Whether we like it or not, modern sport will have to embrace technology

Joshua Cheptegei (centre) follows the lights on his way to breaking the 10000m world record in Valencia on October 7, 2020.


Photo credit: Jose Jordan | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Closer home, the talk, over the last few days, has been the heated debate over the arrival of “wavelight” pacing technology in athletics
  • Cheptegei, 24, improved on Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele’s 15-year-old record (26 minutes, 17.53 seconds) in the 25-lap race by over 6.5 seconds, clocking 26:11.00
  • Before Cheptegei struck, another record had fallen on the Valencia track with Ethiopian Letsenbet Gidey also banking on wavelight technology to smash compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba’s 5,000m world record by almost five seconds

What an amazing, record-breaking weekend of global sport! It was action galore last weekend as though Covid-19 never existed!

A LeBron James-inspired Los Angeles Lakers extinguished the Miami Heat 4-2 in the NBA Finals series to win their first championship in a decade, Rafael Nadal bagged his 13th French Open title and Lewis Hamilton drew level with Michael Schumacher on 91 Grand Prix victories… it doesn’t get any bigger.

Lakers’ 106-93 series-clinching win was crowned by “King James” bagging his fourth MVP accolade, and his first in eight years since he last won back-to-back titles for the Heat.

The Los Angeles Lakers pose for a team photo with the trophy after winning the 2020 NBA Championship over the Miami Heat in Game Six of the 2020 NBA Finals at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on October 11, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

Photo credit: Mike Ehrmann | AFP

He’s certainly next in line to join the Lakers’ Hall of Famers who include Kareem Abdul Jaber, Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain, Karl “Mailman” Malone, Jerry West, James Worthy and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who, along the likes of Larry Bird, elevated global interest in the NBA league to levels that provided Michael Jordan and latter-day greats a timely pedal to accelerate.

Nadal’s record-equaling 20th Grand Slam (tied with Roger Federer) at Roland-Garros proved his invincibility on clay while Hamilton is on the verge of a record-equaling (with Schumacher) seventh Formula One world title after Sunday’s 91st GP win at the Nurburgring.

Spain's Rafael Nadal kisses the Mousquetaires Cup (The Musketeers) as he celebrates during the podium ceremony after winning the men's singles final tennis match against Serbia's Novak Djokovic at the Philippe Chatrier court, on Day 15 of The Roland Garros 2020 French Open tennis tournament in Paris on October 11, 2020.


Photo credit: Anne-Christine Poujoulat | AFP

The weekend also saw the small matter of the Uefa Nations League, highlighted by the exciting goalless draw between the Cristiano Ronaldo-led holders Portugal and Kylian Mbappe’s world champions France on Sunday night.

Closer home, the talk, over the last few days, has been the heated debate over the arrival of “wavelight” pacing technology in athletics, ignited by Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei’s world 10,000 metres record in a bespoke event put together by his Dutch management company, Global Sports Communication at the Turia Stadium in Valencia.

Cheptegei, 24, improved on Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele’s 15-year-old record (26 minutes, 17.53 seconds) in the 25-lap race by over 6.5 seconds, clocking 26:11.00 at the one-off meeting organised by GSC, NN Running Team and Spanish concern SD Correcaminos, and dubbed “NN Valencia World Record Day.”

Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei poses with the clock after setting a new world record in the 10,000 metres in Valencia, Spain on October 7, 2020. 

Photo credit: Pool | NN Running Team

This was about two months after Cheptegei obliterated another of Bekele’s world records, improving the 5,000m mark by 1.99 seconds to 12:35.36 in Monaco.

But while the Monaco record was well-received, with Bekele himself congratulating the Ugandan, last week’s wavelight-inspired 10,000m mark faced some backlash.

Before Cheptegei struck, another record had fallen on the Valencia track with Ethiopian Letsenbet Gidey also banking on wavelight technology to smash compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba’s 5,000m world record by almost five seconds, clocking 14:06.62 to beat Dibaba’s previous record set in Oslo in 2008.

Ethiopian Letesenbet Gidey poses with the clock after setting a new women's 5,000m world record of 14 minutes 6.62 seconds. in Valencia, Spain on October 7, 2020. 

Photo credit: Pool | NN Running Team

And on Saturday, at another GSC meeting (FBK Games in Hengelo), Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan was paced by the lights to a new European record in the 10,000m (29:36:67), beating Briton Paula Radcliffe’s previous mark of 30:01:09 set in 2002.

The wavelight technology is basically an electronic pace-setter that sets specific times used to guide athletes on required race pace.

Over 400 LED lights are installed in the inside circumference of the track and set on a pace accurate to the millisecond, offering athletes the idea of the pace they are operating on, or need to chase, to clock particular times.

Cheptegei and Gidey chased lights, set at world record pace last week, drawing admiration and ire in equal measure with sceptics arguing that such technology was killing the spirit of natural human competition.

Ethiopia's Letsenbet Gidey follows the lights on her way to breaking the 5,000m world record in Valencia on October 7, 2020.


Photo credit: Pool | Global Sports Communication

But another school of thought, to which I belong, maintains that sport is evolving fast, and we can’t run away from such innovation that makes track and field more appealing, especially to millennials.

I’ve always advocated for innovation, especially for track and field, if the sport is to compete with global eyeballs dominated by football, basketball, lawn tennis, cricket, etc.

“Wavelight makes everything visible, keeping the crowd’s attention as they watch athletes keep track of the lights. Will they overtake it? Will they smash their record? Wavelight ensures no one misses any of the action,” Sport Technologies, the Dutch founders of this technology, explain.

“Athletes can use the wavelight to complete specific and timed training schedules. The system guides the athlete on the duration, speed and interval of their training programme. The desired pace is constantly in sight of the runner, so they are continuously informed and motivated.”

Ethiopia's Letsenbet Gidey (right) follows Kenyan pacemaker Beatrice Chepkoech and the wavelight pace lights on her way to breaking the 5000m world record in Valencia on October 7, 2020.


Photo credit: Pool | Global Sports Communication

Rob Walker, Great Britain’s distinguished track and field television commentator took the same opinion as mine on technology and sport when I engaged him on the issue at the weekend.

“At the moment we need athletics to shine on a global stage and if that means wavelight so be it. We are competing for the attention of young people alongside football, social media accounts etc. It’s better to have the sport front and centre!” Walker told me.

Indeed, other sports disciplines are working overdrive to create fresh technologies that will sustain interest.

In tennis, for instance, an India-based company Infosys last year signed a three-year deal with Roland-Garros for provision of technology-based solutions at the French Open, with a view to enhancing virtual experiences, improve player training and performance analysis, besides improving storytelling among journalists.

Infosys developed a mobile and tablet app featuring “fast match analysis, rally replay, stroke analysis, and on-device video highlight editing and production capabilities all powered by Infosys AI and enabled by a cloud powered architecture.”

In football, the much-maligned VAR (video assistant referee) has transformed officiating in similar fashion as the “Hawk-eye” technology did in tennis and cricket, eliminating controversial calls.

Whichever way we look at it, we must chase the lights.
We can’t run away from technology as it enhances human performance in the very Olympic spirit of citius, altius, fortius (faster, higher, stronger).

Makori is the Editor (Sports) at Nation Media Group. emakori@ke.nationmedia.com