The technology powering the 2022 Commonwealth Games

Business Insights

As Birmingham prepares for this summer’s Commonwealth Games, patent attorneys at Forresters look at some of the inventions that have helped change the sporting world.

Technology is now widely used in many sports to assist officials in making crucial decisions. Computer sensors can detect when an athlete has made a false start to within fractions of a second and cameras can spot when a ball has crossed a goal-line in football or a baseline in tennis.

Behind the advances in technology, many of which will be on display in the different sports at the Commonwealth Games, are patented inventions which can be ground-breaking new systems, but are more commonly improvements to existing designs.

Take the humble hockey stick. You may think that a hockey stick has always been a standard design of a curved head and straight shaft, but over many years the design of the hockey stick has changed due to improvements in technology, and changes to the rules. Often it has been the well-known sports brands that have driven these design changes in an attempt to gain a foothold in the market. This has led to a number of patents being filed, as companies seek to cement their presence in the market.

In 2017 Adidas introduced what they called the “3D head” and successfully patented its innovative design. The Adidas 3D head is different because it has an angled back face compared to a more traditional design.

An important skill in the modern hockey game is the ability to lift the ball off the playing surface, either to ‘throw’ the ball across the pitch or to execute what are known as ‘3D’ skills, where the ball is lifted and dribbled through the air. The angled back face of the stick allows the player to place their stick further underneath the ball and provides support to help the player lift the ball more effectively.

Emma Palmer, senior associate patent attorney at Forresters in Birmingham, said:

“This example demonstrates that no matter how small a design change may appear, it may still be worth protecting. The patented 3D head design has enabled Adidas to become a dominant force in the hockey stick market, by producing a match-winning design that its competitors can’t copy.”

The development of the starting blocks used in track athletics followed a similar course, where an otherwise simple piece of equipment has been improved by technology which has heavily influenced the role the equipment plays in modern athletics.

In 1929 Australian athlete Charlie Booth and his father created a set of wooden T-bar starting blocks. At the time it was common for athletes to turn up to a race with a trowel, so they could dig shallow foot holes. When word got around that Booth had gained an advantage using the blocks he was promptly disqualified for life. However, after a few weeks, the ban was overturned and the rising influence of starting blocks in international athletics had begun.

Typically, the starting block device is made of two support blocks, one for each foot or prosthetic blade with a bar connected to a base which allows the blocks to be adjusted. A patented design of starting blocks by the manufacturer Swiss Timing has the force sensors usually found on the support blocks moved to the rear of the base assembly. The benefit of this change in sensor position is to give a more accurate indication of a false start. This signal is calculated within an electronic processing unit, also located within the base assembly. The unit processes data collected by the force sensor, in conjunction with the race starting signal, to determine the athlete's reaction time.

The athlete’s reaction time is compared to a predetermined threshold set by the race starting device, to calculate whether an athlete made a false start. This is backed up by a buzzer or light indicator located at the rear of the blocks so officials and spectators alike can spot the infringement.

Many sports have been grappling with how to utilise technology to make sport fairer, by aiding the referee or umpire in their judgement.

One of the trickiest decisions a cricket umpire must make is whether or not to give a “leg before wicket” (lbw). This denotes instances where a batter is struck directly on their leg (or body) by the bowled ball, and the umpire must then make a pressurised decision as to whether the ball would have otherwise hit the stumps.

In 2000, Roke Manor Research filed a patent application for a video-based system, Hawk-Eye, which helped analyse the flight of the ball. The application focused on image-based data, which was used to assess the likely path of the ball had it not hit the batter. Although no doubt an interesting insight for TV viewers, there are significant drawbacks to relying on purely video images which hindered the system from becoming a tool for helping to make umpiring decisions. Namely, the system won’t work if the ball is obscured from the camera and it cannot distinguish between types of impact.

However, Hawk-Eye was updated to include analysis of the sounds of impacts during play. A patent application for this improvement was filed in 2003. Coupled with the use of video, this enabled a more precise location of the “event” – such as an lbw impact. Microphones are used to detect audio signals which, when correlated with the video images, can be used to determine the distance from the microphone that an event occurred. When many microphones are used at the same time, additional data ensures that the exact location of the event or impact can be given.

The development of Roke Manor Research’s patented system to make use of both video and audio analysis now makes it a vital part of the decision review process at major cricket matches.

Emma Palmer said:

“It is clear to see improvements in technology really influence results in modern sport. As the margins between winning and losing become ever tighter, technology can work to the benefit of sportspeople, officials, and spectators by improving the essential pieces of equipment used in the sports we love.”