How technology has changed the way we experience sport

The earliest sports did not take place in the way we think of them today. In the original, Ancient Greek Olympics, athletes competed naked. In other sporting tournaments, people simply wore what they wore every day. Equipment started out with sticks, pieces of rope and animal skin or inflated pig bladder balls, only gradually evolving into standardized pieces of kit. Today, it’s difficult to think about sport without thinking about the clothes and the equipment that have become key to safety and success. The early days of footballers simply running at each other and frequently breaking bones have given way to a game where nobody even practices without safety equipment. Innovations in swimming costume design come under review to make sure the advantages they provide are fair. But what has all this done to the way we play?

Just like any other area of life, modern sport is a product of technological evolution. Looking at the way it has developed over the past century provides a fresh perspective on our relationship to sport and what we seek from it.

Measuring performance

Throughout most of the history of sport, times were assessed simply by observation and communicated by rumor. It wasn’t until the late 18th Century that attempts were made to create a device that could accurately measure times – the predecessor of the modern stopwatch – and records began to be kept, changing the way athletes thought about their performance. Now there are devices like Xmetrics, which strap onto your head when you’re swimming and measure details like the time between your strokes; and bike computers that can tell you how efficiently you’ve cycled and how many calories you’ve burned. This kind of technology makes it easier for everyone to get the kind of fine-tuned support previously only available through dedicated trainers.

Enhancing performance

As well as keeping us safe, leveling the playing field and helping to monitor performance, sports technology can help us to be better at sport itself. This is particularly good news for disabled athletes, who now have the potential to benefit from a wide range of specialized equipment and artificial limbs designed to bring out the very best in their abilities. Elsewhere, improvements in boot design are giving soccer players a much better grip on the pitch, letting them run and maneuver at their very best regardless of the weather conditions; and carbon fiber tennis rackets have a lot more resilience in proportion to their weight, so players can use them to hit balls with more force.

Benefits for everyone

Advances made in sports used to be just for professional sportspeople, but now they’re becoming available to everyone. Those advances made in disability sports prostheses are helping disabled people to do more in their day-to-day lives, while every advance in sports footwear and clothing gradually makes its way into the shopping mall. Sports technology has reached a point where it’s contributing to other areas of science, as with SABEL Sense, a system using accelerometers as an alternative to GPS that was developed for athletes but has many possible applications.

Changing sporting behavior

The increasing availability of equipment that allows people to measure their own performance and compete against themselves has contributed to changes in sporting behavior. Not many decades ago, sport was something people participated in with their families or in local clubs. School sports are as popular as ever, but outside that environment, sport has increasingly become something we do by ourselves – running, cycling, working out in the gym or swimming in the local pool. This has corresponded with a move away from focusing on what elite athletes can do, to focusing on what ordinary people can do, so people are now less likely to strive to be the best – recognizing that there’s only so much room at the top – and instead we strive to be our best. At the same time, sport has become less about competition and more about health and well-being. People are much more aware of how it can help them to develop and care for their bodies over the long term.

Popular sports technologies

  • Fitbit – the most popular piece of wearable sports tech in 2015, Fitbit is now building in further enhancements to improve the way it monitors things like stress and blood pressure, helping people to monitor how their bodies respond to all sorts or sports and establish just the right pace needed to boost fitness without risking harm.

  • Compression clothing – well-designed compression wear, like those on Tommy Copper’s online store, helps you get maximum power from your muscles and can improve your performance so that your body improves more quickly. It’s also useful for providing support when a muscle is injured, helping you to get back into your sport more quickly with less risk of compounding the damage.

  • Strava Cycling – fitness apps are a practical way to bring sports technology into your life without accumulating extra devices. This one is a great example, using the Internet to learn about your chosen routes, give you useful advice and let you compare your performance with those of others so you can measure your abilities against the terrain.

  • TruSwing Golf Sensor – one of a range of new golf gadgets once used by the pros and now available to amateur players, the TruSwing clips onto a club to measure details like angle and speed of swing, helping you match up your perception of your actions with what actually happened, so that you can refine your technique.

  • Hoverboard – some advances have led to the development of entirely new sports. Riding a hoverboard may use many of the same skills as riding a skateboard, but it also challenges the body in new ways and opens up new possibilities for competition and casual play. Hoverboards are attracting people who have never seriously engaged with sport before.

With all these technologies and more now available to enhance your sporting experience, there have never been more options making fitness fun. Sport has gone from being a weekend social activity to being part of day-to-day life, and we are all better off as a result.