As in most area of human life, technology has had major influences in athletics, ranging from the airplanes that allow teams to compete even though they are very long distances apart, new medical procedures for injuries, and improved shoes, rackets, safety and training equipment, etc. And, of course, the sophisticated devices used to make games available over such media channels as TV and the internet and allowing the observer to witness the details of the game perhaps better than those in the stadium (slow motion re-plays, multiple camera positions, etc). And uniform styles have also changed a bit. The photo at the left is me 60 ears ago attired in the cool basketball uniform of those days. Notice short pants and less colorful shoes . But although no longer worn much in basketball games, Converse’s Chuck Taylor white high-tops are still alive and well.
But technology has had less effect on the action on the field or court, with the exception of annoying things such as advertisement time-outs. Tradition and the human element hold center stage. This is good, because after all, athletics is supposed to be a contest between humans. Apparently early Greek Olympians competed in the nude, to demonstrate that they were using nothing but their bodies. Modern athletes obviously wear clothes, but are still limited in the type of tools or devices they can use.
Of course, the games themselves have changed over time. Once while my wife and I were in Italy, we attended a re-enactment of Calcio Storico, a game introduced in the 15th century and described here. It is played on a large field with goals at each end, and each team intends to get the ball into the other team’s goal. But there are 27 people on each team, and no rules to speak of, so one method of gaining an advantage is to disable the people on the other team. It is thought by many to be the parent of modern soccer, and if so, at least soccer has become more humane on the field through paring the team size and putting many more rules in place. Of course it has perhaps become more violent in the stands. But purists would enjoy the old game as well as the new ones —a field, people, a ball, and goal posts.
Technology seldom shows up on the sport page, but the first page of the sport section in the Sunday New York Times of the Sunday May 1 issue contains a story on the automatic home plate “umpire” developed by an engineering team from General Electric in the 1950.s, and championed by Branch Rickey, a man noted for innovations in the sport. The story is here.
The year 1950 was a bit early, both technically and emotionally, for this innovation. Rickey was perhaps more interested in it as a teaching tool than a replacement for the human umpire, but it was not to happen. All of us have disagreed from time to time with the umpire, as have players, coaches, and the broadcast people, but it is probably that this human element, as well as the apparent danger to the umpire exposed to foul balls, the swing of the bat, and attack from angry players and fans, adds to the pleasure of the game. Certainly modern technology, which allows observation of everything from the speed of the pitch to spin rate, the exit velocity of a home run, and the time between bat contact and the first step of the fielder, could call balls and strikes —and I can see that happening some day, much as the video-based play reviews by the referees in football, although the tradition of arguing with and booing the umpire is integral to baseball.
But it is interesting that sports do not display more use of technology, especially in this day and age, and especially for amateurs. I am not particularly interested in golf. I do like to hike through attractive scenery, but don’t particularly want to cruise through it in a golf cart being frustrated because I screwed up the previous hole. And it is an expensive past time in both time and money. But I might be more tempted if the restrictions on the equipment were not so restrictive. An example of some of the rules on golf clubs and balls can be seen here. I think it might be interesting to see what non-pro golfers might come up with if they would relax such things a bit. I might get much more interested in the game if I could invent and use clubs, rackets and balls of my own design with fewer restrictions (no compressed air or chemical propellants). Of course, I am an engineer.
And I was watching some young kids playing basketball on a court at a school recently. They were quibbling about the score and one side was losing terribly and not having much fun. I was thinking how easy it would be not only to build in an automatic score keeping system on the court , but also to mechanize the hoops so that the basket for the team with the higher score would become smaller, move higher, or both during the game. A real-time robotic equivalent of the handicap in golf!
I am not seriously proposing this, since I used to play basketball and consider it a sacred game, but it is interesting to think about such things. After all, even with roughly the same equipment the game itself has changed since I played—increased physical contact, dunking the ball and happily hanging on the hoop, the three point shot, the giant center, etc. How about some breaks for average sized people?
Of course, technology occasionally sneaks in when not allowed, and is soon discovered and the perpetrator punished. The article here concerns a bicycle racer found to be using a bicycle using an electric motor. Can you believe these bicycle racers?