How hi-tech raises the sports bar

Technology is now integral to sport: is used in training, diet, recovery, clothes, shoes and in every sphere of the modern sporting world.


World chess champion Magnus Carlsen uses specialised chess computers for his training. Photo: AFP
World chess champion Magnus Carlsen uses specialised chess computers for his training. Photo: AFP

Ahead of his World Chess Championship (11-30 November) match against challenger Sergey Karjakin in November, defending champion Magnus Carlsen contacted Microsoft Corp. It’s not that he wanted ‘Office’ installed on his laptop, but he was simply seeking help to prevent hacking.

Carlsen, who relies heavily on specialised chess computers for his preparation, was worried that Russian hackers would gain access to his tactics which, in turn, could help Crimean-born Karjakin, reported The Indian Express. His fears stemmed from precedence: Russia-based hackers had broken into the World Anti-Doping Agency’s website sometime back.

Technology is now integral to sport—and not just in malpractices like the one cited above (Carlsen retained his title). Technology is used in training, diet, recovery, clothes, shoes and in every sphere of the modern sporting world. In speed skating, an academic paper World Records: How much athlete? How much technology? suggests that half of the progress of world records has been due to changes in technology—and the other half from real athletic improvement.

Three key areas have been consistently in prominence: first, the use of technology in officiating or umpiring; second, in data analysis; and third, in safety. All three play a role in driving sporting excellence and, more importantly, particularly in the world of sport, driving fans’ experience.

It can be argued that too much reliance on science or numbers removes the element of instinct from sport—one which allows M.S. Dhoni to promote himself in a World Cup cricket final or tells Stan Wawrinka to hit that backhand in the 2015 French Open tennis final. But when millimetres and fractions of seconds decide the difference between winner and runner-up, any help becomes welcome in the high intensity, competitive world of modern sport.

Here’s a look at how technology makes a mark in these three facets of sport.

Not just line calls

In the first Test match against England in November, India were 208-1 with Cheteshwar Pujara batting on 86 when a ball bowled by Zafar Ansari hit the batsman on his leg. The umpire gave him out but Pujara, playing at home in Rajkot, asked for a review.

The reconsideration decided the ball was going over the stumps and the umpire’s decision was revised. As the crowd roared, Pujara’s wife did a little jig in the stands and two men sitting across Pujara’s father shook hands, the commentator paid due credit: “Thank you ICC and DRS.”

The Board of Control for Cricket in India has for long opposed the decision review system (DRS), citing inaccuracies in its methodology, but agreed to it on a trial basis for the five-Test series. But if a replay benefited Pujara (he went on to score a century in the first innings) it has benefited several others, too.

Video replays have been used in many sports besides cricket—tennis, rugby, baseball and basketball, to name a few—for different purposes. In basketball, it can be used to find out if the shot was released before the final buzzer, in baseball to handle boundary calls and in tennis/badminton whether the ball/shuttle landed inside or outside the lines.

British firm Hawk-Eye, which has developed systems for many sports, uses 6-7 cameras to record the ball’s trajectory in tennis and puts together a three-dimensional image for officials to decide if the ball is in.

Football’s governing body FIFA tried GoalControl technology during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The German-produced tech used 14 high-speed cameras and sensors mounted around the stadium—seven pointed at each goal—to detect whether the ball has crossed the goal line or not. They could also combine their data into a three-dimensional format and send visual or vibration signals to the referee’s watch.

A British firm Small Fry developed shin guards equipped with accelerometers and magnetic sensors that could reduce the number of dives in a football match. This could rob the sleep of players such as Chelsea’s Diego Costa.

The Guardian reported other similar tools sometime back: Cairos Technologies and Adidas producing a system that uses a magnetic field to track the ball using a sensor embedded inside the ball, which detects the magnetic field produced by thin wires underneath the penalty box. Goalminder technology uses high-speed cameras built into the goal posts and crossbar to deliver visual evidence; GoalRef uses a magnetic field-based technology, too, but here the goal frame detects the passing of the ball.

The International Football Association Board (IFAB) also approved testing of video technology to aid match officials (a final decision is to be taken later).

The trials will allow referees to call on video assistance to help determine four categories of game-changing moments: goals scored, red cards, penalties and mistaken identity, AFP reported in March.

In international sport, the stakes are very high. For instance, in the Olympics that are held once in four years, an athlete may not get a second shot at it since sporting careers tend to be brief, making margins of errors career-defining.

So when Bahamas’ Shaunae Miller dived—or fell as some have argued—at the end of the women’s 400-metre race at the Rio Olympic Games in August, she lay on the track breathless for some time, as the result of the race remained unclear. It emerged later that she had beaten the favourite, Allyson Felix of the USA, to win the gold medal.

The margin of victory: 0.07 seconds.

The decision made by: Technology.

Numbers tell how good you are

One of the best examples of using data comes from baseball, in which Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane partnered a Yale graduate in crunching numbers and building a low-budget team of winners—immortalized in the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and a Hollywood movie. That was over a decade ago.

Since then, innovations like Major League Baseball’s Statcast and the National Basketball Association’s SportVU systems—a system of six cameras in each arena that measures the movements of the ball and every player on the court, generating an entire database of performance information—have leveraged data to assist coaches and players. Teams in the National Basketball Association, such as the San Antonio Spurs, have similarly used Big Data sets to help owners and coaches recruit players and execute game plans, according to the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

A hand-held device called Skulpt helps improve training—its 12 sensors, when pressed against the skin, create electric current that measures the percentage of muscle fibre versus fat stored inside the muscle.

EliteForm is a technology that tracks and analyses an athlete’s movements while training and during games, the CNN listed in February.

Niall Clark, who is the head of performance at Sachin Tendulkar co-owned Kerala Blasters, the football team in the Indian Super League, says they rely heavily on heart rate monitors and GPS. The players are given intense amount of work on certain days so they can hit specific heart rate zones and 60-70% of their individual heart rate for a maximum of 20 minutes—for recovery of homeostasis balance. GPS helps find out how much distance a player has covered, sprints he has made, accelerations and deceleration—data that help find out how the hamstring is working.

GPS has also helped find that midfielders, for example, travel farther but accelerated less than players in other positions. “If there is a big jump from one to other morning in the resting heart rate, we know something is wrong. Saliva helps with hormone levels, blood levels, to gauge player fitness. We haven’t had any muscle injuries in the season; contact injuries—you cannot do anything about,” says Clark.

In certain other places, filming an athlete to gauge form and errors is passé now. Newer three-dimensional motion capture technology—like the Xbox Kinect systems—and biometric feedback on heart and respiratory rates, can give far more information, SportTechie reported.

Another device, Motionize, that sends real-time information directly to an app, is a virtual coach for canoeists and kayakers. It uses two sensors, one on the boat and one on the paddle, and displays a complete view of the athlete’s movements on the cellphone screen.

Cricket, a sport heavily influenced by statistics and data—for both performers and fans—is not far behind either. Firms like CricHQ—which has the expertise of former New Zealand cricketers Stephen Fleming and Brendon McCullum—Cricket 21 and SportsMechanics, a sports analytics firm, crunch numbers for teams.

CricHQ, which is working in conjunction with Callaghan Innovation to build the “world’s best match projection engine”, claims to be able to predict with a confidence interval of approximately 75% the result of any fixture in the IPL (using previous IPL data). Confidence interval is a range in which a measurement or trial falls corresponding to a given probability. “We are looking to expose this engine for the 2017 IPL and hope to provide a unique experience for customers and consumers alike,” says David Robertson, the company’s chief data officer.

Wear it, bear it for safety

In November 2014, Australian cricketer Phil Hughes was struck by a ball on the back of his neck while batting during a first-class game. He collapsed on the pitch and died two days later. But strange as that incident may seem, it was not isolated.

In recent times, at least three other people have succumbed to injuries on the cricket field: in November the same year, an Israeli umpire died after being struck on the jaw by a ball; in April 2015 a 20-year-old club cricketer died after colliding with another player in Kolkata and in July, another in England died after being struck on the chest while batting.

International cricketers like Joe Root, Craig Kieswetter and Stuart Broad have suffered impact injuries in recent times, highlighting the need for on-field safety. During the same Rajkot Test, Pujara was struck thrice on his helmet.

The ill-effect of force is not unique—author Jeanne Marie Laskas wrote about a pathologist, Dr Bennet Omalu, who discovered that American footballers could suffer from mental deterioration caused by blows to the head. It was made into a movie last year, Concussion.

NFL moved on to smart helmets, which have sensor and magnet technology—sensors detect and disperse the force of collisions, while the magnet will help by spreading and absorbing the force.

Since the Hughes incident and even before that, cricket has taken corrective measures, as the International Cricket Council brought in new regulations. Helmets now have a stem guard, made of thermoplastic polyurethane, to shield the back of the head and neck. It is a clip-on attachment to the side of the grille, with enhanced impact absorption, reported espncricinfo.com early this year.

Over the years, other sports have modified their methods for the sake of safer practices. For example, the centre of gravity of javelins was changed to ensure they remained within existing boundaries. Amateur boxers have had to wear headgears for protection.

Physiotherapist John Gloster explains how biomechanical analysis is important to correct bowling action, thereby preventing injuries. “With super slow-motion, one can analyse the forces acting on the spine. Biomechanical analysis, motion analysis systems, data analysis, running analysis… all of them allow to make athletes more efficient,” says Gloster, who has worked with the Indian cricket team in the past and is currently the sports technical advisor for KOOH, a sports education and technology company.

He also stresses the importance of sleep as a predictor and preventer of injuries. He can monitor the profile of the athlete, over the week, to predict injury. Gloster uses a hand-held dynamometer to measure muscle force and ensure the athlete has the right amount in balance with other muscles. Gloster and KOOH also work with children on fitness. This includes, as he mentions with irony, trying to encourage the child away from gadgets and technology and onto the sporting field.

More From Livemint