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Video technology is imperfect but here to stay

Our new sports feature writer Charles Thursby on a tricky subject

The issue of using video and other high-tech gizmos in elite sport – and I don’t have any truck with the reservation ‘if you cannot introduce it comprehensively, you shouldn’t introduce it at all because integrity is affected if different rules apply to different levels of the sport ’ – is my hot topic of the day.

I begin from the proposition that the march of technology is inevitable and not a bad thing.

If supposedly-infallible high-tech methods of establishing exactly what happened are available, why not use them? Nothing is more annoying for anyone involved in a sport (including spectators) than the suspicion, or even conviction, that – in absolute terms – their team has been hard done by, whether just in a specific on-field incident, or ultimately, the outcome of a match.

However, it is not quite as simple as that.

Some sports lend themselves more easily to high-tech ‘decisions’. Tennis, for example. For all I know, it may now have become a generic term, but it seems to me that the introduction of ‘Hawk-eye’ has worked well. Presumably because technically capturing ‘lines’ and angles on a tennis court is relatively easy. Plus, whether by design or otherwise, the tennis authorities just about got their rules right when introducing the technology. Not only is the decision provided by the technology treated as absolute – and comes quickly – but giving each player (or doubles team) the right to make three appeals for a technical review per set against the umpire’s on-court rulings provides a buffer against perceived injustice – and limiting the number to three has the additional effect of reducing spurious or frivolous appeals.

Although it has also adopted the ‘limited review appeal’ system, as yet I feel that cricket hasn’t quite achieved the right balance between technology and human judgement. If an on-field umpire’s decision ‘goes upstairs’, there is a presumption that the umpire is right … unless there is hard evidence to the contrary from camera or ‘Snicko’ sources.

In the recent Ashes test series Down Under, this occasionally seemed (to me, at least) to produce erroneous results.

Maybe, as a general rule, if you’re going to allow video referral at all, its ‘results’ should always be taken as definitive … whichever way they fall.

rugby techRugby union’s new level of video scrutiny – now extended to allow the referee to ask for a review of whole passages of play leading to the scoring of a try, and even suspected incidents of foul play – is proving problematic.

Inevitably, the decisions of the ‘upstairs adjudicator’ are necessarily affected by the number of cameras available, and whether or not these captured the play under scrutiny sufficiently well. Often, the footage seen by the adjudicator – and of course both the television commentators and viewers at home – is inconclusive, and so the outcome is pushed back to the referee’s original decision.

Or even his ‘new’ decision, having now witnessed the same video footage (e.g. on a Big Screen at the ground) as the adjudicator.

I find this last development most unsatisfactory. It seems to me that, once an official has asked for high-tech intervention, he has (or should have) effectively passed responsibility for the decision to the ‘man in the video truck’. Or indeed the technology itself – provided it is up to the task, of course.

Rugby’s big problem at the moment is that, for spectators at the ground, having to wait – for a period of two to five minutes at a time, as the footage is viewed again and again – for the unseen adjudicator to produce his decision on whether a try has been scored, or whether there was possibly a forward pass earlier in the move leading to it (even if this took place forty yards further down the pitch) is extremely frustrating.

Whenever this has happened at games I’ve attended, I’m sure that if the spectators could have voted upon it, they’d far rather have accepted the instant ‘on the spot’ decision of the referee, aided by his touch judges – however imperfect – than go to the technology at all.

There is a separate – and potentially thorny – aspect to the use of technology in making decisions on elite sport.

It’s separate because of the impact of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ referee or umpire decisions, whether or not aided by technology at the time, upon results.

For example, if a soccer player commits a ‘sending off’ offence (e.g. a bad tackle) in the first minute of a game, but manages to escape any punishment for it, is there not a case for officialdom to review a tape of the match and decide, retrospectively, to punish that player or, more importantly, his team?

By which I mean, up to and including altering the result of the game?

And why not?

If Team A ought, in reality, to have played 89 minutes of the game with only ten men because of that bad tackle (or, if you prefer, that ‘bad’ decision on the tackle in question), should not the outcome of the match be revisited … and potentially revised?

soccer techThe danger of introducing such retrospective decisions – whether based upon technology or not – is, of course, that it would ultimately destroy the integrity of the match occasion concerned.

Which soccer fan would thank his lucky stars if he attended a vital Premiership match against a much-hated, local Derby, rival team – and later discovered that the stirring 3-1 victory he witnessed on the day was later adjudged, because of fouls or ‘wrong’ referee decisions on the pitch now ‘corrected’ by technology evidence, to have actually been a 2-2 draw, with the league points then altered to reflect this?

There’d surely be two potential outcomes. Firstly, fans might no longer bother to attend games in the flesh. Why should they, when they could save the costs of travel and the match day experience, watch the game on television at home … and probably get the technologically-backed ‘final’ result more swiftly, if not actually then and there?

Alternatively, secondly, there might be a mass reaction against all technologically-assisted verdicts, with fans demanding that, however imperfect or poor the match day officials are, they’d rather accept their fallible ‘on the day’ decisions, and be done with it.

We’ve come some distance along the route of introducing technology into sport, but there’s plenty of road still to negotiate before we reach Nirvana.







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About Charles Thursby

After a lifetime in sports journalism, Charles Thursby continues his immersion in the world of sport by providing the National Rust with dispatches from all points of the compass. More Posts