Technology In Sport - A Necessary Evil?
August 6, 2013

Technology In Sport – A Necessary Evil?

I live in Japan and recently went to watch a sumo wrestling tournament. I had heard one of the appealing things about sumo is that it feels ancient and ritualistic in a way that makes it interesting to history buffs as well as sports fans.

Being a history lover myself, I wasn’t disappointed. The ring is made of what it has always been made of (rice-straw on top of clay and sand) and above the ring was decoration that made it look like a shrine. This is no coincidence, since the link between sumo wrestling and Japan’s Shinto religion is very strong; sumo matches were originally performed on the grounds of shrines and temples. The rituals of the two wrestlers before the fight look like (and are) very old, spiritual practices.

But, as with many things in Japan, the event had ancient tradition and the ultra-modern sitting side by side in reasonable harmony. Well, I say reasonable harmony. I’m sure there are a few old purists who like to sit and complain about new-fangled ideas (whatever fangled is in Japanese), but to a foreigner such as myself, it looked like a reasonable balance.

The most notable and surprising modern aspect was the use of video technology for refereeing decisions. The referee (or Gyoji) in the ring calls the winner, but there are five other judges (Shimpan) outside of the ring who can question the call if they see fit. Two of these judges can use video technology to review the decision. (Incidentally, the Gyoji who made the original decision is not allowed to take part in these discussions, and is left on the sidelines to sweat it out with the wrestlers).

If something as important to the history and culture of Japan as sumo can be allowed to use modern technology, is it reasonable that other sports are reluctant to embrace technology simply because it messes with their tradition?

Soccer is a good example of this. There have been several very high profile incidents over the years, including in world cups, where bad refereeing decisions have cost teams their place in the tournament. That’s not to mention the other costs involved; there is always a lot of money at stake in football and, in world cups in particular, entire national economies are affected by how long a team stays in the competition. In domestic leagues too, what position a team finishes in can affect the professional lives not only of players, but also of all staff connected to the club.

With so much resting on refereeing decisions, although it’s nice to think that sport should stick to its roots and be respectful of its past, the reality is that practicality should probably come before sentiment.

This is one of the reasons why soccer is finally taking steps forward, and this coming season will see the English Premier League try out new technology for goal-line decisions. Goal-line technology is primarily used to decide whether the ball has crossed the goal-line or not – one of the most frustrating things that has affected matches in the past (especially the time a referee, who had obviously just remembered he had left the milk out or some other such distraction, gave a goal when the ball went entirely past the net instead of into or, indeed, anywhere near it). But while England is progressing, other famous European domestic leagues, such as Spain’s La Liga, have not yet introduced the technology.

You can see why a purist would want to keep their sport beautiful and uncorrupted, but if soccer really wants to do that, then maybe they should follow the Japanese sumo model and use ancient materials; go back to the days of pig bladder balls and wear sponsored tunics. Or maybe they could just take sumo as an example of how technology and tradition can co-exist peacefully.

Image Credit: Zeshan Anjum – Zeeography

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

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