SPOTY: Celebrating Athletes or Androids?

This Sunday is the 60th anniversary of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Awards.  It’s a ceremony I watch religiously every year since I was about 8 years old and though it’s not perfect (bless you Lennox Lewis), it does do its best to celebrate homegrown sporting talent.  

A lot has changed in the world of sport since the very first broadcast in 1964 which lasted a mere 45 minutes. 

One of the biggest talking points in the industry has been the advent of new technology, and not just in the way we interact with it today.   Technology has had a fundamental influence in sport, and it’s certainly caused some differences of opinion.

For this blog I’d like to take a look at some of the winners of the Sports Personality of the Year Award, and investigate what technology was available to them compared to the modern era. 

The question is, where is the line? Does technology in sport help the successful achieve, or under achievers succeed? 

An early recipient of the award was Sir Bobby Moore after he captained England to World Cup glory in 1966.  The controversy surrounding Sir Geoff Hurst’s crossbar goal in the final was the start of a campaign for goal line technology that lasted nearly 50 years.  The 2014 Brazilian World Cup will be the first major tournament to include it.

Although the match was obviously broadcast on television, video playbacks have proved inconclusive.  Engineers at Oxford University published a study many years later which said that the ball was 6cm short of crossing the line, but Sir Geoff reckons that goal line technology would prove that his shot definitely cleared it.

Whether or not the technology will improve the game remains to be seen.  It will certainly give the referees more confidence when making their decision which is the whole point, but do we as viewers prefer a bit of the odd unpredictability?

What can’t be argued against is Sir Bobby’s legendary ability to read the game.  But if his ‘on the pitch’ tactics were based just on stats and not on what he saw, would that have affected his superb ability to marshall his troops?

The nation watched in awe as Torvill and Dean skated to Gold Medal victory at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.  They were declared the first ever joint winners of the BBC SPOTY that same year.

For a sport which has a history longer than most (people were taking to the ice in Finland more than 4000 years ago with skates made from horse bones) it’s only recently that technology has started to influence.

As well as in depth analytics, the latest technology to hit the industry concerns their clothing.  Haptic sports garments contain vibrations to help you improve posture, work on your muscles and keep speed up.   But performance level wise?  That came from the two experts.

Sir Ian Botham won SPOTY in 1981 after he led England to a 3-1 victory in that summer’s thrilling Ashes Test.  His comeback century at Headingly remains one of cricket’s greatest turnarounds.

Players in that era didn’t even wear helmets, and now every piece of equipment is streamlined for optimum performance, helmets and all. 

That famous pic of Botham smoking a cigar in the dressing room just shows you how much the sport has moved on (give or take a pedalo or two) in terms of modernisation. 

Today’s cricketers are now fanatical athletes.  With new formats of the game introduced – One Day, 20/20 – nobody can afford to stand at the crease and block every shot (not that Botham was one of these players; he wasn’t.).  Runs need to be gained, and fast. 

Bowling is getting consistently faster which reduces reaction times for the batsmen.  In last week’s Ashes test in Adelaide, Mitchell Johnson gave the England team a very impolite half a second to react to his titanic 93 mph bowling.

But would technology have helped Botham mount his epic comeback?  Analysis may have played a part, but Botham’s struggle was a mental one.  His form had been exceptionally poor leading up to the Headlingly match and he had resigned his captaincy after the first two unsuccessful tests (a loss and a draw), roughly a minute before he would have been fired anyway.  

It was a genuine case of clutching victory from the jaws of defeat (England were 500-1 to win that match).  I’d like to think that facing Mitchell Johnson would have been a walk in the park for Beefy.

For this year’s awards, Andy Murray is probably the biggest dead-cert to win since Sir Bobby Moore lifted the trophy in 1966.  If you went to place a £1 bet on him now, you would get the grand total of 4p back if he’s proclaimed the winner.

Murray is part of the generation that grew up with new equipment and new analytics tools, and he’s certainly known for his strategic placement of the ball.  Yet it’s his extreme hard work ethic and strength that distinguishes his abilities from those at his current level.

This to me is what sport should be – using the tools around you to streamline your performance.  But make it your own performance. 

Don’t let the tools command the style you play; otherwise in 20 years time we could end up with every single sportsperson having exactly the same technique, and instead of celebrating athletes, SPOTY could end up celebrating the equivalent of androids.  

Audiences appreciate not knowing who is going to triumph before the match has begun, so as we so often say to our customers, technology needs to be the tool that enhances, not the driver that dictates.