Old Sports, New Technology

In sports, TV on 08/09/2012 at 14:55

As the 2012 Olympics draw to a close, we can look back at some special moments: Michael Phelps becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time; Wimbledon’s favorite son Andy Murray finally winning a title at the All England club; not to mention dozens of tiebreaks, overtimes and single arrow shoot offs. Amid the triumphs and tragedies, there’s been plenty of controversy.

Korea's Shin got the shaft

But when half of the Women’s Doubles quarterfinal field in badminton was disqualified for tanking, the scandal overshadowed a greater injustice, one that begs the question of what we as people enjoy about sports, and how our increasingly technological world will impact that.

What you see here is the closing second(s) of the semi-final of women’s epee, one of the fencing events in London. Shin A-lam of Korea took on Germany’s Britta Heidemann, and under the “priority” rule, a 5-5 tie in Extra Time would have been good enough for the 25 year old Korean to advance to the gold medal match. With only a second on the clock, this seemed a lock. It looked even better after the combatants scored a double-touch, shaving off vital tenths-of-a-second in favor of Shin.

With under a second to go the fencers line up, the whistle is blown, Heidemann stretches and strikes her opponent in a move that takes well over a second, and shrieks in ecstasy. She’s won the match and will fight for gold.

Wait, what?

Shin A-lam balled her eyes out, understandably, but more importantly refused to leave the piste. It looked like a temper tantrum to the crowd, but fencing rules state that leaving the piste means both competitors submit to the ruling, and Shin certainly did not.

Shin’s coach berates the judges for a bit, then races around the room looking for the paperwork and $300 required to appeal a judge’s ruling (US gymnast Aly Raisman snagged a bronze through a similar $300 appeal later in the week, while the home crowd was gutted to see their Men’s Gymnastics team relinquish a bronze medal they thought they’d won before Japan reviewed it).

A little pricy, but nothing more than a speed bump, an onlooker might deduce: Heidemann took over 3 seconds of play-time to score her last two hits, despite having just over 1 second to do so. A simple video review would set things straight, right? Wrong again. Nearly an hour and a half passed before the decision was handed down—Shin weeping on the piste the entire time—yielding the same results.

So in the year 2012, with multiple HD angles, slow motion, freeze-frame replays…it took an hour and a half for the judges to make the same, wildly incorrect call? The Olympic committee have offered only that both fencers must fight until the match has officially ended—and true enough, Shin should have been on her toes.

But the point is: do we really buy that crap anymore? That was old sports. Umpires calling Balls Strikes, coaches screaming in their face, ejecting those coaches. John McEnroe busting a capillary shouting “CHALK FLEW UP.”

This is new technology. There is a little box in the corner of your TV that tells you exactly where each pitch crossed the plate, Ball or Strike, plain as day. Tennis can show where every ball lands on court to a millimeter of accuracy.

And yet baseball does not make use of the pitch-spotting technology, and along with the NFL and NBA, very rarely turns to video replay. Tennis allots their players only 3 challengers per set, despite the accuracy and the process taking only a few seconds.

Human drama is part of the attraction of live sports. Everyone has a call they’ll forever rue on behalf of their favorite player, hides a smile thinking about the bad call that gifted their team the championship. But where is the line draw? Why doesn’t Hawk Eye call the match, get every single call correct every time? Why can’t Tim Welke raise his eyes to the jumbo-tron, or go on Instagram, or hop on YouTube and check real quick that’s he’s made one of the biggest blunders in recent sports memory, and simply overturn the call?

Tradition, mostly. The same way your grandparents get angry when you say “e-mail” or “tweet,” the higher ups of the various leagues, while changing their Depends, quiver at the mention of “digital line calling” and “instant video replay.” Baseball is baseball, home runs are home runs and umpires are umpires. You trust them to make the right calls, the same way you trust that they won’t always be right.

It’s a tough line to call. After all, if robots start calling our sports, soon enough they’ll be clamoring to play, right? John Isner has a lazer-like serve, but robots have real lazers.

Yesterday in a women’s volleyball match between Brazil and Serbia, Brazil spiked a ball that was so clearly in it didn’t even graze the boundary line. Inches of red paint separated the ball and the white boundary line (which itself is IN play). The Brazilians went nuts, while the audience was treated to a slow-mo replay less than ten seconds later. “No video replay in volleyball,” the commentator quickly informs us.

In 2004 Serena Williams was assaulted by a barrage of bad calls, while viewers at home observed precisely how badly she was getting screwed. This match was the big reason for Hawk Eye being embraced in tennis, but umpires are still barred from using the technology, meaning a player out of challenges might as well be using a wood racket.


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