Sport has a rich and storied history. Wrestling is considered the oldest sport, dating back to France over 15,000 years ago, while instructions for the sport have been found in Japan dating between 100 and 200 AD.
Other sports events such as the Olympics date back to 776 BC, while football can be traced back as early as the 3rd century BC in China.
Since the early days, sport has come a long way, and with a range of advances made in technology to improve accuracy and reliability across a range of sports, we wonder what the future of sport could look like.
Here we’ll look at some of the technological advances the sporting industry has made, and Dr Ian Pearson will be revealing what he thinks could be in store for future games and events.
1881 - Photo finishes
A photo finish is regularly used in races with multiple participants when the winner is too close to call. The photo is captured and analysed to determine who crossed the line first.
It’s used in a range of athletic events as well as horse racing. The first documented use of a photo finish was in 1881 for a horse race.
1972 - Fully-automated timing system
Designed for track and field sports, the fully-automated timing system has been designed to capture results with at least 1/100th of a second accuracy.
It is automatically activated by the starting device, and the finish time can be recorded either automatically, or timed using photo finish.
The advantages of electronic timing were evident at the 1972 Olympics Men’s 400m medley swimming, when both swimmers stopped the clock on 4:31.98.
While on first glance it appeared to be a joint win, the electronic time officials then declared one swimmer had a time of 4:31.981, winning by two thousandths of a second.
1989 - Radar guns
In 1989, the human eye could no longer keep up with the ball and radar guns were introduced to calculate serve speed measurements.
It’s great in training as it can allow the player or trainer to know how hard and fast they need to swing.
2000 - Virtual imaging
Used in swimming, virtual imaging adds a superimposed line on the surface of the water as well as adding graphics such as current world records and the flag of the country the swimmer is representing.
It was first introduced in professional swimming trials and events back in 2000. And while swimmers have virtual imaging, divers also have a ‘DiveCam’ which always stays in line with the diver as they descend.
2001 - TMO
TMO, or television match official, was brought in back in 2001 to aid rugby referees in their decision making – although it has been more widely used in the last five years.
It’s used for confirming whether a goal has been scored or if there is evidence of foul play. More specifically, it can be used for incidents including:
Establishing if a kick at goal has been successful
Confirming if an infringement has occurred in the build-up to a try
Determining the grounding of the ball
Determining possible foul play
2001 - Hawk-Eye
A vision system used to track the trajectory of a ball and determine if the ball is in or out by using multiple camera angles. It’s commonly used in tennis but also appears in other sports including cricket, badminton and volleyball.
The system was first used in 2001 for Test cricket, while the Premier League also started working with Hawk-Eye in 2006. In 2020, Hawkeye replaced human judges on 15 of 17 match courts at the US Open - could this be the future for judging tennis?
2006 - GPS tracking
First used in field and team sports back in 2006, GPS tracking is a great system that can play a pivotal role in the future of sport.
More commonly used in training sessions (although it can be used during games too), it monitors an athlete’s speed and distance covered during a game or session. It can help with a range of areas:
Utilising training time and resources
Comparing player performances to make more informed choices for games
Wider team analysis
Help monitor recovery progress
Help monitor goals and targets
2009 - Kinetic energy recovery system (KERS)
Used in Formula 1, a kinetic energy recovery system stores a moving vehicle's kinetic energy under braking. The energy is then stored and used for acceleration.
It was first used in the 2009 season, while one year later no teams chose to use it and in 2011, only three teams opted to not use the system. Since 2014, power capacity was doubled, rising from 60 kilowatts (80 bhp) to 120 kilowatts (160 bhp).
2011 - Goal-line technology
Goal-line technology is used in football to determine whether a goal has been scored. It provides a quick response, transmitting information within one second to allow the referee to give an immediate response.
After some initial testing with Hawkeye, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) ruled out the use of any technology in football back in 2008.
However, change came after Frank Lampard’s “goal” scored against Germany was not awarded to England.
The organisation changed its views on goal-line technology with the possibility of introducing it in the future. It was later tested by FIFA in 2011 and approved a year later by the IFAB.
2018 - VAR
The Video Assistant Referee was first introduced in Russia 2018, before being introduced in England for the 2019/20 Premier League football season. It provides continuous monitoring but only used for clear missed errors around four areas:
Direct red card incidents
While it isn’t 100% accurate, it can help influence judgments in a more positive and accurate way. Ultimately, the on-field referee will always have final decision.
2022 – Offside technology
Being used at the big football tournament in Qatar this year, it will be a tool used by video match officials and the on-field officials to help them make faster, more accurate decisions.
Introduction of the advanced technology comes after FIFA pledged to ‘harness the full potential of technology’ after use of VAR technology at the 2018 tournament was deemed a success.
2025 - AR glasses for training in football
Dr Pearson Explains: “You can simulate certain scenarios in training with AI that is able to incorporate the preferred tactics and plays of your upcoming opponents, and that can adapt to what happens in real time, so I can see heavy use of augmented reality in training in the future.
"The AR glasses coming out now are the size of regular sunglasses rather than large virtual reality headsets, so they wouldn’t interfere with the player’s movement, and you would just have this AR overlay on the real-world image.”
2025 - Star Wars-style pod racing
“There are lots of drone races coming out that would be a bit like the pod racing in Star Wars, so that’s a new sport that’s emerging which you could imagine being regulated in a Formula 1 kind of way where the drones will be restricted in terms of power to ensure people are competing on a level playing field.”
Sport is a tremendous facilitator of drone technological advances, as was seen when there was a Pro Class launched for the 2018 DHL Champions Series. Those were massive aircraft four times the size of regular drones which shook up the scene.
The new addition to the DR1 series was a significant jump forward, which also saw a huge boost of speeds arrive in the sport, with some of the craft reaching over 100mph. The 2015 U.S. The National Drone Racing Championship was a pioneering event, giving the US the first taste of competitive racing on a national scale that had previously only been seen across Europe.
That was all on the back of new lab developments and drone racing competitions both fulfilling demand and creating more. The Drone Racing League is the current juggernaut of the sport, and the 2023 DRL Algorand World Championship Season reached new broadcast partners around the world.
Machines will continue to get more agile, stronger, and faster and improve in other aspects like sense-and-avoid technology. But how long before the next colossal radical innovation comes along? Where do the advancements of AI play into the future of drones? Will there be AI competitions or AI vs Human drone racing contests?
2025-2035 - Materials changing
“I think the biggest change that we’re going to see in the next 10-20 years, apart from AI, will be in the materials used in sports.
"We’ve seen developments with carbon and graphene-based design, and there are other new materials such as those based on boron. These new materials will affect a lot of industries in terms of the costumes that people wear, whether they are primarily used for protection or to store energy.
“Any significant advances in performance will likely be regulated, but if the main development is in safety, then we will most likely see these changes accepted and adopted. This could come in the form of compression bands used in weightlifting having sensors and being reactive to offer more compression in certain moments.”
2027 - AR and AI in football
“For fans who are watching football for example, rather than participating simultaneously, these AR glasses can be used to zoom in on a particular area of the pitch, and with the number of cameras available you can see the pitch from any angle and zoom as you like to see expressions and get closer to players.
“If you’re obsessed with statistics, you can have all of the statistics you want in your field of view. Even if you’re in the stadium, you can still use this AR technology to improve your view while soaking up the atmosphere.
“Another option to give fans an entirely new view of football would be for the players to wear cameras in their kits to give fans the exact view of a player and to see where they’re looking.”
2030 - Electronics on/in the skin
This technology can be used to monitor a wider array of metrics, more accurately than previously possible. “Across any sport, I think sensors will be used much more in training.
"In running for example, it’s important to know stats around how your body is performing such as those you would get from a FitBit, but the information and detail that you will get from sensors in the future will be much better.
“With printing electronics straight onto the skin’s surface, or putting tiny electronic capsules into the skin, you can get direct access to your blood and your nervous system.
"This way, you can monitor exactly what’s happening inside your body at any given time and assess this with your coach to devise the best strategy for you based on this continuous data that is available in real time.
“In 10-20 years’ time you’ll see active contact lenses that are able to give us the same information that AR glasses do now, so you can have all of this information about your body in your field of view while you are active.”
2035 - Active skin
“One area that I like is Active Skin as an example of sensing technology, which can be used by athletes themselves to train technique in sports like tennis or golf to help develop muscle memory for a particular action.
"This would give the athlete a feedback loop, as AI could analyse exactly what your technique is like compared to what it should be like. It can then inject sensations back into your arm or fingers so that you hold the club/racket in the right way because the system would create discomfort in a scenario where the technique is not correct.
“That would enhance how fast you’re learning quite considerably, and it would allow you to develop the muscle memory much faster. A younger athlete would be able to get to a good level in a few months instead of a few years, so it would revolutionise any sport, making all sports more competitive, which is a good thing for everybody as it drags up the standard right across the board.”
2050 – Technology-enhanced Olympics
“We could see a technology-enhanced Olympics in 2050 where people are allowed to use all sorts of technologies, whether it’s equipment, clothes, genetic enhancements or smart drugs that are all available and could give athletes an advantage and may make some sports more exciting to watch.
"But you wouldn’t be able to mix this with sportspeople competing without these advantages, so it would be a separate stream of each sport, almost like Formula 1 being compared to WRC.”
There’s no denying that tech has helped elevate a range of sporting games and events. One key area where the future of sport could be heading is data-focussed decision making.
Using data to make informed choices on how to improve, develop and ultimately, be the best.
From monitoring an athlete’s performance, to ensuring the real winner is rightfully crowned, data is at the heart of sport now and can only help take it to the next level.