Like it or not, in 2018 very few sports can be described as truly pure and technology free. On the surface, that feels like a fairly innocuous statement, given every one of us carries a powerful computer in our pockets, but people can get a bit funny about sports. At what point does it cease to be taking advantage of technology and become, well, cheating?
That was the topic of a panel discussion at this weekend’s New Scientist Live, where Clare Balding chatted with paralympian Hannah Cockroft, former England rugby star Lawrence Dallaglio and BT Sports’ chief operating officer Jamie Hindhaugh. Between the pure athletes and the pure tech evangelist was Steve Haake: professor of engineering at Sheffield Hallam University, and his views are suitably nuanced. Which should be expected, given he literally wrote the book on technology in sport.
“It's quite open-ended and it depends on which technology you're talking about and which sport you're talking about – because there are different answers,” he tells me via phone a few weeks ahead of the panel. He’s pretty clear about one thing though: whether or not you can see it in any given sport, technology is pulling some strings behind the scenes – even with something as seemingly basic as the 100m sprint.
“On the face of it, it doesn’t seem to have much technology - you’ve got a runner and some shoes,” he says. “But behind the scenes you've got all these other technologies that go into training like GPS, timing systems and all the sports science support you can muster.”
Technology vs tradition
It’s certainly a golden age for these kind of microgains with modern tech allowing for the kind of constant analysis that was previously only available under lab conditions, which naturally didn’t always transfer to the pitch or track. “To be quite honest, they never really reflected the real world, because as soon as they know they’re in a controlled experiment they act differently,” Haake explains. Now, in a world where wearable tech has even filtered down to enthusiastic amateurs, it’s a very different story. “The data isn’t quite as good as it is in the lab, but at least it’s a real-world environment.” Plus there’s lots and lots of it.
But it would be a mistake to think that technology has only been changing sport in the era of the smartphone. “When I started out in the 90s, it was all about the materials,” Haake recalls, explaining that he witnessed the change from hickory to graphite in golf, and from wooden tennis rackets to aluminium to carbon fibre. “The authorities were absolutely scared stiff at how the introduction of lighter, larger-headed rackets might transform things and make it a power-game,” he remembers, but for amateurs it was a revelation, making the sport much easier to pick up and play. It’s what Haake sees as a “balance between technology and tradition.”
Which isn’t to say that all technological advantages are created equal, and some can certainly cross the line into being too impactful – a case of too much, too soon. The classic example of this is swimming. Back in 2008, Speedo released the LZR Racer swimsuit: after more than 130 word records were broken in 17 months – many on the same day – the International Swimming Federation realised that the line between individual ability and technological aid was just too blurry, and banned the suit.
“When is it the athletes doing the bulk of the work, and when is it the best choice of technology?” Haake asks. “It’s this uneasiness where you’re not sure when someone’s winning. You really want to feel that someone is winning because they are the best athlete.”
So perhaps the best technology in sport is where it’s present, but unseen: silently pulling strings, but not in a way where it’s obvious something dramatic has changed. World records should stand for years, but if Manchester United lose to Liverpool in November, fans can at least take comfort in the fact that they’ll get another crack in March.
We’ll never know whether Roger Bannister could have given Mo Farah a run for his money with the same technological boosts. But in team sports it’s a different story, and technology is an asset that can be embraced by all, so any advantages given are fleeting by nature. If they work: others will follow, and balance will inevitably be restored to the sport.
“That's what you get in all sports, no matter how old or new they are, they all reach some kind of homeostasis where people are happy with the tech and rules and how it's working,” Haake explains. “And it'll stay like that until something new comes along.”
This isn’t necessarily technology, either, and Haake points to long-distance running which changed when African athletes emerged on the world stage. “A whole new population came along and suddenly things changed,” Haake observes. “Tennis is the same - at equilibrium in the 80s and then wider body rackets came along and things really changed.”
Sometimes change will be resisted by sports’ governing bodies which are often conservative by nature. And in these instances, general populations are often ahead of the curve. “A lot of these men and women in blazers will wear a Fitbit or an Apple Watch and say 'you know what? This is fine actually. I can't see a problem with this,'” Haake explains. “So as these become mainstream in the world, inevitably sport follows.”
So what does Haake think will be coming next? “I'm really surprised nobody's done a visual heart rate monitor where you can take images from the person of their face and measure heart rate,” he muses. “I'd love to know the heart rate of Ronaldo before he takes a free kick for example. That'd be quite neat - it would be interesting to know if he had a heart rate of 180 or 50. I don't know, which is it? Is he super calm, or excited and controlling it?”
But that’s a cosmetic change, aimed at fans, rather than the players and coaches, so what’s going to see the next unfancied team do a Leicester City, a Dallas Mavericks or an Oakland Athletics? While Haake isn’t sure how effective it’ll be, he is interested in the sports benefits of transcranial direct stimulation. Previously used in medical contexts for the treatment of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, some think it could offer a performance perk to athletes.
“The Golden State Warriors have started to use it – the idea being that it enhances your ability to do motor learning so that those skills you learn during training are picked up quicker and retained longer,” Haake explains. “It may possibly even enhance your ability before a match – you wear this thing before a game, and hey presto you're slightly better in the match.”
Does that cross a line for you? Haake concedes that the line of what’s acceptable varies from fan to fan. For him, that line comes when I ask about genetic enhancement for sporting gain. “It's not in the spirit of sport really is it?” he replies. “It's effortless, it's not a natural talent. We'd rather wait and see natural selection occur.” He’d “rather see Usain Bolt have offspring with an amazing sprinter” and wait 20 years for that “chance element of genetics”. (He’s not kidding either – when I tell him that Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero has a son with Diego Maradona’s daughter, he seems absolutely delighted.)
Perhaps though the debate over technology’s place in sport is part of the charm. Are we ever happier than when arguing over iffy penalty calls? For that reason, despite mixed reviews, Haake viewed the introduction of VAR at the World Cup to be a success – at least from an entertainment point of view. “In all walks of life, we have this misguided belief that the introduction of technology on its own will automatically make things better,” he says. “There was a grudging recognition by the end of the tournament that someone still had to make a decision.” It wasn’t a magic bullet for footballing injustices.
“On the other hand, it's great entertainment! I love this suspense of what's going to come out. Whether it came out right or wrong, it's another way of talking about refereeing decisions. I loved it.”