Technology and sport: healthy co-existance

Horse racing was perhaps the first to embrace advancing technology to prevent or settle disputes, the earliest known instance of a race result being decided by a photofinish camera in New Jersey in 1888.


It is believed that that the Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912 saw the use of the photofinish camera for the first time but it was in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles 20 years later that the photofinish cameras provided not just the image of the runners but also the chronograph. The Two Eyes Camera, as the device invented by Gustavus T. Kirby of Kodak-Bell Lab’s was known, made its appearance. It had, on the same image, one eye on the finish and the other on a digital chronograph. This camera recorded at a rate of 128 images per second and allowed hundredths of a second to be read with ease.

In the final of the 100m sprint in Los Angeles, Tolan and Metcalfe reached the finish line together but Tolan was declared the winner because his torso crossed the line completely before that of Metcalfe, as the camera film showed.

The Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 marked the first time that technicians placed pressure detectors in the starting blocks on the track. At the start of an event, each athlete’s reaction time is measured using starting blocks mounted on a sliding rail. These blocks are sensitive to the thrust generated by the sprinters’ legs and they connect to a second block when each contestant makes the first thrust. This information is recorded in real time.


It was in India’s Test against South Africa in Durban in 1992 that Test cricket saw the introduction of the TV umpires to judge line decisions. Sachin Tendulkar became the first cricketer to be ruled out by a decision of the TV umpire.

In the 1999 World Cup in England, South African captain Hansie Cronje and coach Bob Woolmer raked up controversy as the two were in radio contact through the Indian innings in the opening game at Hove.

In the 2002 ICC Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka, when extended use of technology to assist the on-field umpires was made available, Pakistan’s Shoaib Malik became the first batsman to be ruled out leg before after the umpire Daryl Harper sought help from his colleague in the stands Rudi Koertzen.


At the 1996 Olympic Games in Altanta, the first radio transponders were fitted at the cycling and marathon events. Today it is this technology together with computers, GPS systems and photo-finish techniques that have made the timing accuracy a reality.


Wireless communication among the umpires and the technical bench has been in use for a whole not. It was at the FIH World Cup for women at Perth in Australia in 2002 that the TV umpire was used on an experimental basis for the first time. FIH was encouraged to use the technology for the first time in the Champions Trophy in Amstelveen the following year and in the World Cup for men in 2006. In the recent times, teams have been allowed referrals as well.


In 1980, Wimbledon used Cyclops to help determine if a serve is in or out. The Hawk-Eye technology made it appearance at the US Open in Flushing Meadow in 2005.


Automatic timing   in water was  a challenge. Semi-automatic timing was introduced at the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956. The final of the men’s 100m freestyle at the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960 caused this method to be abandoned since the result was determined by the judges’ subjectivity. They had to make contact plates with a large surface, sensitive to the swimmers’ touch but insensitive to waves, watertight, robust and one centimetre thick. Mobile plates were installed the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964 but there was a dispute over third place in the men’s 100m freestyle final.

Dutchman Maus Gastonides developed a pneumatic contact plate which was tested at the European championships in 1966 and in the pre-Olympic competition in Mexico City that year. Omega then constructed an electric pressure plate, insensitive to the atmospheric environment and used it at the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg in 1967. Thanks to this innovation, the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968 were the first to be officially automatically timed. Since the 70s, starting platforms with electric contacts have been in use.