Artificial intelligence in sport can potentially undermine athlete rights
A robot plays basketball at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: China News Service/Getty Images
Days before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Summer Olympics we saw how the Olympic torch was handed from humans to robots and vice versa. It was also robots who welcomed athletes to the Olympic Village and escorted them to their accommodation using facial recognition. And no-one was shocked when these robots were carefully cleaning the stadium prior to the athletic contests.
Cycling fans celebrate every year that the Tour de France organisation has been a pioneer in incorporating the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) and Digital Twin technology, which have led to a huge improvement in the broadcasting of the race and has exponentially increased the fans’ engagement in the most famous cycling competition in the world.
The use of artificial intelligence (AI) in sport is so widespread that most fields of professional sport are already embracing it. Certainly, AI is used today in refereeing, coaching, training, prevention of injuries and sports endurance analysis. AI also plays an important role in the improvement of athletes' diet and everything from sports betting to fighting doping and security in stadiums. The same applies to amateur sports. Just consider the countless apps that encourage us to do sports and improve our performance on a daily basis while feeding their demanding databases.
Sports is indeed an area prone to the use of these disruptive technologies and there are many positive features of AI, and they will be even more so in the future. It is certain that AI will contribute to improving the health of athletes, the integrity of the competition and sporting performance.
The dangers posed to athletes by AI
But it is also true that the current unrestrained rise of AI can seriously undermine the basic rights of athletes, as well as challenge the integrity and equality of sport competition.
Sport has long been a field for testing new products, whether drugs or advanced technology, without considering the interests and welfare of athletes. On the contrary, athletes have been used as mere guinea pigs to test these products regardless of the impact on their lives and careers. Indeed, today we deplore many premature deaths due to doping that could have been avoided and countless mental health problems suffered by athletes as a consequence of their training routines, that we are only now beginning to understand and regret.
The fast and uncontrolled growth of artificial intelligence in sport does not only increase the risk of inequality and corruption in competition, as it happens with the so-called techno-doping. It also jeopardises the privacy and autonomy of athletes by exposing their personal data to the interests of trading firms.
This situation is particularly worrying in the case of children and young athletes. No one seems to care about how AI is affecting the privacy of athletes and the impact on their future careers from potentially biased data collection. Also algorithms for improving performance are often based on biased data from elite athletes and could lead to physical and psychological collapse amongst children and young people who try to follow them.
We should not forget that the data feeding sport algorithms are drawn from a male dominated domain, created by and for the pleasure of men. The several biases these data contain only increase the patriarchal nature of sport, ignoring the serious risks they pose to the health of female athletes, whose biology and differences when practicing sport have never been taken into account and are perpetuated through the patriarchal ancestry of AI.
In short, in the face of the growing and ever-increasing use of AI in sport, it is necessary to ensure an ethical and legal framework that protects sport and, especially, athletes from the domination of algorithms.
In other words, AI in sport should serve to reinforce the human values of sport such as fair play and equality in competition. AI should ensure the integrity and good governance of sport at the global level and deepen the social and educational side of sport rather than satisfy the financial interests of large technology firms.
Technology in sport at Play the Game 2022
The role of technology in sport will be a key theme at the Play the Game 2022 conference.
Learn more about the conference themes