Andy Miah, professor of science communication and future media at England’s Salford University near Manchester, has made his name in sport as the man who told the anti-doping emperor he was wearing no clothes.
His radical view is that the world’s anti-doping system is “inherently failing” and should be replaced by a “harm-reduction” model in which doping is allowed, but athletes are properly educated in the risks, while their health is controlled and supervised.
Controversial stuff, and it’s made him some enemies in the anti-doping establishment, but there’s much more to Miah than an anti-doping denier. I’ve arranged to talk to him about his new book, Sport 2.0, sub-titled ‘#Transforming Sports for a Digital World’ and published by MIT Press - albeit we meet on the sidelines of the Sheffield Documentary Festival where he’s just been part of a panel discussing Icarus, a new film about doping and, in particular, about Grigory Rodchenkov, the Russian doping whistleblower (see Sportcal Insight opinion column here).
He has made for a lively panellist, boyish and enthusiastic in his white T-shirt, plimsolls and big orange sunglasses (obtained from Netherlands House during the Rio Olympics), arguing that: “The fundamental problem is the drug cheats are ahead of the testers. It takes a filmmaker to expose these problems and do something the drug testers and intelligence officers haven’t been able to do.” The authorities have “had a good run with the anti-doping solution - and it hasn’t worked,” he concludes.
There’s a recognition that sports events are bigger than what happens on the playing field: you’re curating a city-wide experience
I’ve read Sport 2.0, and it certainly doesn’t lack ambition: virtual reality and augmented reality; social media and eSports; wearable technology and live sites: all of sport’s recent technological innovations are covered, at sometimes breakneck speed. Yet the book was 15 years in the making, Miah explains, because things were moving so fast the time never seemed right to draw a line and publish.
“I began it at the beginning of the social media revolution,” he explains. “I was interested in how sports would be transformed as a result of the process, but also how it would democratise information. By 2010 to 2012 we were still not at the end of that period. Then came the proliferation of social media and we still needed a bit more time to see how it would change sports events: how producers thought about audiences. Then came the beginnings of virtual reality.
“For me, it’s come out at the right time. The ‘gamification’ of sport is a useful point at which to stop. It’s hard to imagine radically different things in the next four years. There were three eras: pre-Vancouver [the 2010 winter Olympics] it was all about websites and digital media, then up to Vancouver it was about social media and for the last five years I’ve been working more closely with IOC on how to use social media and how journalists innovate with those media.”
Miah, who has close links with the IOC, receives accreditation to attend the Olympics and is part of the organising team for the Abandon Normal Devices festival of new cinema and digital culture, which developed from the cultural programme of the London 2012 games. Although he acknowledges that the IOC itself hasn’t always been at the forefront of the technological revolution, he contends that “it’s the environment around the Olympics where innovation takes place.
“We see a lot more investment into the out-of-stadium experience within mega events,” Miah argues, citing so-called ‘live sites’. “This is enabled by digital technology,” he continues, “but there’s also a recognition that sports events are bigger than what happens on the playing field: you’re curating a city-wide experience.”
So what is the book’s thesis? “It argues on behalf of integrating digital technology across all aspects of the sports experience,” Miah says. “Not just applying what we have, but making innovation and trying to go beyond human limits. Technology should be central to how we experience and make sense of sports. Steps from here to there include things like social media and seeing mobile phones as extensions of our bodies.”
Miah’s argument is that technology, specifically digital technology, is pervading every aspect of sport – its practice, its consumption and its communication, to the extent that such distinctions are becoming meaningless – so we might as well embrace it. “It is now time for sports to abandon the distinctions between physical and digital ways of living…,” he writes. “Why not migrate sports entirely into the virtual world?”
Pressed on this last point, Miah concedes that, “the live economy is huge for sport. Even eSports still has big live experiences. Physical space is partly required to stabilise the sport for everyone so there’s a level playing field; the only way is for it to be all in the same place at the same time. There will always be a live economy. It’s all part of the social life that revolves around sports.”
So what will be the biggest changes in the way sport is consumed in the next 10 years, I ask? “One big thing we’ll see changing is evident already within the principles of the Olympic Channel, Miah replies, defining that change as “third-party integration within an application.” Sports are now routinely being first experienced through mobile devices, Miah continues, but with third-party integration users can connect with other applications like Spotify, the music-streaming service, to listen to, for example, the training soundtrack of their favourite athletes, providing a “much closer link” between the amateur and elite athlete.
“You can now decide to go to the gym to watch the Tour de France and cycle with your favourite rider,” Miah says. “We always thought the holy grail of sports commentary was to answer the question, what does it feel like to win the game, or win the race? Now we can have an understanding of what it means to experience that performance. Virtual reality takes you closer.”
He cites Virtually Live, the company that boasts that it is “using the latest in VR to put fans into the heart of the action,” working with the likes of Fox Sports and NBC Sports in USA. The service offers viewers a computer-generated experience in real-time, with a lag of just six seconds, Miah explains, meaning that they can, for example, ‘walk’ around a playing field while a game is taking place. With such innovations, he stresses, the “whole idea of ‘remote’ is going out of the window.”
Despite some reservations about the “user experience” to date, Miah is an enthusiast for the potential of the Olympic Channel, the digital channel launched by the IOC last autumn, arguing that it has the “opportunity to become the Facebook of the Olympics.”
If it achieves aggregating power, the IOC protects itself in a world where the dog is being wagged by the tail of social media
“If a local club wants to put its footage out there,” he says,” and if every small community does that, you could have 100 million communities providing a huge amount of useful data. If it achieves aggregating power, the IOC protects itself in a world where the dog is being wagged by the tail of social media. Otherwise, it will persistently sell out to whoever will bid for rights for social media content. At the moment, it’s still very reliant on whether broadcasters are prepared to stump up for rights. But this is a world in which TV is becoming increasingly redundant.”
And how about the way sport is practiced? What will be the big changes on the playing field in the next 10 years? Miah, who is never at a loss for an answer, replies without hesitation: “We can already see innovations in the use of digital, such as the relationship between Vislink and Go Pro to produce performance tracking data.”
Vislink is a UK-based specialist in the wireless capture, delivery and management of live video, which works with Go Pro, the wearable cameras company, on a product called Herocast, a transmitter small enough to be “worn or mounted in unusual and formerly inaccessible locations,” bringing “unprecedented new angles to audiences watching their favourite live sports and events,” according to the company literature.
The product “creates a new broadcasting proposition in which you select the camera of the player you want to follow, and provides a deeper feedback loop for the athletes themselves, meaning you get richer performance data than ever before,” Miah says. “Digital innovation allows us to understand how to improve performance.”
Had such technologies been available to Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger who was killed on a training run in Vancouver ahead of the 2010 winter Olympics, perhaps his life might have been saved, Miah suggests, adding: “The rationale to allow athletes to practise [with these technologies] is pretty compelling.”
What is driving these changes, I ask? Is this the result of technology looking for an application, or are people genuinely searching for new and better ways of playing and consuming sport? “It depends on which sports you’re talking about,” Miah replies, arguing that “very bespoke” sports such as sailing, and other sports where spectators physically find it difficult to get close to the action, are now “entirely digitally dependent.”
“One of the challenges is that many digital experiences are not very good,” he continues, citing the IOC’s virtual reality coverage of sport to date, which he said has been “hard to use and not many people got much out of it.” At the other end of the scale, the graphics in some computer games are now so realistic that, in sports like Formula 1, where the cars’ “movement within space is quite predictable,” viewers might not be able to distinguish coverage of a ‘real’ race from a computer game. “Then you could have problems around what is real and what is not,” he adds, with some relish. “Once you’ve perfectly replicated the physical world, why do you need the physical one?”
This brings him onto his central thesis, the notion, not easy to comprehend fully, that in the words of the book, “It is now time for sports to abandon the distinctions between physical and digital ways of being.”
Is he really saying that there is, or soon will be, no difference between playing a game of football with your mates in the park, watching a game on your mobile or playing the latest instalment of FIFA with your (virtual) mates on a computer screen? Not exactly, he says. What he means is: “In the near future, digital won’t replace [physical sport] but will give rise to new sports developing, an incremental adoption of things, and subsequently perhaps the fragmentation of sport. New ways of doing sports are emerging.”
As an example, he cites ‘Fan Boost’, the app developed by Formula E, the electric car racing series, which enables fans to have a direct influence on the outcome of a race through an online voting system in which fans are able to give their favourite drivers extra power in the race.
“In the past, [elite] sport was protected from audiences, yet spectator support is a part of the terrain,” he says. “For spectators to take an active part in affecting performance is innovative. They’re no longer happy just to watch, they want to be a part of it, they want to be actors in it. This means we can empower spectators.”
Despite his reservations about the IOC’s virtual reality experiments, Miah sees VR as playing a central role in the way in which sport is influenced by technology, and the way in which people are influenced by sport – even if he does not expect us all to be watching an entire soccer match in VR in the near future. “You have to look at the range of experiences available,” he says. “Look at the industry trend. In October last year Playstation launched a VR accessory. So there’s a generation of kids for whom the VR habits are becoming formed. Expectations change and there’s the possibility of Playstation delivering content, so you’d watch live sport through your Playstation instead of on TV.
“You could watch on Playstation and then when there’s a replay you can have a VR moment. Sport is still trying to work out which [application] it can make money out of. It’s alternative ways of engaging with sports content, how we can create VR experiences that feel social.”
In the near future, digital won’t replace [physical sport] but will give rise to new sports developing, an incremental adoption of things, and subsequently perhaps the fragmentation of sport
And eSports? Are they a threat or an opportunity for ‘traditional’ sports? “The rubbish answer is they’re both,” says Miah with a laugh. “In 2015 the International eSports Federation had its world championships in Korea and the IOC came along. There’s a different range of activities and they thought they need to keep an eye on that.
“It’s an opportunity because it can provide new ways of engaging people with sport that [otherwise] aren’t interested. It’s a threat because it’s a different economic model. Twitch TV [the leading eSports platform] is peer to peer. There’s a recognition that eSports brings a new proposition that may need to be the model that traditional sports adopt. It’s an opportunity to reinvent sports.
“We need to recognise that there are new activities that people play that take up their time. There’s a generation of young people that are lost to gaming and are not terribly involved. Very little is known about that culture among the ‘grown-ups’, and there’s a lot of scepticism over their value. But players at the elite level become role models [just as in traditional sports], and those elite players eat well, exercise and rest.
“There’s a shift from seeing computer game playing as the antithesis of sports, to where it’s seen as a different kind of sport, and this is a wake-up call to traditional sports and the industry. Traditional sports do alienate a lot of people and eSports may, for some of those, be a solution. For now, computer games are mostly fantasy-based. People in sport don’t see the content as related.”
However, Miah claims, increasingly computer games are being developed that can be viewed as a “bridge” to more traditional sports. He cites ‘Zombies, Run!’ a ‘Pokemon Go’-style mobile running app that recognises users’ locations and takes them on a journey through the real (not the virtual) world. Users can, for example, select a 10-kilometre journey in which they are instructed to run from location to location but in which, instead of finding Pokemons, they must evade pursuing virtual zombies. ‘Run in the Real World. Become a Hero in Another’, is its catchline.
Miah says: “It’s Pokemon Go for fitness fans, except they’re being chased by zombies. You are physically running. It makes the act of running more interesting, to make you do it more. It’s a bridge to a world where you become more physically enabled after being digitally enabled. Another example is an augmented climbing wall. Once up you’re up it, you’re given tasks. It will highlight a grip, and challenge you to get to that grip. It’s a more compelling proposition. It recognises that there’s something about the interface of the mobile experience that does incentivise you.”
But what does all this have to do with doping? The word that links all of Miah’s interests is perhaps ‘enhancement’. Last year he told me that enhancing performance in sport (via doping or any other method) should be seen in the same light as other approved processes such as seeking to cure disease or to reduce the effects of ageing, arguing: “I think that if we have a more open system, an effective dialogue with athletes about enhancing performances, they wouldn’t take so many risks. If you are a doped athlete today, you’ve got something that you don’t really know its properties.”
Citing the example of the hyperbaric chamber that athletes use (legitimately) to simulate the effect of training at altitude, Miah said: “If you take it out of the banned list, people are indifferent to technology. Sport has a history of being ambivalent about technology, but sports do also diversify. Technology allows sports to evolve - and sports have evolved. Look at the 100-metres sprint in ancient Olympia, where athletes used to coat themselves in olive oil to protect against dehydration.”
Where did these interests derive from? Miah was born in Norwich in eastern England in 1975 and says he was “in sport through my childhood, in every team, playing everything.” He studied sports science at Leicester’s De Montfort University where, he says, the course included “a lot of philosophy,” and went on to write a dissertation about technology in sport. At the time two major developments were taking place in the wider world – the completion of the human genome project and the development of the internet – and, ever since, those two topics have informed his work.
Is there a danger of the human factor in sport being undermined by the increasing prevalence of technology? Miah himself writes, apparently approvingly, in his book about Nike’s ‘Chalkbot’, “a robot vehicle that spray-painted yellow ‘graffiti’ onto the route that was taken by Tour de France riders. The graffiti consisted of messages sent by audience members using their mobile phones.” But doesn’t this simply undermine one of the few areas in which fans can actively engage with their heroes, by spray-painting their names and messages of encouragement on the road themselves? And, moreover, isn’t there a threat that sport’s much-valued unpredictability could be compromised by the incursion of technology?
Sport “relies on people being amazed, but I don’t think digital technology does that [compromises the human factor],” Miah says. “It gives rise to transformation, a renegotiation of limits. It might be that some sports are not so interesting any more. The role of the human does change, especially when other people are involved in production of the activity. The bike designer or nutritionist has a bigger role, but in my mind that’s preferable.
“For many years we’ve elevated athletes as the sole performers, but sport is only possible because of the volunteer spirit of parents and coaches. There’s a massive social value that sports brings at the core of it, but technology has always been employed. Think about the development of the surface of a running track. If you use it wisely, it makes sport more interesting. When it changes the nature or de-skills sports, then there are questions about its value. But technology often removes performance inhibitors, or makes sports possible.”
Asked what he believes sport is for, Miah refers to an odyssey he embarked on with his own seven-year-old son after the Rio Olympics, in which he tried out 20 Olympic sports over five days. “As a broad social vision, despite its flaws, you can still look to the emergence of modern Olympic sport, which is about trying to engage young people in productive activity, and that is still compelling,” he says. “It’s about social value, not competition and transcending human limits. People worry that too much seriousness around sports leads to a loss of joy. You have to begin with sport being about social change and engaging people in activities that enrich their lives. If you lose your race you can still cry: everything in life requires an investment in what you do.”
And how can or should sports organisations retain control in this converging world, I ask? Too late, he says: “They’ve lost control of their rights. TOP [the IOC’s sponsorship programme] already relies on referrals from Google and Facebook. [Rights-holders] are already in a position where they need to work with them to reach content or to ensure that they’re not being ripped off. In 2008, they were still sending cease-and-desist letters. Now they can use visual and audio-based tags, and posts can be automatically tagged and taken down or monetised. There’s a close relationship between the IOC and Google. People from Google are treated like royalty, and it’s now necessary to be a part of that world.
“The big shift is to become the next big platform; there is still no single platform for sport.”