Technology and science have replaced administrators as best means of modernising sport

 

A festive season of football and winter World Cups turned our attention briefly to sporting action this weekend before tainted normality resumed in the shape of a fresh glut of Sepp Blatter and Hein Verbruggen-themed scandals.

Several other stories also caught our attention in recent days, however, showing just how much sport has been affected by changes in science and technology.

The first involved Australian Olympic officials, who used the eye-catching hashtag #tweetorcompete as they warned athletes of the dangers of social media use. The second concerned the inflating of a safety air bag following a crash suffered by Austrian downhill skier Matthias Mayer, the first time this has happened during an International Ski Federation (FIS) World Cup race.

The Australian Olympic Committee have stopped short of a blanket “ban” on social media during Rio 2016; they will ultimately let individuals make their own decisions. But they claim excessive use of Twitter and other websites contributed to disappointing performances at London 2012, consequently urging them to reassess.  

For some reason, it always seems to be the Aussies who worry about things like this, having also introduced an alcohol ban ahead of last year’s Winter Games in Sochi. A cynic would say they are using this as an excuse to detract from more fundamental problems within their sporting set-up, yet it is an interesting point nonetheless.

To log on to find a torrent of abuse criticising your chances must have a demoralising impact on many young athletes, while, conversely, to have social media users excessively talking up your chances could encourage complacency. This is something swimmer Emily Seebohm admits affected her after she swam a blistering 100 metres backstroke record in her London 2012 heat before finishing second behind United States’ Missy Franklin in a slower time in the final.

More generally I feel the danger is simply one of wasting time. An athlete might log on quickly five minutes before their 10pm bedtime only to find themselves still going an hour later, engrossed in a fascinating debate over the merits of different post-training recovery drinks.

At a workshop I attended on sports journalism last week, we were told how much Twitter had changed our job, and how it is tempting for hacks now to spend all their time sitting in front of a desk learning from the internet rather than by being out in the field talking to people.

“Many journalists did this long before Twitter was invented,” a colleague quipped when I relayed this, but it is clear these technologies have made a big difference.

It has certainly changed the relationship between athletes and the public, giving them a direct voice to get their message across as well as to relay information on what they had for breakfast. This is certainly beneficial as well as a danger for sportspeople and the trick is learning how best to balance this.

It got me thinking about what other innovations have changed sport to such a degree.

The obvious example is video technology, which has gradually infiltrated a litany of sports ranging from tennis and cricket to football and handball.

Electronic systems are not always perfect, clearly, with video replays abandoned two days into the Women’s World Handball Championships in Denmark after South Korea were denied a legitimate goal in their clash with France.

During this month’s taekwondo World Grand Prix Finals in Mexico City, China’s Wu Jingyu was also coasting at 6-1 up late-on against French rival Yasmina Ariez in the under 49 kilograms final only for the scoreboard to suddenly burst into life and claim the Frenchwoman was leading 7-6 despite no kick having been registered.

After a lengthy delay, common sense prevailed and the scoreboard was returned to its previous state, with no-one really understanding what had gone wrong. Organisers were lucky the French did not lodge a serious protest, however, because the rules do state that the decision of the scoreboard is final.

Yet generally such systems work well, achieving the general objective of preventing particularly terrible judging decisions.

Another obvious impact of technology comes in training methods. A surfeit of new devices have been rolled out in sports like rugby union and American football in recent years in order to monitor heart rate, how far a player has run, how much energy they have expended and how their body is responding etc. One objective here is to work out what methods work best and how individual players respond. Other systems take a more active role in boosting their training.

The most impressive facility I have ever visited is the Aspire Academy in Qatari capital Doha, probably the world’s leading sport hospital. Along with the underwater and anti-gravity treadmills, the most impressive part was 30 hotel-style rooms which doubled as fully functioning hypoxic altitude chambers, allowing athletes to simulate the benefits of training at altitude while sleeping.

I had heard of tent-style chambers which members of the British team install around their beds. This was a few notches up, although I couldn’t make up my mind if I liked them or not. The benefit of altitude chambers is to stimulate the production of red blood cells, which improves delivery of oxygen from the lungs to the working muscles. In short, this appears fairly identical to the benefit of performance enhancing drugs like Erythropoietin (EPO), with the only difference being that one is legal and the other is not.

Injury prevention is another area where technology has made a big difference, with many of the aforementioned devices worn by players in training sessions supposedly helping to foreshadow and thus prevent problems arising. It seems a long time since physios ran onto the pitch with a sponge with no more advice than a simple “Run if off, son”.

This brings us back to the case of Mayer. The reigning Olympic champion lost control and flew down the hill backwards during a World Cup downhill race in Val Gardena, landing hard on his right side midway through his run before his safety bag inflated.

The safety device was developed by sportswear manufacturers Dainese after they collected information from skiers by lodging special chips in their back protectors to record speed, angular rotation and acceleration. It currently protects only the shoulder, neck, back and chest areas, with a system to protect the knees and hips currently being developed.

This is a bittersweet story as the Austrian still required surgery after fracturing several vertebrae, meaning he will now be out for the rest of the season. But it is thought he could have suffered a more serious spinal injury if the bag had not deployed, so it must join a list of other successful sporting innovations.

There is a corollary here, however, in the form of Arsenal and England footballer Danny Welbeck. The 25-year-old suffered what appeared to be nothing more than a minor bone bruising on his knee in April, but his return date has been put back and back to the extent that he will remain unable to play until at least February, maybe longer. So for all the improvements and vast funds for research and treatment, the honest truth is that no-one seems to know what is wrong with Welbeck, or when he will recover. 

A lot more progress therefore still needs to be made. On a general level, however, this increasing use of technology and science shows that some aspects of sport are less stuck in the past than the administrative side.

It makes you wonder what further changes will be introduced before Tokyo 2020.

 

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