Thousandths of a second are often the difference between defeat and victory, tears of sadness and those of joy. Whether it’s a 100-meter race on the track, a giant slalom run on the piste or a Formula 1 race at one of the world’s great circuits – wherever you look in sport, someone is trying to set a fastest time or break a record. Now a museum exhibition is asking visitors: Why are records important? And what role does technology play in the development of a sport?
August 16, 2009, 9.45 p.m. local time. Usain Bolt settles into his starting blocks at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin and lowers his head, a picture of concentration. The anticipation in the stands is almost tangible. Will the Jamaican superstar dip below his own world record of 9.69 seconds set the previous year at the Beijing Olympics? Are the spectators about to witness a performance of quasi-superhuman proportions? The starter’s gun pierces the silence, propelling the eight fastest men on the planet to a line just one hundred meters away. 100 meters which, on this day, literally mean the world. The collective roar from the crowd provides the soundtrack as the elite sprinters hurtle towards the finish. Bolt, though, is hurtling even faster than the others, pulling away at an average speed of 10.44 meters per second. The clock stops at 9.58 seconds.
This is one of those instances where the naked eye could identify a world record without the need for timing gear. Bolt crossed the line with clear blue sea between himself and the chasing pack; there was no such thing as a photo finish when Usain was in town. And yet an array of electronic helpers are still working away behind the scenes to ensure this world record and every other can take its place in the history books. Manually-operated stopwatches once did the work of today’s electronic devices, which – theoretically at least – can track times to a millionth of a second.
Back in the late 19th century, photo finishes were dependent on ordinary cameras, but today’s athletes can reply on a digital device capable of snapping up to 30,000 images per second. And where the sprinters of yesteryear had to burrow holes into the cinder track to anchor their starts, now starting blocks with integral false-start and reaction time detection tech are where it’s at. These are the kind of technological inventions that have brought precision to the documentation of sporting endeavor, allowing performances to be compared – and records verified.
This changing of the technological guard provides the subject matter for the exhibition “Fertig? Los! Die Geschichte von Sport und Technik” [Ready, steady, go! The history of sport and technology] at the Technoseum in Mannheim, Germany (until June 10, 2019). Whether it’s measuring systems, apparatus or sports equipment, one look at the exhibits on display highlights the game-changing role played by technology and materials in sport. “Sport as we know it would simply not exist without this technology,” confirms exhibition curator Alexander Sigelen. Sporting competition dates back to Ancient Greece, of course, but it wasn’t until the advent of measuring and timing technology that top performances could be recorded and compared. Indeed, it was only in the 20th century that technological progress came to the sporting arena. Before technology intervened, race timing had been hindered by a major drawback: the reactions of its human element. The fractions of a second by which the man or woman holding the stopwatch might waver could make all the difference. Enter the first wave of innovations, such as the electric Zeitdrucker recording chronograph developed by watchmaker F.L. Löbner in 1925. These devices helped build the stage on which athletes like Usain Bolt have since achieved great things. An electric pulse was sent through the Zeitdrucker when the starter’s gun fired and again when the first runner broke the tape on the finish line. With each pulse, a timestamp was printed on a continuous strip of paper. For the first time, the fastest times could be recorded electronically – and extremely accurately. Sport’s technological revolution was underway.
The Greek poet Homer once penned words to the effect of being always “the best and bravest”. But that’s not enough nowadays. Simply winning a race will still leave you well short of a place in the history books; what matters is records. And if a record isn’t documented, it isn’t a record at all. “For the Greeks, the prestige lay in going head-to-head and being the best,” explains Sigelen. “However, a key part of record-breaking in sport is to post a performance that is not only the best on that particular day, but the best ever in that particular discipline.” And here technology is critical, as the best times can only be compared if they are set – and recorded – under the same conditions. A running record on a cinder track cannot be compared with a time set on a modern surface. And similarly, a run timed by hand cannot be regarded in the same terms as one recorded with digital timing gear. “Sport is becoming standardized,” says Sigelen. “And there is a close link here with technology.”
The Technoseum exhibition is set out like a stadium, complete with track markings and a spectator stand. “Visitors run through a course and the various stages of an athlete’s routine – from warm-ups to the event itself and the medal presentations,” says Martin Müller, CEO of Berlin-based company molitor, which designed the exhibition. A key element of the show is that everyone gets a workout as part of their visit. For example, you can test your balancing skills on a slackline, check your jumping power on a force platform or grab an epée and find out how hits are recorded and totted up (fully automatically) in fencing. As a byproduct of the exhibition, we are reminded how enjoyable exercise can be – and encouraged to reach for our sports gear a little more often.
The exhibits include valuable historical objects such as an amphora from Ancient Greece, but also highly sensitive measuring devices used in competitive sport today. There is equipment used to analyze heart rate, lactate levels and speeds, for example, illustrating the degree to which we now monitor the responses of the human body in sport. “Medicinal tuning” is also part of the display, a case of doping products from days gone by representing a particular disturbing find.
But where does the drive to set new records come from? “The idea of competing with others is hard-wired into us as humans,” says Sigelen. So it was in the pan-Athenian games in Ancient Greece, ditto in the knightly tournaments of the Middle Ages – and the same applies to modern-day sporting contests. “It’s interesting to note that some of the central ideas in modern sport originated in the age of the Enlightenment,” explains Sigelen. For example, in the late 18th century, pioneers of the gymnastics movement began to measure performances. One idea from the Enlightenment was that people were capable of improving themselves. This belief in recording and raising performance levels had an increasing effect on sport, and that influence endures to this day. The emphasis was no longer on sporting competition alone, but self-betterment. And this personal goal-setting in sport is something we remain familiar with, notable in the current trend for gym fitness programs. “Sport is extremely adaptable; you only have to look at the way things have developed over the last 200 years,” points out Sigelen. So on the one hand we have widely celebrated sporting records, which put the performances of other athletes in the shade. And, on the other, the “personal best” concept rooted in the Enlightenment as a vehicle for self-improvement.
These aspects of sport have not been created in a vacuum. Indeed, the sporting world is not the only field in which people are working to better themselves or to outperform the next person. “Sport acts as a mirror for society,” continues Sigelen. “It’s no coincidence that modern sport began in Great Britain. As the motherland of industrialization, Britain transformed relatively early on from an estates-based society to a capitalist society with the notion of competition at its heart.” This idea duly gained traction in sport – and can be translated back into modern society. “Experts in social and sports science have observed ideas from sport spilling over into other areas of society,” says Sigelen. Success in TV game shows, achieving the highest number of followers on social media and topping online restaurant ratings are all now factors in determining societal importance. So the notion of competition is deeply anchored in modern society and reflected in sport.
Such insights provide plenty of food for thought – which is exactly what Sigelen had in mind with his Technoseum exhibition. “Everybody is aware of sport and a lot of people are sport-mad. Sport is hard to avoid,” says the curator. While the exhibition aims to spark interest and enthusiasm, it also poses difficult questions on subjects such as doping – and technical developments whose effectiveness makes it more difficult to compare human performance. When a new type of swimsuit replicating a shark’s skin came onto the market in 2008, for instance, it sparked a run of 130 new swimming records over the next two years. The suit was duly decried as “technological doping” and the swimsuit material “arms race” turned sporting competition on its head. Finally, in 2010 the suits were banned. “Here, again, we’re keen to underline the connection between sport and technology,” says Alexander Sigelen. “We want to showcase technological developments, but also convey how these developments impact on society.” And how society impacts on sport.