By Enefiok Udo-Obong
In his keynote speech at the Africa sports ventures group and UNESCO online sports conference on the future of sports in Africa – post Covid-19 to mark Africa’s day, Liberia’s President George Weah lamented that opportunities to young African talents would evanesce because of the effects of the pandemic. Citing the effects that containment measures such as lockdowns, social distancing, quarantines, and curfews, will have on an already under-funded and under-supported sports programmes in Africa. The former World Footballer of the Year noted that this will cause sports clubs to close down and the cycle of developing talents for scouts to export to European leagues and circuits will become non-existent.
He points out that various special Funds have been established to provide loans and grants to businesses, debt relief, salary payments to the unemployed, food for citizens, purchase of medical equipment and PPE’s, construction of new emergency hospitals, and many other measures but nothing directly for the support of sports programmes, which, he says, are an important part of the socio-economic fabric of our various societies.
Well, what His Excellency failed to note is that Sports has taken a big leap into the future because of Covid-19. So Sports as we traditionally know it would change drastically post pandemic. Africa needs to step up and be better prepared to deliver to the fans or lose out completely in the economic ecosystem. A clear example of the direction Sports may go was seen in the innovative Inspirational Games that took place early July.
With the pandemic at its worst and travel restrictions in force, The Inspiration Games, hosted from Switzerland, brought about 30 athletes across seven venues in three continents simultaneously taking part in an athletics meet. This novel idea described as different, an experiment and challenging by various media, had top-class athletes compete in various races from 100 yards to 300 meters hurdles and the relay. The competition had seven events and each event had three competitors. Technology was key in the execution of the event as broadcast, officiating and fan experience was stretched the limits.
It was a grim reality to technology’s role in post Covid sports. The influence of technology has never been understated in the future of sports. There have been lots of documents written about sports in the millennium and scientific breakthroughs are consistent in all. In one report titled, “The Future of Sports”, Sports concessionaires Delaware North explained a few things we can expect in the next 25 years, ranging from advanced ultra-modern arenas that can morph (transformer-like) into different structures to suit the event, with self-driving and self-parking cars, to inbuilt video elastic walls, to hologram 3D replays, to better security with facial recognition quick cameras that automatically and instantly locate possible incidents and also artificial intelligence employed in choosing fan seats based on social media contacts and behaviour.
Basically, like the Inspirational Games showed us, as the athletes competed alone thousands of miles away from each other, broadcasters have to employ tech skills in bringing images together to make it appreciated by fans who remain on smart phones via social media, etc. Technology is usually advanced to satisfy three component in Sports.
First of all, athletic performance. There has been advances here, especially in material science. Improving equipment to make athletes perform better and the presence of wearable devices which have microscopic GPS, accelerometers and other data collection tools embedded in them help athletes track everything from body composition parameters to heart rate, glucose absorption, hydration levels, overtraining, fatigue, speed, muscle activation, respiratory rhythms and sleep activity. But advancements are breaking boundaries now. Technological advances also help athletes’ performance from the medical angle. We could soon see athletes use genetic enhancement for injury prevention and safety, a blurred line between artificial and natural body parts as science learns to rebuild humans, rules beginning to allow athletes to use performance enhancers up to predetermined, safe levels. And probably, different competitions for enhanced athletes (those perfected or created in the lab) and natural athletes.
Next component of Sports that technology affects is its delivery. The last century has seen us gone from radio commentary only to delayed analogue TV, LIVE TV, digital broadcast, cable and satellite TV, pay per view and now we all watch via smart devices. The media have advanced so fast in the last decade it is almost unbelievable. And this advancement will continue as the consumer grows in importance as they hold key with numerous options soon the lexicon broadcast will be phased out and replaced by words like streaming. Interactive contents are very popular and ways to engage audience is directing technology. 3D broadcast and VR broadcasts are being experimented in different sports. Delivery of the rules is also a key part that technology is coming to affect. Track and field and many racing sports including horse riding have been using technology to help them. From false start computers to photo finish, we have seen how technology has attempted to make sports fairer. We have seen the influence of hawk-eye in sports like tennis and they have now been integrated into Goal Line Technology in football. Despite the controversies, VAR is something that is here to stay in football.
The third component technology will greatly influence is fans experience. Fans are closer than ever to their sporting heroes with social media allowing interaction. Technology will improve fans stadium experience. However, the experience will be entirely different. VR/AR will be commonplace and provide the spectator a different tailor-made viewing experience. Robotised kiosk delivery and guides/holograms equipped with artificial intelligence will improve convenience, reducing queues and waiting times. 5G will provide real time data and stats and allow for exclusive in-stadium social networking platforms. A.I. will alter stadiums into deep learning organic structures.
So while His Excellency President Weah is asking for financial support for sports programmes in Africa so that we can continue to produce raw materials and talents that would be harvested in the European circuits and leagues, I dare say we need a drastic mind-set change in how we are placed on the sporting value chain. We need financial support and investment in science and technology because as we know, due to the global pandemic, The Future of Sports in NOW.
*Udo-Obong is a certified Fitness & Wellness Consultant, Life Coach, Author, Olympic Gold Medalist 2000, Olympic Bronze Medalist 2004