Is technology spoiling sport

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Officials use technology to review a key play in the NFL

Image by Dave Hogg, CC BY 2.0

There is no doubt that technology has improved all of our lives, from lifesaving medical procedures to everyday uses such as smartphones, streaming TV services and safer cars on the road. Technology is everywhere and is advancing at a break-neck rate, but is this always a good thing? In the world of sport, technology has been spreading rapidly, but not everyone is happy about its effects on the game.

Technology provides a second chance

Technology has been introduced in many sports with the aim of making things fairer. Often sports move at such an incredible pace that it can be hard for the officials to see what is happening in real time. To combat this, most mainstream sports now have some sort of decision review system that allows referees and umpires to have a second look or get a second opinion. Many of these systems also allow players to challenge on-field decisions that they think are wrong.

Sports technology systems

Some sports, such as rugby union, American football, and even World Cup soccer, use an instant replay system. This allows either the referee on the field (or a separate video official) to replay footage of the incident in question to see if the ball was out or if a foot was in touch, or to check for many other details that can affect the legality of the play. Other sports take their technology a step further, using equipment that can see what the naked eye cannot. Technology such as Hawk-Eye can provide ball tracking in cricket and tennis, while thermal imaging cameras such as Hotspot, or highly sensitive microphones such as cricket’s ‘Snickometer’, can be used to see if a ball was hit or not. It all adds up to a fool-proof system that largely eliminates human error, but for many fans, the price of this level of accuracy is simply too high.

Ball tracking helps Wimbledon check the legality of 150-mph serves

Image by Mvkulkarni23, CC BY-SA 3.0

An essential addition?

Those in favour of technology in sports insist that it is essential for fair play. Even the best sports officials are only human, and they can have a bad day just like the rest of us. The use of technology can mean the difference between receiving a cup final penalty, getting the goal that makes you an Aussie Rules grand final winner, or landing the serve that helps you lift a tennis grand slam trophy, and settling for second place on the most marginal of calls. The argument goes that modern sport has become so dynamic that it is beyond the capabilities of a single person to keep track of it, and, as such, technology is the only way forward.

An unnecessary interruption

In the other camp are the fans who just want to see a game without the stop-start of constant challenges and reviews. Replaying an incident can take several minutes, and this can ruin the flow of the game. Many fans argue that—whether good or bad—the official is the same for both sides; therefore, over the course of a match, their decisions will even out, making the game fair on both sides. They also argue that marginal calls are all part and parcel of the game and that live sport was never intended to be analysed to the nth degree.

Haven’t we managed without it?

Most major sports have been played competitively for at least a century, and we have managed without technology for most of that time. So, it could be argued that they should continue without it, with the spirit of the game and the sportsmanship of the players helping to keep things balanced and maintain fairness. However, the big-money, high-stakes world of today’s major leagues bears little resemblance to the genteel gentlemen’s games of the past. With so much riding on every goal and every point, it seems only right that every decision should be as correct as it can be.

Love it or loathe it, technology in sport is here to stay. However, it is down to the governing bodies to make sure that it is used as sparingly and as swiftly as possible. If not, then technology will end up spoiling the very games that it is meant to be improving.