When machines decide instead of humans...

Manchester City fans during a match against Tottenham Hotspur on 19 January 2023. Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

In tennis, technology is taking jobs away from referees. In football, it increases them.

The officials, smartly dressed in navy blue jackets and grey trousers, with white hats atop their heads sit in one line above the finish line with stopwatches in their hands. This image illustrates the state of technology in sports back in the 1970s.

Males filled up the majority of seats at prestigious events held in stadiums. The problem was that they were not there as spectators. They performed official jobs like keeping track of the runners' times and assigning the winners.

In effect, it was up to them to decide who would be crowned champion and who would take up other places on the podium. This was not always easy, especially in sprint runs when a fraction of a second could mean the difference between a gold or a silver medal.

The stopwatch was manually started with the push of a button at the sound of the starter pistol. Even when the refs had 20/20 hearing, there was always a delay of about 0.25 seconds. For this reason, results measured by hand were unlikely to be precise. And they were frequently not.

For example, in the 1960 Olympics, Armin Hary set a world record of 10 seconds for the 100-meter sprint. His time would have been 0.25 seconds slower if a more accurate electronic measurement had been used. But such was the technological state of the time. And the troubles did not end there.

The officials’ eyes were part of the basic toolkit at the time. The starter ruled on who had committed a false start and who had not. Meanwhile, the officials at the finish line were in a similar situation. Picking out the winner was apparently the easiest part, although not always. Mistakes still happened a lot in athletics, despite the fact that there was one referee for each competitor.

Needless to say, athletes’ careers depended on the verdict of the officials. Not only was their place in the rankings on the line, but so was their funding. And this was not only a matter of becoming rich from the sponsorships. In some cases, it also meant whether those athletes would be able to put food on their tables. Because in many sports, especially athletics, competitors who failed to take part in the top events did not even get paid by the club.

In short, the lack of progress in sports technology led to worse results and careers, and not always in a fair way. The times we live in are a period of accelerated growth, or rather a technological revolution, both in the world and in sports. Is this revolution somehow radically transforming sport?

The cushy life of a modern-day referee

In modern athletic stadiums, electronics rule the day. At least at major international events. It rules the officials’ verdicts because humans are completely dependent on it for all necessary measurements.

There are sensors in the starting blocks that measure 4,000 times per second how hard someone steps on them and sends that information to the computers of the officials. The permitted reaction time after a shot is 100 milliseconds.

Read the rest in TVP Weekly.