in Sport and technology

In today’s world, we are offered a constantly expanding range of interconnected technologies to use at work, at home and in leisure activities. The realm of sport is no exception, where new technologies or enhancements are available to athletes, coaches, scientists, umpires, governing bodies and broadcasters. However, in a world where time has become a precious commodity and numerous options are always on offer, functionality is no longer enough to drive their use. Instead, as this book has shown, each assemblage must grapple with a unique set of understandings and connections in order to determine the best actor-network to serve their particular purpose. As each chapter shows, there are multiple explanations and factors at play in the use of technology that cannot be reduced to singular explanations such as performance enhancement or commercialisation. Instead, technologies were shown to exist within actor-networks where any point in the network can affect another point, leading to multiple actants affecting the enrolment or non-enrolment of technology in sport.

This book shows how at times these networks stabilise with particular actants being enrolled, such as in the case in doping, where the actor-network of doping includes a particular understanding of doping as censured. In other cases the path of the network comes to an end as a particular assemblage or actant is no longer enrolled, such as in the case where in 2010 FINA no longer allowed the wearing of swimsuits with particular technological qualities. This book found different and varied forms of enrolment and translation, and it paid equal attention to the impact of human and non-human actants in the creation of sport.

Sport as a socio-technical actor-network

Introna (2009) emphasises that in today’s world we are increasingly connected to technologies to the point where we cannot separate ourselves from them. The notion of sport and technologies existing as actor-networks which, once assembled, can stabilise to produce particular transformative effects has been a constant theme throughout this book. For example, the book explored how athletes assemble with polyurethane swimsuits to produce swimmers capable of unusually fast times, judges and umpires combine with video-replay technologies to improve the accuracy of their decisions and how footballers assemble with GPS units to transform into trackable units, able to have their heart rate and other bodily statistics surveyed and measured at all times.

The book followed these assemblages through the larger actor-networks that make up sports, where the connections between assemblages were found to generate unexpected consequences. In cricket I found that the new assemblage of umpire and video replay potentially affected player performance. In tennis the same assemblage combined with rules around player challenges to produce yet another aspect of the tennis that a player could choose to include in their training regime, or not.

Indeed, this book included examples of many cases where enrolment did not occur and the actor-network did not expand to include a new technological device or enhancement. The evidence provided by scientists to show that a new enhanced boat was functionally capable of improving performance was not enough to convince kayakers to alter their actor-networks to incorporate the new boats. Or, in other words, the goal of performance enhancement did not translate directly into enrolment. Similarly, functionality was an insufficient reason for Michael Phelps and Rebecca Adlington to choose to assemble with any swimsuits not made by their sponsor Speedo, indicating the conflicting pressures athletes can experience between retaining sponsorship and achieving success.

At the same time, the different actor-networks that make up athletes’ bodies mean that all technologies do not have the same effects on all bodies. TCHEs have had their functionality called into question by athletes who have found that the unexpected effects of them on other already working parts of their actor-network affected their performance negatively, rather than improving it. Other athletes’ actor-networks already include a large capacity for carrying oxygen, making the addition of a TCHE superfluous.

Some of the above examples demonstrate how introducing new technologies into an actor-network can have unexpected effects on different parts of the network, such as Hawk-Eye impacting player performance. These examples have implications for sports policy-makers who intend to enrol new pieces of technology. Through viewing these cases as actor-networks, we can see how introducing a new piece of technology may also result in the need for restructuring or further resourcing. For example, in the case of the GPS units used in the AFL, further resourcing was found to be necessary in the form of data analysts and alternatives for stadiums with roofs that blocked GPS signals.

Describing sport as socio-technical answers ANT critics such as Elder-Vass (2008), who argue that because people have emergent properties, they cannot be treated as equal to non-humans. But he perhaps misses a crucial point in that he continues to treat people and things as separate, when the very essence of ANT is that things and people cannot be separated (Introna, 2009; Latour, 2005; Law, 1992; McLean and Hassard, 2004). As described above, ANT argues that, once a network assembles, it is transformed into a new actant with different properties from what existed previously. Therefore, the ANT theorist views the world as made up of these assemblages of humans and non-humans that often stabilise only briefly, and in particular ways.

As part of acknowledging the role of non-humans, ANT also notes the impact of different viewpoints in the enrolment processes. Indeed, identifying the links between the viewpoints of the different parties and the enrolment process is one of ANT’s most significant contributions. Many theoretical approaches focus on the identification of the viewpoints held by particular groups. ANT is not interested in what makes up these points of view per se, but provides a process for identifying the impact these different understandings have on the acting taking place. In Chapter 5, the important point was that the contrasting points of view, exemplified by the bio-medical model in comparison with the sport ethic, led to a non-enrolment, or a lack of action, between the athletes and mainstream medical practitioners, rather than the points of view themselves being the focus.

Technology as an actant

One point of contention with ANT is whether humans and non-humans can both hold agency (Collins and Yearley, 1992; McLean and Hassard, 2004). Collins and Yearley (1992) argue that ANT tends too much towards technological determinism in overstating the significance of non-humans as actants. This book has shown how, in the case of sport, non-humans can act through the concepts of mediators and intermediaries. For example, in the case of GPS as used in AFL, this book found that GPS units acted as intermediaries because of the useful nature of the data provided to coaches, but acted as mediators through not necessarily providing entirely accurate data.

Along with treating humans and non-humans as equal actants in the creation of sport, the question also arises of whether to treat all human actants equally. McLean and Hassard (2004) note that one criticism of ANT is that it focuses on ‘heroes’ or central powerful figures, because of the perception that they are important and powerful and therefore have a greater influence on the network. Yet arguably, if this book was to be described as focusing on any particular type of figure, it would be that it focuses on the activities of relatively ‘minor humans’. While there is some discussion of various successful athletes, there is perhaps more discussion of the humans who are normally somewhat hidden from view. For example, Chapter 7 examines the media makers and broadcasters who produce the media coverage or sport, who are a group that receive little attention in the literature. But, as Law (1992) points out, an ANT perspective is actually interested not in the ‘great person’, but rather in the workings that make up the success of that person. This book is therefore more focused on the various technologies that in some cases have contributed to the success of some ‘great’ athletes or events.


This book reveals that the power structure in sport is continually shifting. Following who is responsible for enrolling or translating various actants into the actor-network reveals where the power lies. For example, in Chapter 4, the examination of the doping actor-network revealed how several very different regimes – the IOC, WADA and East Germany – employed a range of components in order to minimise or eradicate doping. Through inscriptions and surveillance, enacted through paper, websites and drug testing, these organisations were able to retain control of doping and treat it as either a punishable or approved act. At the same time, power was also distributed throughout the network. For example, in East Germany the obviously powerful actors – high-level officials – enrolled doping as a method to produce success. However, athletes were also found to be powerful since they were the ones who represented East Germany, leading to a vast extension of the actor-network motivated by the perceived need to monitor the actions of travelling athletes. More recently, athletes have been empowered greatly owing to their ability to enrol the international human rights courts to intercede on their behalf and fight for compensation. Similarly, in the case of Hawk-Eye in cricket, as described in Chapter 6, while umpires have the power to interpret the replays shown by Hawk-Eye, high-level officials also have the power to utilise it to monitor the umpires’ skills.

At a societal level, I found the concept of the oligopticon to be useful as a way of examining how organisations enact power. The idea of the oligopticon as a central point of command that works through networked connections encompasses Foucault’s (1977) theory of institutions using a central point of surveillance to ensure the correct behaviour, along with Deleuze’s (1992) notion that we have moved away from institutional surveillance through physical forms to a flatter, more dispersed, networked arrangement. For example, in the case of WADA, there are two committees who run the organisation, but these committees are only able to remain in control as long as their connections to various parts of the network, such as drug testers, police organisations and the athlete passport programme, remain intact.


One of the interests of ANT theorists is in identifying how some actor-networks come to stabilise while others unravel or remain stable for only short periods of time. Chapter 7 examined two contrasting cases. The chapter argued that the Olympic Games can be considered a stable actor-network since it entails a number of features that make them immediately identifiable as the Olympic Games. This network is so stable that it is argued to be immutable and a global assemblage, in that the same form is able to remain intact even though the games move internationally. By contrast, the case of the America’s Cup found that this sporting event is extremely unstable because the rules change with each cup and there is a constant search to find a globally appealing form. The chapter argued that in both these cases technology plays a role in facilitating stability. In the case of the Olympic Games, broadcasting technology ensures that a stable television event called the Olympic Games occurs, while in the America’s Cup broadcasting technology is employed in order to attempt to emulate this level of stability.

Latour’s (1991) argument that stabilisation occurs through non-humans was also illustrated in the case of doping through a discussion of inscriptions. The actor-network of doping includes a range of non-human and human actants that ensure that doping remains a condemned yet policed practice, particularly through the presence of inscriptions. For example, WADA’s Anti-Doping Code acts as an inscription that transforms a variety of substances and practices from being allowed by athletes to being banned, with banning including a distinct set of surveillance practices to identify the use of the substances. As such, it is the inscriptions that produce ‘banned’ substances, and when combined with the internet, inscriptions allow the free circulation of this information. The circulation of inscriptions thus stabilises anti-doping practices in ensuring that all athletes have access to the necessary information about which substances and practices have been transformed into ‘banned’ ones.

Local and global

In focusing on following the networks, and acknowledging processes such as circulation, ANT essentially rejects any boundary between what is often termed the local and global, or micro and macro (Latour, 1995, 1999a; Law, 1992). Several of the cases examined in this book illustrate the ANT argument that a network can be global, while also being ‘continuously local’ (Latour, 1996, p. 67). For example, in the case of the swimsuit, factors that may be termed ‘global’ such as international sponsorship arrangements were found to influence the enrolment of particular suits, but at the same time it was found that, at the apparent ‘micro’ level, different bodies assembled very differently with the swimsuits, producing varied results. Yet these two factors were also strongly connected through the way that the ability for a body to assemble well with the swimsuit and record fast times affected the kind of sponsorship agreement that might be offered. These examples demonstrate how identifying an actant as local or global is not a useful exercise in an ANT study, since following the network extensively always leads to interconnections between the local and global.

Ending the network

This book is an incomplete description of the use of technology in a range of sports. It is incomplete because, as Law (1992) argues, it is impossible to describe every detail of a world. All that can be hoped for is a set of accounts that maps the moments when sport and technologies intersect. This book therefore contains different accounts from different parts of sport, during training, competition and broadcasting, that examine the range of reasons and ways that technologies are enrolled, or not enrolled, into sporting practice.

Lee and Stenner (1999) and Strathern (1996) note how a network has no specific end. There is no closure of the components of a network, and therefore the researcher is left uncertain where to end her research. Latour’s (2005) answer to this is to stop when the participants stop or when the demands of the inscription being written are completed. This book describes times when the participants have been very definite in arguing and agreeing that a certain point is the end of the network. However, the book could have continued by looking at a range of other cases and examples, with the networks being followed much further. But, as Strathern (1996) notes, the creation of any network must exclude, and at this point the demands of the inscription are completed. The goal of this book has been to provide a range of accounts of sport and technology and to provide readers with some methodological and theoretical ideas for examining our increasingly complex socio-technical world.

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Sport and technology

An actor-network theory perspective


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