Any time you ask a broad question, like the one posed in the title of the post, you are bound to get answers that run from one end of the spectrum to the other. Certain situations merit an easy ‘yes’ or a hard ‘no’, while others are seemingly stuck in a grey area of limbo. Where does the technology in sport debate fall on this spectrum? Is this a question we can even answer?
To judge something like this, it definitely helps to have some basic criteria set, and I am going to pull my criteria from Wikipedia, because that is an openly sourced, general knowledge platform, which isn’t perfect, but seems to represent the general feelings of Western populations relatively well. Here is the wiki-definition of Athletics (as general US Sport):
Athletics is a term encompassing the human competitive sports and games requiring physical skill, and the systems of training that prepare athletes for competition performance. Athletic sports or contests, are competitions which are primarily based on human, physical competition, demanding the qualities of stamina, fitness, and skill. Athletic sports form the bulk of popular sporting activities, with other major forms including motorsports, precision sports, extreme sports and animal sports.
Athletic contests, as one of the earliest types of sport, are prehistoric and comprised a significant part of the Ancient Olympic Games, along with equestrian events. The word “athletic” is derived from the Ancient Greek word αθλός (athlos) meaning “contest”. Athletic sports became organized in the late 19th century with the formation of organizations such as the Amateur Athletic Union in the United States and the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques inFrance. The Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (later the NCAA) was established in 1906 to oversee athletic sports at college-level in the United States, known as college athletics.
Athletics has gained significant importance at educational institutions: talented athletes may gain entry into higher education through athletic scholarships and represent their institution in an athletic conference. Since the Industrial Revolution, people in the developed world have adopted an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and as a result athletics now plays a significant part in providing routine physical exercise. Athletic clubs worldwide offer athletic training facilities for multitudes of sports and games.
When you look at Athletics through this lens, we begin to see what is “important”:
1) Sport is a test or contest.
2) Stamina, fitness, and skill are the top requirements, but there are others.
3) The utility of Athletics has changed over the years, from pure competition/testing to fitness and community.
Using the above three criteria – Sports as contest, the importance of skill, fitness, and stamina, and the societal utility of sport, we can now take a real (and somewhat unbiased) look at technology in sport.
For certain elements of many games, technology seems to help the first criteria point. Tech should help us judge a test or contest more accurately, and it should help even the playing field between opponents when it comes to equipment and testing. If everyone uses the same modern lacrosse stick, no one gains an advantage. At least that is the idea. If we use instant replay to tell if a goal was scored or not, we conceivably get the correct answer more often. Before the photo finish races were called ties, or we relied on human judgement. In terms of making contests more even, which is important on some level (and is the reason we have rules), tech seems to be a positive.
When it comes to the second criteria point, tech does seem to stumble a little bit. Obviously technology can help us become better conditioned athletes. We can use modern inventions to test ourselves and mimic real life situations. We can even increase our stamina by using performance enhancing drugs! But does the technology really change anything?
Does tech in sport truly require more stamina, fitness, and skill? Or does it simply give us a boost to the next level, where everyone is now sitting? Usain Bolt is faster than men who ran his race 50 years ago. But so is every single modern day Top 10 sprinter. Tech has helped us lower world records, and it has increased our stamina, skill, and fitness across the board, but it has not changed the importance as requirements of those attributes in any way, shape, or form. Tech hasn’t hurt sport in this regard, but it also hasn’t truly made a difference. What was important then, is still important now. Tech is, surprisingly, a wash here.
Now when it comes to the social utility of Athletics, tech has definitely made an impact. Gone are the days when athletics were nothing but a test for competitors. These days there are youth soccer leagues where everyone gets a trophy and the point is to have fun while being active. There is nothing really wrong with that, although it is a change from the past.
Another change in the social utility of sport, which seems to stand in stark contrast to the above ideal, has to do with fandom, and watching “your” team compete. Fans used to be fans, but now with the help of tech, they are so much more involved. Sports stars are no longer just local celebrities to those who like their sport, they are now global figures, with more influence than ever. Sport has moved from a fun, competitive game to a world of big business, where guys who TALK about sport make millions (well, not me…) and tech is as much to blame for this evolution as anything. Accessibility breeds an open and competitive market. It was only a matter of time.
Looking at things in their totality, it seems that the score is 1-1-1, and that tech is neither good nor bad in the world of sport. It helps in some places, and hurts in others, and from a 1st grade math student’s perspective, this is probably fine. But in our world we are looking for answers, so perhaps we can move past this criteria approach, and try to place some real value on the three criteria.
The second criteria point, for me, is not really going to change much. No matter how tech is involved in sporting competition, skill, fitness, and stamina will still be requirements. That’s just a basic definition. As soon as you’re not working, it’s not sport. But the other two points seem more flexible to me, and the idea of a contest being “truly fair” is actually not that appealing to me at all.
I like the fact that refs, who are human, are out there trying to control the game. I am ok with them making mistakes once in a while. Sport is a lot like life in that sense. Sometimes people make bad decisions… so how do you deal with that decision? Do you buck up and play harder, or do you throw a red challenge flag, slow the game down, and make sure the ball was spotted correctly? To me, the latter is a waste of everyone’s time. Sport reflect life, life is not perfect, ergo sport is not perfect. Stop whining about missed calls and COMPETE. While tech helps here, I’m not sure the help is actually needed when it impacts the game in so many other ways.
I’m tempted to say the same about the last criteria point, but I am not in a position to judge all of humanity on how they consume sport. If watching a team from your couch is what you want to do, then do it. It’s not my favorite activity, but tech has allowed us all to see much more of what we want. While that is a positive in some ways, it also fights against the local communities that sport helped nurture. If you can watch a college game on TV on Friday night, why go to your local high school’s football game in person? If you can cheer on the Top 10 D1 teams all weekend, why go cheer for that D3 team that is in your town? If you can watch all of LeBron’s games with the Heat, why cheer for your hometown team? Are all these options really a good thing?
Can we say tech has made sport more fair? With instant replay and other advances, I guess so. Can we say tech had made sport more athletic? World records continue to fall, so in some sense, yes. Can we say tech has helped to change and create new communities? It definitely has…
But at the end of the day, I don’t think we can actually say tech has made sport any better. Watching a lacrosse game 80 years ago would still be an enjoyable experience. The NFL, before it became a multi billion dollar industry, was still an important thing in our society. The Olympics, WAY before tech took over sport, were widely celebrated, and now we get tape delayed broadcasts of only select sports with nationalist announcing. Has tech truly helped sport? Or has tech simply made it easier for sport to be monetized?
In my opinion, once you get past all the gadgets and records, it seems to be an awful lot of the latter.
This issue is FAR from settled, and we are insanely curious to know what you guys think about the issue of Technology in Sport! Please, comment below with your thoughts!