Technology has been applied in sports most often to benefit athletes.
And why not? Machines are increasingly responsible for the gains made in the last decade by athletes, who now have access to computerized weight-training devices and wind tunnels in which to ride their bicycles.
But machines also are used to govern and judge sport. Some believe this area will yield the greatest sports breakthroughs of the next decade.
Here, then, is a brief look at technology as it is applied in some sports, and projections for the future for others.
Instant Replay, or: Just a Second . . . Hang On . . . Let's See That From Another Angle
Who would have guessed that one of the most significant innovations in professional football would entail a gang of men clustering around a television set, intently watching something they had already seen.
Instant replay has been an experiment in the NFL since it was approved in 1986. It has survived tenuously on a year-to-year basis since then.
Its institution was born out of the agonizingly close calls, foot-on-the-line touchdowns and flat-out missed infractions that persuaded league owners to approve the use of video replays to review controversial or close calls by officials on the field.
As it is used, a replay official--the league has 16--calls for a play to be reviewed. Using a television feed, officials review the play and either confirm or reverse the on-field official's call.
The use of the replay was approved on the strength of two of its strongest advocates--Commissioner Pete Rozelle and Dallas Cowboy General Manager Tex Schramm. Schramm's advocacy was so great that he has been called the godfather of replay. Rozelle was a staunch supporter, guiding the decision through its rocky early stages.
Now both men are out of the NFL, and the future of instant replay is in doubt. Put another way, the NFL may have to look at the situation again.
Replays have proved to be costly and--most irritating--time consuming. And the replay has many times provided controversy of its own.
It appears clear that the use of instant replay for this season was about to go the way of other well-meant innovations. With Rozelle out, and new Commissioner Paul Tagliabue lukewarm on the concept, the NFL may choose not to play it again.
But if the NFL is losing interest in instant replay, at least two other groups are investigating it. The National Hockey League has decided to experiment with instant replay during the next exhibition season. If, after the tryout, the league goes ahead with the plan, instant replays likely will be instituted for the playoffs of the 1990-91 season.
The replay will be used only to determine if the puck crossed the goal line, often a difficult assessment to make in such a fast-moving sport. Hockey is plugging along as it always has, with an official stationed in a glass booth behind the net. The official watches the play and, if he determines a goal has been scored, activates a red flashing light.
The NHL uses video replays to determine who scored a goal or assisted.
For the NHL experiment, teams will not be able to request replays. That decision will be made only by the referee. Once requested, the replay will be made by a supervisor of officials, who will watch the replay on a monitor from the press box. Already league officials have expressed a concern about the time it takes to make decisions.
"Our decision-making certainly has to be under five minutes," said General Manager Bob Pulford of the Chicago Blackhawks "It should be done in three, four minutes tops. We don't want any major holdups."
College football has flirted with the idea of using replays but has resisted.Again, time and cost are high considerations. Also, the college game is fraught with tradition and use of replays may be viewed as a crass interloper.
The Cyclops, or: Beeeep. Excuse Me, Mr. McEnroe, Your Serve Was Long
Tennis has experimented with mechanical alternatives to linesmen. No one is 100% happy with the electronic line-calling system, which still has bugs. But some players have longed to see linesmen absent from matches.
One such system is called Accu-Call. First used in competition in January of 1988, the system was developed after 10 years of research and at a cost of $2.5 million.
Accu-Call uses an electronically charged line that determines in and out balls that land within two feet of the line. Beyond two feet, the umpire makes the call.
The system uses a ball with electronic circuitry woven into its fabric. The manufacturer claims lines can be called to within one-thousandth of an inch.
Then there is the British system, Cyclops. Used in all Grand Slam tournaments, the system uses two rays of light covering a band 20 inches wide. If the ball breaks the light ray outside the service line, it is ruled out and an electronic peep is sounded.
Cyclops is used only to call service lines and only in singles. The light beam can't distinguish between a ball, foot or racket breaking the beam. So, it can't be used to call all lines.