesty when it comes to head injury assessments, a development made by OPRO+ is truly revolutionary.
The company has started implementing impact sensors into their gumshields, which can relay information linked to the collision and allow for a more accurate assessment of the injury. Linear accelerometers built into the shield measure the impact of a specific force in a specific direction, whether that be forwards, backwards, up, or down.
Whether it’s a high school hockey coach sitting down with his players ahead of a final to discuss the opposition’s penalty taking trends or Brad Pitt running information through a generator in Moneyball to discover the exact players that would allow him to win, data analysis has always played a major role in sports.
What we’re witnessing more prominently now, however, is the implementation of an evidence-based approach. Video analysis is allowing coaches to sit with players and detail every aspect of their game with pin-point accuracy.
Deutscher Fußball-Bund, the German Football Association, cross-referenced goals in games across the entirety of a season and were able to detail that repetitive sprints were the single most important factor in the creation of lucrative goal scoring opportunities — encouraging investment into players who were not only fast, but could build up that rapid pace in the shortest time period.
Across all disciplines, meanwhile, data analysis of performance has encouraged in the introduction of improved training techniques. The likes of HIIT (high intensity interval training) has been drafted into a number of sports thanks to the ways in which it allows athletes to utilise explosive power.
There is little in regard to the introduction of enhanced analysis technology into sport that you could suggest limits competition.
A Ted talk discussing whether humans are getting faster and stronger draws comparison between Jesse Owens’ world record in the 100 metres from the 1936 and Usain Bolt’s from the World Championships in 2013.
The speaker notes that when Bolt had finished, Owens would still have had 14 feet to go. But, here’s the thing — Bolt was running on an impeccably designed running track, developed to allow the fastest travel possible. Owens on the other hand? He was running on the ash from burnt wood, which rather failed to offer the same buoyancy, alternatively snatching energy from his stride.
Compare the footballers of then with the footballers of now. Take Premier League legends like Alan Shearer and Wayne Rooney for example. They were strong, muscular characters who forced their way onto the ball and used their power to jostle opposition players out of the way.
Nowadays it’s a rarity to see strikers with a similar stature. Instead, players are getting lighter, taller, and ultimately, faster, using pace as opposed to power to grab goals.
Why is that though? Professor Alan Nevill of the University of Wolverhampton places significant emphasis on the development of playing surfaces. Nevill notes: “modern pitches are immaculate and well-maintained and not the mud baths that they used to be. Pitches used to get very heavy and soggy, particularly in mid-winter, which accounted for players being bulkier and more muscular.”
One would then have to ponder how the stars of yesteryear would perform in the league of today or vice versa. Would the likes of George Best, depicted as one of the most talented of all time still shine on such a fast-flowing surface and would Raheem Sterling be able to dominate and dazzle on a continually water-logged pitch? However you look at it, technology is here to stay. In certain circumstances, it is easy to see why it has been criticised, particularly when it fails us. However, by actively making sports safer and improving the overall ability of athletes, it wouldn’t be fair to suggest that it has been a hindrance.