Golf fans are set once again to enjoy the Ryder Cup, the bi-annual competition that pits the finest golfers from America and Europe against each other in a tense battle of nerve and skill. At some point during the sporting spectacle, viewers are likely to hear one of the commentators say something similar to “The ball of Europe’s Justin Rose lies 120 metres away from the flag, whilst Tiger Woods has a shot 10 metres closer to the hole.” Hearing a statement like that will probably prompt a thought that the commentary team are very well prepared and really know the course well.
I will let you into a little secret: the speaker has not continually walked the course day after day, he is actually reading the information from his screen. How do I know this? Simple! My role during the Rio Olympics was to record the location of every ball that was hit on to the third fairway. Assisted by my fellow volunteer from Italy, one of us would hopefully spot where the ball had gone and the other would swivel a laser on a tripod attached to a tablet, until the ball appeared in the cross-hairs of the laser. The tablet would then give a precise measurement by GPS of where the ball had come to rest.
Golf, in common with many other sports, uses technology to ensure athletes are treated fairly or that competitors and spectators get an enhanced experience. In common with every major sports event, The World Games uses sophisticated technology to enhance and record outstanding performances.
The newest discipline of Air Sports, set to debut at the 2021 edition of The World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, is also one of the most technologically advanced. In Drone Racing, competitors don goggles so that they see what the view of the drone is and use the controls to commence take off and then direct their different coloured multi-rotor drones around a challenging circuit of tight turns, steep climbs and descents and through gates. The challenge is to be both fast and accurate; the slightest misjudgement results in the drone smashing into the edge of the obstacle and plummeting to the ground. Fortunately, as the pilots and spectators are located a safe distance away, no-one is ever injured when such a collision occurs.
The sport presents a thrilling and spectacular high-speed race, which ends after the required number of laps with the winner being the first pilot to guide their drone into the finish line safety net. The discipline is unique in that participants of all ages can compete as equals. Earlier this year, the top three pilots in the world were all teenagers. Korean Joon Weon Choi, Frenchman Thomas Grout and Pole Jan Wielgosz are 16, 17 and 18 respectively. Will the Drone Racing competition in Birmingham see the crowning of the youngest ever champion in the history of The World Games?
Drone Racing is one of several sports in The World Games which feature a quest to be the first athlete to cross the line. However in Finswimming, Orienteering and Inline Speed Skating, the technology is not so immediately apparent. In the aquatic event competitors strap a giant fin over both their legs; watching a race is akin to seeing a school of dolphins surge through the ocean. The fins are made out of carbon fibre reinforced plastic, the same light aerodynamic material that is used in the construction of Formula 1 cars and aeroplane wings. Human legs by themselves are quite inefficient at generating thrust, but once fins are added it gives a 50% boost to speed through the water. Thus Pavel Kobanov of Russia and Petra Senanszky of Hungary, who both broke World Records on their way to winning multiple golds at the 2017 edition of The World Games in Wroclaw, are without question the fastest swimmers on the planet. The fins are not the only advanced technology used in the pool: the starting blocks are electronically linked to the starting pistol and an abnormally quick reaction will trigger a false start. Similarly, it is not until the swimmer makes contact with the pressure pad installed at the end of their lane, that the clock is stopped.
Inline skates are made of the same material as the fins, with the addition of an aluminium base to hold the wheels. Skates are not uniform but come in a variety of wheel sizes, combinations and weights. If athletes choose to race with a heavier skate, they will generate more power along the short straights, but will be hampered going around the frequent bends. To record the time elapsed in the race, a radio frequency identification chip is attached to the skate, which stops as the skater crosses the finish line. A camera with a narrow slit aperture capable of shooting 10,000 frames a second is also positioned at this point to provide the picture for a photo finish.
Orienteering used to be a sport devoid of technology. Runners use a specialised map and they seek to find the fastest way between a number of control points marked on the map, on their route to the finish. They used to demonstrate they had completed the course by manually punching a card at each of the control points. Though navigation is still done in the traditional manner (and definitely no Google Maps or GPS!) the sport has embraced electronic timing solutions. Competitors carry a tiny ‘brick’ - a slim RFID transmitter that slides over a finger - and bring it close to a signal receiving device at each control point. A light-flash from the receiving device signifies they have visited the control and download after the finish provides split times for their run.
Orienteering is one of a number of sports where the competitors do not benefit directly from the advances in technology, but where it is used to assist the judging process. All six of the combat sports present at The World Games will have electronic countdown timers which display how much time is remaining in each round. They are stopped should an injury occur. Referees also have access to video replays to review decisions. These pieces of equipment are also used in the various Gymnastics disciplines, such as Acrobatic, Aerobic and Rhythmic. Typically, judges will enter their score on a tablet, and also write it down on a slip of paper. The slips are then collected and checked to make sure that the numbers have been correctly recorded. Another sport heavily dependent on having a talented scoreboard operator is Powerlifting, where coaches often seek to gain a tactical advantage for their athletes by registering a new weight to be attempted with just seconds to spare. That means the lifter and weights can change with bewildering frequency. Lifts are assessed by three judges who press either a red or white buzzer; to be a good lift, a majority of white lights must be on display.
We have seen the wonderful impact that technology is having on sport, helping to create world-class performances by athletes and assisting spectators to clearly understand what is happening. When you are cheering at a sports event, be it the Ryder Cup or the Birmingham edition of The World Games, give a thought as to how technology is being used to enhance your enjoyment of the proceedings. It is helping competitors go faster and produce more spectacular moments; with all the innovations, Birmingham 2021 promises to be the best edition of The World Games yet.
Brian Salmon for The World Games
The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee. The 11th edition of The World Games will be held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 15-25 July 2021. 3,600 athletes from over 30 sports and 100 countries will take part in the Games.