Last Saturday, I watched an excellent rugby international. No, not Scotland outplaying the “unbeatable” England. It was Ireland against Wales in Dublin. It was an exciting game, with flashes of brilliance. But what was particularly good about it was the refereeing. The man in question was Glen Jackson from New Zealand. He never once stopped the game to refer to the TMO (Television Match Official). How refreshing! And as a result the game flowed as it’s meant to.
I am tired of the way so many sports have come to depend on video replays. I guess it started with photo-finishes in racing, and then Hawk-eye at Wimbledon – which seemed a good idea after John “You cannot be serious” McEnroe. And then it spread to cricket with its snickometer and hot-spot. And rugby with the TMO. And football with contentious VAR decisions. At the recent Winter Olympics, video replays were rife in Pyeongchang: speed skating, ice dancing, fancy snow boarding and trick skiing. And now we learn that the FIFA rule-makers have authorised VAR for the World Cup. No, no! Stop it! We rely too much on machines.
A notable exception is curling. One of its refreshing aspects was the way that opponents always agreed the result of an end - no disputing. It was grown up behaviour. (A shame we didn’t come away with a medal, but I did admire Eve Muirhead going for broke with her last stone!)
So what’s wrong with it? I don’t mind the use of photo-finishes when the human eye really isn’t fast enough to separate out bicycle wheels, horses’ noses or skate tips crossing the finishing line – though if they’re that close, what’s wrong with equal first? However my real objection is the use of video replays in sports’ competitions of any sort. And it’s not because of the interruption of the flow of play, even if that is annoying enough. It’s because it infantilises sport. It demeans referees and umpires (depending on your sport). Instead of the man or woman on the spot being the final arbiter, technology is appealed to. Human beings are judged by machines.
We need to re-establish human trust into sport. Of course your referee may make mistakes, but that’s life. There used to be an adage, “The referee’s decision is final.” It wasn’t a bad one. There was another, “You win some, you lose some.” It was a healthy attitude, more healthy, I’d suggest, than the present custom of arguing the toss whenever the decision goes against you. There’s little more ugly than a grown man representing his country confronting the referee when he’s judged to have committed a foul. The “You cannot be serious!” merchants of the sports arena need to grow up themselves. Umpires and referees are selected for their impartiality. They deserve to be respected more, not placed at the mercy of machines. Sport would become a great deal more enjoyable were its participants (and their teams and supporters) to accept decisions made by those who in fact carry out a no-win job with extraordinary skill and integrity, without resort to wretched machines.
I’m told that the amount of money that is now tied up in professional sport is the driver behind the technological juggernaut. Maybe, but at least in the field let’s have less, not more, technology and more, not less, trust in people.