Prime time for the Atlanta stat attack

Click to follow
The Independent Online
W ith careful use of the remote control during the next two weeks, it should be possible to reduce the flood of Olympic Games coverage to a bearable trickle but long term we must be braced for events of this size and nature to flow over our defences like tidal waves. Sport is being reinforced in all its various shapes and denominations by a supporting army of technologists who will ensure that it is no longer enough merely to watch; the future is total immersion in information.

Atlanta will deliver to us a Games of typical intensity, played under intolerably high degrees of heat and humidity and, apart from the probability of someone drowning in their own sweat, will no doubt yield the usual quota of dramas. But beneath the Olympic surface will be breeding a teeming mass of statistics that, some day soon, is likely to spread into every nook and cranny of our sporting lives.

The process has already made stealthy inroads into our vision, so much so that we expect to see a cricketer's past record zoom up during those regrettably regular moments when there's a lull in play. It is by no means obtrusive, just an up-to-the-minute breakdown of his record and his strike or run rate.

Football and rugby coverage is in the early stages of providing statistical information during the match. Most of these facts, however, are gathered by human eyes and stop-watch fingers. The modern way is arriving in a bewildering flurry of electronics, micromechanics and chronomatics that will transform these Olympics into the launching platform of a new era of sporting appreciation and might even complete the job of driving the traditionalists around the final bend.

The task of introducing this historic change is being undertaken with a pioneering zeal by Swatch Timing, part of the Swiss corporation SMH, the parent body of Omega and Longines, who have looked after the timing at most Olympics since the clock was first officially introduced into the Games in 1932.

Presumably, folk were previously happy to race against each other and it would be interesting to debate at greater length the advantages that have accrued to various sports from their close association with the hands of time. The replacement of the naked eye by electronic timing has been an important advance in many disciplines but sometimes the importance of the clock threatens to overshadow the racing itself. Man against man provides the only true indicator of a champion.

But the technology swarming into sport is not about timing as much as information and communication and Atlanta heralds the day when the statistical progress of any sporting event in the world will be available in exhausting amounts to every home in seconds.

Each event in the Olympics will be measured and monitored as never before. Anything significant - points, marks, goals, positions at any stage of a race - will be flashed via a central computer to public screens and to the press centre. Journalists will be able to see the latest position in a fencing match, in cycling, in swimming or in any event at the press of a button. Colour images of photo-finishes can be called up and information gained about any individual performance.

Events like the triple jump, for instance, will be yielding tit-bits for which the public has yet to express an appetite. An electronic strip alongside the approach, with infra-red photo-electric cells every centimetre, will reveal the exact length of the hop, skip and the jump. In the sprints, electronic eyes operated by technicians in the stand, will bounce signals off the athletes' numbers and, taking into account the speed of light, will record acceleration rates and intermediate speeds at any point during the race.

The time it takes for a relay team to make a baton change, the delay between the starting signal and the moment the swimmer's feet leaves the starting block, the number of strokes a minute each rower is taking, the speeds of the serves in the tennis and the smashes over the volleyball net . . . this may appeal mainly to sporting anoraks but it does bring a new dimension to sports following.

They have even installed a high-speed video camera at the Olympic basketball court to record the time a shooter spends in the air. We could be celebrating the first world hovering champion this time next week.

All this, of course, depends on a smooth operation and one hates to tempt providence by mentioning the possibility that new ideas don't always work the first time. For instance, in the Olympic marathon each of the runners will have fixed to one of their shoes a transponder that can transmit signals to the timing centre when they pass over a receiver mat placed every five kilometres. The position of every runner in the race can therefore be plotted throughout.

An experiment on similar lines was conducted during this year's London Marathon but I understand it was not a complete success. I hasten to add that Unisys, the official timers, were not involved but they are very much involved in the advance of sporting information.

Whereas Swatch are experts on sports timing, Unisys are primarily into information. A pounds 6bn world-wide organisation, they supply information management systems to such as banks and building societies. Their presence in sport is mainly promotional. Unisys has been the official information supplier to the Royal and Ancient since 1982 and two years ago began to revolutionise the speed and flow of scores from each hole. Radio telephones were jettisoned in favour of hand-held computers.

The scores at each hole are tapped in and within seconds appear on 200 screens around the course, most particularly in the BBC commentary box and in the media centre. The scores are used to update the data on players and on the way each hole is playing. This service is also available on the Internet so that you can follow your favourite player's progress hole by hole from the other side of the world.

When these sort of statistics about every sporting activity around the globe are within a keyboard's reach of everyone, will we be able to resist the most useless pieces of information or will curiosity enslave us all?

It's Olympic time again and Ben Johnson is experiencing that familiar sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Why did he do it, he asks himself. Why didn't he stay as plain Gary Smith?

It was in May 1988 when Smith, a promising 100 metres runner with Wallsend Harriers, decided to dispense with the anonymity of his name and adopt that of his hero. By deed poll, he became Ben Johnson. Two months later, at the Seoul Olympics, it became a name not to be proud of. But, shattered as he was, Gary, now Ben, stayed loyal to his namesake and has ever since.

At 32, he is still running and Ben Johnson's memory is preserved with a personal best of 11.6 seconds up at Wallsend. He has no regrets. He has tried to keep up with the real Ben's movements but has lost touch. Back in 1988 he did consider becoming Carl Lewis but is still happy he made the right decision.

Ben's days are numbered, however. He is getting married next month and has decided to stand at the altar as Gary Smith. But whenever he runs it will be as Ben Johnson. To everyone else, it is just another name.