Digest this: In 1903, the 2nd placed guy finished nearly 3 hours after the winner had crossed the finish line while this year, the gap between the winner and the runner-up was a mere 111 seconds.
This is partly due to the human endurance that constantly strives to push the limit but now, complemented by technology such as AI, it is helping us push those boundaries further.
A wonderful BBC Study3 shows how the technicians from each of the teams collate various data parameters that high-end computers analyze in real-time and give back invaluable insights.
Parameters such as the speed of the cyclist, duration cycled on the given day, the wind speed, gradient of the incline, angle of a sharp turn, distance to the next refreshment zone, distance to the current stage finish line etc. are captured and compared against historical data on a similar weather condition and against past participants - all in a matter of minutes if not seconds - and clear tactics drawn from the analysis that could make the difference between the winner and the rest are relayed back to the rider.
As Mr. Simon Smart4 of Smart Aero Technology explains, “The trick here is in developing the tools that can measure the smallest of differences. Once you can measure the small differences, you can spot the small gains and add them up to give your team that edge”.
This is happening not just in cycling but in almost every other competitive sport.
In Tennis for e.g. IBM5 is helping generate amazing AI-driven highlights for both the enjoyment of the fans as well as in aiding the players to constantly get better. Similarly, in the DRS (Decision Review System) in cricket, critical decision making is now up to AI influenced systems.
In the highly acclaimed HBR, Thomas Davenport6 wrote about competing on analytics and how businesses like banking, retail, hotel management etc., are finding a leading edge of doing business by efficient data analytics. Now with AI getting stronger and reaching more businesses and, in turn, touching those people who use those businesses, AI-driven analytics is giving another paradigm shift in terms of reimagining businesses from a customer point of view and this has started making its presence felt in sports as well.
Every aspect of many sports today is highly competitive, be it an individual or a team discipline.
With each new corner we turn, aided by AI-driven moderations, we are certainly moving towards a future where sports will become more enjoyable, highly balanced and mainly free from opportunities to cheat.
Hence my belief that in the long run AI will be the legal dope that will enable all sportspersons to excel.
1 Tour de France
Tour de France consists of 21 day-long segments (stages) over a 23-day period and cover around 3,500 kilometers (2,200 mi).
There are usually between 20 and 22 teams, with eight riders in each. All of the stages are timed to the finish; the riders' times are compounded with their previous stage times. The rider with the lowest cumulative finishing times is the leader of the race and wears the yellow jersey.
2 Tour de France winners’ classification
3 BBC Click & Dimension Data at Tour de France
4 Smart Aero Technology
5 AI transforming Tennis
6 Harvard Business Review Competing on Analytics