An excellent introduction to the multifaceted issues at the intersection of sports and technology

Anna Åberg
Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg

Anne Tjønndal
174 sidor, hft
Bergen: Fagbokforlaget 2023
ISBN 978-82-450-3789-0

Sports and technology have been deeply intertwined throughout history, a fact that is hardly surprising. In contemporary discussions, the impact of technology on sports is often emphasized, whether it’s the introduction of new performance-enhancing gear or referee functions such as VAR (Video Assistant Referee) in soccer. These debates typically mirror broader discussions about the role of technology in our lives, oscillating between enthusiasm and skepticism. Both sides often fall into the trap of technological determinism, the belief that technology possesses its own will or is so influential that we cannot halt its relentless progression. Meanwhile, within science and technology studies, as well as sports studies, both technology and sports are considered social phenomena, needing to be considered in contexts such as power hierarchies, cultures, economic and organizational systems, and environments. This becomes evident when we move beyond simplistic debates about whether tech is a threat or a boon, to questions about how sports and technology are entangled, and whether technology will alter the fundamental values of sports, including notions of sportsmanship, the boundaries of human performance, concepts of justice, and the true purpose of sports. In order to contribute to a nuanced discussion regarding the role of technology in sports as well as in society as a whole, it is necessary to critically consider all of these social contexts. This is one of the tasks that Anne Tjønndal undertakes in her book Idrettsteknologi.

The book delves into the multifaceted impact of technology on various aspects of sports, including performance, athlete-fan relationships, refereeing, emerging sports, sports regulations, and health. This ambition is commendable, but it proves challenging within the confines of a relatively short book. While Tjønndal handles this task competently, some topics are superficially explored, and certain other discussions become repetitive due to the recurrent challenges posed by new technology and its relationship with bodies, power, and existing sports regulations, especially in terms of personal integrity.

To avoid succumbing to ideas of technological determinism, which in reality means accepting that only those actors who have the power and resources to gain from a certain technological development will be the ones leading the way, we need to create new visions about what we want the future of sports to look like.

The main audience of the book is bachelor- and master students in sports studies, as well as other related subjects. Nevertheless, Tjønndal’s professed aim of inspiring reflection and discussion about the potential and drawbacks of sports technologies makes it appealing to a broader readership seeking to deepen their understanding of the intricate relationship between sports and technology. Despite being tailored for a Norwegian audience and predominantly featuring Norwegian examples, the book is suitable for readers in other countries, and contains international examples as well.

The first chapter introduces the topic, offering historical examples of how technology has revolutionized sports and providing definitions of technology, sports, and sports technologies (a topic that could itself fill a book). In each of the subsequent seven chapters, Tjønndal delves into specific aspects of sports technology, providing clear descriptions and discussing their promises and pitfalls. She is careful about categorizing different kinds of sports, technologies and phenomena, using illustrations to assure that the reader has a clear view of what is being discussed.

Chapter two explores e-sports, categorizing different types, outlining their history, and analyzing their current status in Norway. It also covers the current debate on the place of e-sport in relation to traditional sports organizations, and the possibilities and challenges that e-sports face in gaining acceptance as a legitimate sport. What will e-sport gain or loose from becoming a sport as any other?

Chapter three focuses on virtual reality technology and its uses in sports. This includes uses for athlete and referee training, for recreational sports, and fan engagement in social media. Tjønndal categorizes different types of VR technologies, and provides numerous examples from sports practice, showing challenges regarding integrity and surveillance issues, which is a topic that returns in later chapters, as well as sustainability due to the amount of resources needed to keep these systems running. This is an important point, in particular regarding digital systems, since the material foundations of those systems are often ignored or obfuscated. This issue would have been worth returning to in later chapters as well.

Video technology, artificial intelligence and their impact on refereeing is the topic of chapter four. It discusses the effect of such technologies for referees as well as for sports in general, and personal integrity is central here as well. Tjønndal spends some time on how technology changes the roles and activities of referees, and their potential implications for future recruitment. While the previous chapters are mainly descriptive, this chapter opens up to some more analytical questions, including of the power structures that referees find themselves in, as well as the economic and knowledge resources needed to implement new technologies.

Video assistant referee system utilized in a match in Krakow, Poland in 2020, between Cracovia Krakow and Lech Poznan . (Shutterstock/Marcin Kadziolka)

Issues of integrity and data use continue to be up front in chapter 5, where wearables and surveillance are discussed. While the earlier chapters touched upon both the good and the bad of technology development in sports, in this chapter Tjønndal offers more critical analyses delving into the conservative nature of technology (if everybody trains in the same way, and one and the same solution to performance is used by all athletes, then how will sports evolve?), the presumed neutrality of technological solutions (how they affect people are related to the power structures they have to relate to), as well as the misalignment between tech design and user needs. Some of these issues could have been touched upon before, considering their centrality for the discussion on technological development in general, including in sports.

The possible conserving character of technology is a continued concern in chapter six, which focuses on technology and performance in professional sports. The chapter focuses of the relation between technology and performance, highlighting that while technology has led to heightened performances, currently it is also responsible for the stagnation of top performances in many sports over time. Tjønndal also introduces parasports to discuss the nuances of technology use in sports, including considerations of when a technology should be judged as justified or unjustified aid, again raising questions about the neutrality of technology and engaging with issues of ethics and changing definitions of what is considered correct equipment in sports.

Chapter seven and eight focus on two blights of contemporary sports: doping technologies and digital bullying and virtual abuse. Both these chapters veer toward the descriptive side again, outlining different variants of doping, such as blood- and gene doping on the one hand, and virtual abuse on the other.

To end the book, Tjønndal formulates nine hypotheses about the future of sports technologies, ranging from rather self-evident (i.e. the number of sports will keep increasing), to possibly controversial, (i.e. future competitions will be organized in categories according to the technological enhancements of athletes).  I started this text by pointing out the need for a nuanced discussion on the role of technology in sports as well as in society as a whole, and the aim of theses hypotheses is to inspire such a discussion. As Tjønndal points out, sports have always adapted to societal changes, and this will continue to include technological development. However, these adaptations are not always painless or simple. There will undoubtedly be differing opinions on what technology means and should mean for different sports. Different actors and groups stand to gain or lose from these developments as well. To avoid succumbing to ideas of technological determinism, which in reality means accepting that only those actors who have the power and resources to gain from a certain technological development will be the ones leading the way, we need to create new visions about what we want the future of sports to look like. While Tjønndals hypotheses are by no means utopian, rather the opposite, they can hopefully inspire counter-hypotheses and engagement from students and other readers alike.

While the depth of analysis varies throughout the book, “Idrettsteknologi” serves as an excellent introduction to the multifaceted issues at the intersection of sports and technology. It provides a solid foundation for discussions in classrooms or locker rooms, facilitating conversations about the complex challenges that affect everyone, regardless of their level of involvement in sports.

Copyright © Anna Åberg 2023

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