Technology in sport: where do we stand?

The use of technology in sport has sparked heated debate, especially in this summer’s Ashes series. Sports editor James Monaghan asks where we stand on the use of technology in sport and whether there is change on the horizon.
Fans have long cried out for technology and the introduction of off-field analysis to aid decision making in sport. All sports are prone to adjudicating mistakes as a result of human error. Sport has benefited from the implementation of extra cameras, officials and other equipment that help make decisions increasingly accurate. However, over recent months the subject of technology in sport has taken on a rather more complex and not necessarily positive edge.

The summer of 2013 has been a triumphant one for English cricket. England has retained the famous urn and currently leads the series against Australia 3-0 with only one test remaining. Unfortunately for the vast majority of fans, pundits and players alike this thoroughly engrossing series has been engulfed in controversy concerning technology. The Umpire Decision Review System (DRS) was first involved in test cricket back in 2009. It was installed to aid umpires and both sides to help make the correct decision as to whether a batsman was out. Since then the system has featured in nearly all test series, with only the Indian Cricket Team and Indian Cricket Board refusing to trust the technology from the outset. This year’s Ashes has seen the credibility of the DRS system questioned and allegations that players were actively attempting to cheat the system in order to prevent it functioning properly. Hotspot, a feature of the DRS system, has come under most scrutiny, with its accuracy level being within the 90-95% margin. It seems that although technology has helped improve decision making, when it is flawed and error-prone, everyone seems to trust the statistically less accurate human option.

Technology we must not forget is rarely cheap.  Another headline story from the summer is the introduction of goal-line technology into the English Premier League. This has been called for mainly on the back of Frank Lampard’s “ghost goal” against Germany back in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. This season all twenty teams are required to pay governing body FIFA £15,000. This has raised the question of whether this money is well spent considering the likelihood of such technology being put to use on a regular basis. Furthermore, if the decision is not guaranteed to be 100% accurate, is the small percentage improvement really worth this extra hassle and controversy?

High profile individuals such as Roger Federer, former umpiring legend Dickie Bird and FIFA President Sepp Blatter have long held strong views against the use of technology in their respective sports. Arguments range from that science in sport “undermines officials’ authority” to the old debate of whether sport benefits from such talking points in pubs. It must also be remembered that with technology we are replacing a system that has the potential for mistakes with systems that are also not guaranteed to be 100% accurate every time. Many question the logic of such a move.

When debating the pros and cons of technology in sport, it is crucial we remember why instruments such as Hawkeye and the Decision Review System have been brought into the games we cherish. Simply put, they were introduced to reduce the number of errors in decision-making. When isolating the issue of whether teams and individuals happen to be misusing this technology, the statistics clearly show that technology has improved umpiring and refereeing decisions in sport. However it has come at a cost, both financially and to the historic authority and respect that for so long has been afforded to officials. It is important that nostalgic arguments about how umpiring and refereeing ‘howlers’ used to make for talking points in pubs across the land must be thrown out the window. Only a minute percentage of fans would prefer talking points such as this as opposed to their team benefiting from the correct decision.

What events this summer have shown is that simply introducing technology in sport is not the end of the issue.

Machines are flawed as much as humans and it is important that sports authorities do not become complacent and always seek to improve the technology. Machines must continue to improve in accuracy so systems can less be abused and that the integrity of officialdom remains intact.

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