Why technology needs kicking out of sport
In the iconic 2005 Ashes series, England were facing defeat at Edgbaston when Steve Harmison bowled a ball that was to change the series and cricket itself. Needing just three runs for victory, the ball clipped the glove of Australian tailender Michael Kasprowicz and was caught by wicketkeeper Geraint Jones to give England a sensational win. But technically it should have been given not out. Kasprowicz’s hand was off the bat.
In a similar scenario in 2013, I was at Trent Bridge watching the final thrilling overs of the first Ashes Test as Australia again chased a one wicket victory. Australia’s Brad Haddin edged Jimmy Anderson through to the wicketkeeper, but this time it was given not out. In the most bizarre ending I have seen live at a major sporting event, English fielders danced for joy as a pixel appeared on the big screen (as the decision was referred to hotspot technology). I was too far away to see the incriminating pixel, but yes, it was over. I shook my head and left. It didn’t seem like victory. It was a farcical conclusion to a great match.
Being against technology in sport is a lonely place to be. Most fans, players, managers, pundits and the media see it as essential to modern sport. I would argue that if the Decision Review System (DRS) been in place for the 2005 Test Match, the series would’ve been all the poorer and a whitewash may have even threatened Test cricket itself. Due to the error, the series and public interest flourished, while the 2013 possibly needed a controversy as it petered out into a mediocre tussle. It’s that slightly illogical and freakish assessment that makes sport so compelling and the role of technology rethinking.
When considering the use of technology we have to look at the essence of sport. It is not a perfect creation. It is a bizarre human combat which ebbs and flows in strange ways. Rules are in place but are routinely broken or manipulated. Despite this, out of this unholy mess of skill, strategy and controversy, we get the sports we love, and crucially, the moments and the highs they provide.
It is the ruining of these moments and emotional highs for which I most detest technology in sport. The raising of the cricket umpire’s finger, the try in rugby, the goal in football and the winning of match point in tennis are there to be savoured. Instead, sports with technology put on a temporary handbrake at the key moment and we head straight to the television screen. Players stand around and await their fate. The crowd is muted. The moment is lost forever. There might be an element of interest watching the replay, but we aren’t watching pure sport.
In sports where the official can call for replays, technology turns them into nervous wrecks. Rugby referees refer clear tries and cricket umpires check for no balls routinely after a wicket falls to cover themselves. It’s excruciating to watch, not exciting. The priority is the avoidance of error, certainly not the drama and celebration.
Goal line technology was greeted with open arms in football and doesn’t interfere too much with the moment of a goal — but in so many other sports which have brought in technology, the line decision proves to be the thin end of the wedge as technology floods into every aspect of the game. In American Football, it is so engrained that every scoring play is now reviewed. If you review a line decision, why not every decision? I can hear certain football managers in my head as I write.
In the 2012 European Championship, Ukraine were denied a goal against England when John Terry cleared the ball from behind the goal line. I pointed out at the time that in the build-up, Ukraine were offside. So in this case, two wrongs had made a right. Perfect? No. Sport? Absolutely. The Ukraine ‘goal’ is an example of how sport is a continuous flow of events, linked to each other. You cannot arbitrarily review some decisions and not others and reach any kind of ‘correct’ conclusion.
Sport is not perfect, it is human and flawed and fans, coaches, media and players need to accept and treasure this far more. Officials too are fallible and when their decisions can be reviewed or “challenged”, it reduces respect and calls all decisions and authority into question. It undermines the game. In fact I have seen batsmen in cricket shake their heads when the review confirms the ball was clipping a bail on a leg before wicket appeal. Why do they do that if technology is answer? You either back it or scrap it.
We know that technology doesn’t eradicate controversy. In 2007 England were denied victory in the Rugby World Cup Final against South Africa by a video replay. The “scorer” Mark Cueto still thinks to this day the try was valid. But controversy will always dog technology. In football it is difficult to know what is actually a dive — it’s a matter of opinion, and in cricket, low catches are impossible to judge even in slow motion. Granted, you get a statistical improvement in decision-making, but with a huge number of consequences to the sport’s ebb and flow. In sports such as tennis and football, you have to accept unnatural, awkward breaks in the action. When and where do you stop an attack in football or a tennis rally? In my opinion, sports should investigate using more officials fully before committing to replays and forever severing the essential uniformity between every level of a sport — from the biggest stadiums to the village green.
Of course, it’s a well-used argument that sport at the highest level isn’t the same as amateur sport. Vast sums of money, huge contracts, television deals and 24-hour coverage are all part of 21st Century sport. But these developments are business developments. Companies choose to invest in sport because it is profitable — or tends to be. The random element of sport is economically dangerous because it can cost millions of pounds. That is why players are insured against injury. Bad decisions that lead to relegation, elimination or defeat are costly and it is obvious why there is an attempt to eradicate them. But should business have this influence? Who does sport exist for? In my opinion a business doesn’t have a divine right to make money out of sport. It exists for all of us and shouldn’t turn into a kind of stockmarket — which football is slipping towards each year. Of course companies can invest into teams and sporting superstars, but they must understand that they may lose — and sometimes unfairly. That’s what fundamentally separates sport from business where risk can be managed far more effectively.
Some of the loudest calls for technology in sport come from the participants themselves. I am just a fan but I understand the dedication and commitment that must go into forging a career at the highest levels of competition. I am very much against drugs and blatant cheating and I can understand how a high-level athlete wants to secure their personal investment against bad decisions. However, I would argue that massive personal risk is what makes sport so dramatic. Years of preparation are so often thrown into one moment that can make or break a career. If that’s denied by a decision, it is immensely tough, but that is the gamble they knowingly take from day one of their career.
The greatest dramas usually involve an element of pain or injustice. It’s hard to watch, but we are still gripped. The ‘Russian’ linesman’s decision in the 1966 Football World Cup Final gave England victory and robbed West Germany (in my opinion!). Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ denied England 20 years later. They are dramatic injustices that are almost beautiful in their imperfection and controversy. They are engrained into football folklore. I would argue that although these players on the losing side were unfairly treated, sport by its nature always offers a fair chance to win and in some cases, redemption too. What is rarely argued is that these games had long passages of play in which the game could’ve been won comprehensively and decisively by either team. Sport provides ample opportunity for brilliance to supersede luck. In summary, you don’t need the Hand of God when you are leading 4–0.
The very best sportsmen and women take luck out of the equation. Their supreme skill ensures records, trophies and titles. Blaming an umpire or referee is an acceptance that the game is too close to call. The elite do not rely on officials to make their name. Pele, Don Bradman, Roger Federer and Usain Bolt are just some of the greats that have never required a replay to attain their historical status. Their ability renders technology meaningless, whether or not they competed in the technology era. They have faced the random nature of sport and beaten it into submission by winning again and again. It is that level of achievement that should inspire all sportsmen, not clinging to a replay or a review. That’s what separates the best from the also-rans, and that’s why we don’t need technology spoiling sport.