How much is too much?

The 'hour-record' exploits of Graeme Obree (above) and Chris Boardman (below) led to a restriction in the use of cycle technology.-GETTY IMAGES The 'hour-record' exploits of Graeme Obree (above) and Chris Boardman (below) led to a restriction in the use of cycle technology.

The questions how much technology should be allowed to influence a sport and when to interfere are ones fans, players and administrators across sports have tried to answer. When does technology alter the fundamental nature of a sport itself, wonders Shreedutta Chidananda.

Recently, Bradley Wiggins broke cycling’s hour record in London, travelling a distance of 54.526km. The hour record is the sport’s most iconic benchmark: how far, is the challenge, can you cycle in one hour?

For all the simplicity of the concept, the journey of the hour record has been a complicated one. In 1993, the Scotsman Graeme Obree, who built his own bike using washing machine parts, developed flat handlebars that allowed him a new riding position — the ‘praying mantis’ style with arms fully tucked in and pulled back and the head far forward. Obree broke the previous record, which had stood for some nine years, only to find his effort bettered six days later by Chris Boardman.

The pair traded records until Boardman, in 1996, set a new mark on a bike developed by Lotus, riding in a position known as the ‘Superman’, again pioneered by Obree. The UCI, cycling’s governing body, was caught in a dilemma: how much of the improvement was down to technology and how much to human effort and where did they have to draw the line?

So in 2000, the UCI decided to restrict the use of technology in hour-record pursuits. It outlawed tri-bars, disc wheels and the ‘praying mantis’ and ‘Superman’ positions, feeling that they gave the rider an unfair aerodynamic advantage. The Hour Record, the UCI decreed, had to be set on a bike similar to the one used by Eddie Merckx in 1972, when he established the then-record of 49.431km.

Records set in the interim, deemed unfair, were instead labelled Best Human Efforts. Last year, the UCI scrapped this distinction to create a single unified record, allowing riders to use modern bikes and existing time-trial technology. “Today there is a general consensus that equipment used in competition must be allowed to benefit from technological evolution where pertinent,” the UCI president Brian Cookson said. “This record will regain its attraction for both the athletes and cycling fans.”

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The questions the UCI publicly wrestled with — how much technology should be allowed to influence cycling and when to interfere — are ones fans, players and administrators across sports have tried to answer. When does technology alter the fundamental nature of a sport itself?

Technology has constantly had an impact on sporting equipment, with manufacturers always looking to provide athletes an advantage (although there isn’t one if everyone is using it). A report commissioned by the MCC last year found that the thickness of cricket bats had increased by 22mm over the previous century, with a 300% increase in edge thickness. In 1999, the USGA imposed limitations on driver heads because they were simply growing too big and increasing driving distances enormously. Putters have had their weight pushed to the corners and the sides to help tap the ball better. In 1997, the ITF reduced the permitted overall length of rackets to 29 inches from 32, alarmed that the game would become all about big serves with advances in racket technology. The quality of footballs has changed, with goalkeepers perennially complaining that it is too easy to achieve curl and dip from free-kicks. FINA banned polyurethane suits with effect from 2010 after a staggering 43 world records fell at the 2009 World Championships in Rome. The return to textile suits was another in a long sequence of flash-points between equipment manufacturers and governing bodies: how much technology is too much?

But, organisers too have been keen to adopt technological innovations that have improved overall standards. The advent of synthetic tracks brought about a big difference in running times, while poolside gutters caused a jump in lap-times in swimming.

Administrators have usually been keen to embrace technology to help in on-field officiation. The need for fully automatic timing was keenly felt in athletics. The 1928 and 1932 Olympic Games featured electrical timing devices, while a photo-timer was in place for the first time in 1948, the beginning of the photo finish. This idea was improved on in 1952, when the Racend Omega Timer, developed by the Swiss watch manufacturer, produced for the judges a completed photograph within 90 seconds of the finish. “This apparatus enables the order in which competitors finished to be established with absolute accuracy even though the human eye could detect no space between them,” the Official Report of the Organizing Committee for the Helsinki Games noted. “The picture taken by the camera resembles an ordinary photograph. Nevertheless, in it each competitor has been individually photographed at the instant he crossed the line.”

The report also lauded the Omega Time Recorder, “the latest achievement in its field, which records times on a paper tape to an accuracy of 1/100 second.” The IAAF, though, had not officially sanctioned the timer, so times for the scoresheets were still taken with watches. Fully automatic timing saw athletes’ times jump, as the reaction time of the judges was now taken out of the equation.

Video replays were first developed to enhance TV viewing experiences but gradually found their way into officiation. The first recorded instance of a video replay during a sports telecast is the annual Army-Navy college football (American) game in 1963, when the broadcaster CBS trialled a new instant-replay system. It worked only towards the end of the game, when Army scored a touchdown and a replay was broadcast. It created confusion among millions of TV viewers, forcing the commentator to clarify that Army had not scored again. It was only a matter of time before sports (with the notable exception of Association football) embraced the benefits of video replays in decision-making. Basketball, field hockey, rugby (league and union) and cricket all use instant replays to help referees make decisions. Today, a fan’s viewing experience is unthinkable without slow-motion replays, especially in cricket where the principal action occurs in such a limited space of time. It has helped fans understand and appreciate the game better.

Mario Goetze's (in white) World Cup-winning goal in 2014. His induction as an 88th minute substitute was influenced by technical data.-

Technologies like Hawk-Eye, Snicko and Hot-Spot have emerged, with their margins of error, and have not just contributed to the TV experience but become a part of the sport itself. At any rate, technology has helped improve the accuracy of on-field decisions by officials. Decisions are now either right or wrong, with reduced room for doubt or debate. To some, this is pleasing progress; to others, like Andy Roddick, not so. “We have replays in tennis — shot spot and the whole deal. As a player I liked it. I never walked off the court wondering if I got screwed out of a call. But the first thing that people talk about when they talk about tennis is that: ‘I remember, I grew up with McEnroe and Connors when they had arguments and stuff.’ It has taken arguing out of tennis and it has hurt our sport. We don’t have a home team so we need individual personalities and it has hurt our sport,” he said on American TV.

Technology has helped push physical boundaries and while there is caution to be exercised here — for the very fabric of a sport cannot be diluted — scientific progress is never a bad thing. In football today, coaches and managers swear by video analytics. The English company ProZone offered its performance analysis services, through optical player tracking, to the football world in 1998. Only one team signed up in the first year — Derby County. Today, ProZone works with over 300 clubs and organisations worldwide.

A story emerged in the aftermath of Germany’s 2014 FIFA World Cup win that Mario Goetze’s introduction as an 88th minute substitute in the final was in part influenced by technology. Darcy Norman, one the German national team’s performance analysts, revealed that a piece of wearable technology that measured heart-rate, speed, distance and durability had been used in training throughout.

The numbers, it seems, suggested that of the players on the bench, Goetze consistently performed the best in five-on-five matches. With ball control in tight spaces important, Joachim Loew threw on the little attacker, who scored a stunning goal in extra-time. German football, it can be safely said, will have few arguments against technology.