Sports technology - the good, bad and the ugly

Just a couple of decades ago the idea that sport would be dominated by technology would have seemed a strange one. But while it’s a fact that almost every area of sport has seen some impact, not all of them have been positive. So, what are the good, bad and ugly examples of sports technology?

Sports technology is having a huge impact on the industry. It has affected the rules governing competition and the way in which athletes actually compete, through to the clothes and equipment they wear and use. But arguably the most important impact of sports technology has been changing the way fans engage with their favourite sports.

Just a couple of decades ago the idea that sport would be dominated by technology would have seemed a strange one. But while it’s a fact that almost every area of sport has seen some impact, not all of them have been positive. So, what are the good, bad and downright ugly

Pretty Vapofly

One recent development that could be seen as a lens for the wider tech-doping in sport debate is the case of the Nike Alphafly running shoes. The technology baked into their predecessors, the Vaporfly, might have been around for a few years, but suddenly, things changed.

Used by Eliud Kipchoge when he became the first athlete to run a marathon in under two hours in October 2019, the Alphafly suddenly hit the headlines. Critics were concerned that athletes sponsored by Nike would have an unfair advantage.

It is certainly true that many athletes wearing the Vaporfly shoes have broken records. And Nike’s own testing indicated a four per cent improvement on athletes’ times. The World Athletics governing body has since tightened regulations. It now bans any shoes that have a sole thicker than 40mm or more than one rigid embedded plate or blade. However, while this effectively banned use of Nike’s Alphafly, records broken wearing the Vaporfly shoes still stand.

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Here is our run down of the digital innovations that have transformed the way the world’s best sportspeople train, play and win.

There’s something in the water

Interestingly, the Nike Vaporfly doesn’t contain much that hasn’t been seen before in shoe design. It was the endlessly-researched combination of sports technologies that made the difference. That technology-inspired improvement echoes a not-dissimilar situation in competitive swimming in 2008-2009.

Back then, full-bodied polyurethane and neoprene swim suits were perfectly legitimate – until hundreds of world records fell in short order. It was found that these suits significantly reduced frontal drag. This led to FINA tweaking the rules on competitive swimsuits to specify they be made of textile fabric.

The world of cycling, meanwhile, has been riven by claim and counterclaim of teams using hidden electric engines in competitive cycling. And although no major teams have been caught red-handed, there is some fire in the smoke.

In January 2016, Cyclocross racer Femke Van den Driessche was caught by the UCI, cycling’s governing body, with a concealed motor in her bike. Subsequently, the UCI has understandably been on the hunt for hidden motors. During the 2019 Giro d’Italia, it conducted over 1,300 checks for hidden motors, using a mobile X-ray machine and its tablet-scanner technology.

Watching the watchers

The use of technology to enforce the rules in sport is on the rise. However, this has not always been as universally popular as one might imagine. This is especially true in the case of ball-tracking technology in cricket, which changed many fortunes, especially in the Ashes.

Hawkeye, Goal Line Technology and most recently VAR (Video Assistant Referee) have also had their critics. For example, Tottenham Hotspur boss Jose Mourinho went on record to denounce VAR after a series of controversial decisions by the technology. Mourinho told reporters: “I thought I was going to love VAR the way I love goal-line technology. I love goal-line technology because there is no mistake. The VAR has too many mistakes….”

Protecting the athletes

It’s not all bad news, though. One area where sports technology has had a positive influence is safety, especially athlete safety. Motorsport in particular has benefitted from a long series of technological innovations. In some cases, this has meant riders and drivers walking away from incidents that would have been fatal in the past.

Even so, some developments, such as the Halo head-protection system in F1 cockpits, were still met with early resistance, from drivers and spectators alike. However, the Halo system has been credited with saving the life of Alexander Peroni after a brutal Formula 3 crash late last year.

Meanwhile, HANS (head and neck support) devices have minimised neck injuries in motorsport for decades. And the more recent ‘airbag leathers’ – now a common sight in most two-wheeled motorsport events – have prevented many broken bones and worse.

More powerful audience experiences

Of course, sports technology isn’t just visible on the field, track or pool. It is also increasingly a core part of athlete preparation. When common consumer smartwatches can provide bespoke coaching programmes, it’s no surprise that professional athletes are in on the act too. In fact, many are using sports technology to tune their performance to eke out a competitive advantage.

Competitive advantage also very much extends into the commercial space. Here, fortunes are made and lost according to metrics such as share of audience and dwell time. The need to engage and subsequently monetise large fan bases has been a feature of sports of all kinds for decades, and technology has delivered on this in particular.

The days when a simple broadcast was the beginning and end of audience engagement has long gone. Now, increasingly sophisticated segmenting of media assets has created entirely new opportunities to monetise sporting rights. From creating highlight clips to building entirely bespoke fan experiences, the age of the DAM (Digital Asset Management) system is well and truly here.

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DAM sports technology

It’s not just large media organisations that are turning to DAMs, but sporting organisations themselves. For example, the ATP and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) use DAM technology to distribute their archives, as well as publish content more rapidly across social channels.

The Premier League also uses a highly secure, elegant cloud DAM platform. This allows it to deliver and monetise broadcast-ready video assets at blistering speeds to a global customer base.

More good than bad

While DAM technology allows sporting organisations to realise the value of their sporting content, it’s great for consumers too. Better access and distribution of sporting content across platforms and borders means more sport for people to enjoy.

In addition, a well-configured cloud-based DAM can cut in-house workloads significantly. This enables much faster content slicing, dicing and near to real-time distribution. Organizations are therefore able to service existing customers, partners and sponsors better. And it also opens the doors to new revenue streams by creating powerful, engaging experiences for fans new and old.

Overall, technology and sport are inextricably linked. It seems clear that technological improvements will continue to have a profound impact on sport. And it’s also clear it will continue to create plenty of debate along the way. Technology has already made sport safer, fairer, and available to a wider audience than ever before. And this is a trend that is set to continue into the future.

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