In the first part of his series on technology and officiating, media studies scholar Markus Stauff pointed out that referees have been employing technical advances since the very beginning of modern sports – that’s part of what makes them modern. Why then, he asked in that essay, do we allow athletes to watch replays on the giant screens of stadiums but not referees? In this second essay, he asks the same question about our small screens.  



For all sports, a basic requirement is bracketing out the outside world for the time of the competition. Marking and safeguarding a particular space allows for rule-bound behavior and supposedly guarantees a fair playing field. Most sports have their highly specialized, internationally standardized venues: swimming pools with lanes of 25 or 50 meters, athletic tracks of 400 meters, fields structured by lines that immediately signify baseball, soccer, or football.

Other sports, however, such as surfing or marathon running, use the existing topography to stage their competitions. They sometimes struggle to keep the athletic performance free from outside influences that can tamper with the equal competitive conditions in the environment. Road cycling is especially vulnerable. Even though the era when riders took the train or a car for an unobserved part of the route is over, riders still get stopped by a railway crossing gate, get run over by a TV motorcycle, and collide – or get pushed – by over-enthusiastic spectators. This year’s Tour de France pinpointed a new threat: the selfie stick. Several riders complained that they were impeded by such sticks used by spectators to get their smart phones closer to the action. German TV broadcaster ARD took up the issue and presented replays that showed a spectator running alongside the riders while holding his wiggly selfie stick high in the air.

Mobile media – especially smart phones – are starting to redefine, and occasionally endanger, the delimited field of sports in many ways. A telling example of literal technical interference occurred during the road bike race of the London Summer Olympics of 2012. An audience of hundreds of thousands watching outside was so active in tweeting, posting, and texting from the race course, that their signals interfered with the organization’s GPS data transmission. Some of the intermediate standings in the race could not be displayed due to this overload.

The surge of mobile media has penetrated the bounded space of sports in even more intense manner and undermined the authority of the referees who administer that space. Replays produced and shown by highly expensive video technology have put pressure on the authority of referees for decades. Now, however, the ubiquity of media images is blurring the boundaries between the referee and approved technological tools of refereeing (Hawk-Eye, goal line technology, etc.) and the consumer technologies in the hands of the audience. Even more, the athletes themselves, knowing full well how important media have become in judging their performances, can challenge the referee’s decisions not only with an angry voice but with media-based evidence. Already in 1965, Muhammad Ali, still in the ring some minutes after he knocked out Sonny Liston with the notorious “phantom punch,” requested the ring interviewer to show the replay after being asked how he actually hit his challenger (see my longer article on this famous instance as an example of the mediation of athletic performance).

Nowadays, the mobility and immediacy of media images allow athletes to employ them to their benefit. Two anecdotal examples from tennis are of special interest here: In a tennis match during the 2013 Italian Open, a player tried to take advantage of the established video infrastructure by forcing one of the official camera operators to take a shot of the ball’s mark in the clay with a portable device. That same year, during a first-round match of the French Open, a player who was unhappy with the umpire’s call took things into his own hands, getting his own smartphone out of his pocket and taking a photo of the ball’s mark. After the match he uploaded it to Twitter to prove the umpire wrong. This strategy makes sense when considering the fact that the Hawk-Eye system, which digitally detects if a ball is in or out in most professional tennis tournaments, is still not used for tournaments played on clay, since clay is itself defined as a medium that records traces of the ball. These instances of player initiative did not change the umpires’ judgments. In fact, the player in the French Open, Sergiy Stakhovsky, got a $2.000 fine for unsportsmanlike behavior.

But player fines will not stop similar episodes from happening. There have even been cases when athletes, aware of the media-savvy audience, tried to crowdsource the visible evidence that would prove them right against the judgment of officials. When Ted King was disqualified in the team time trial of the 2013 Tour de France after finishing seven seconds outside the time limit, the cyclist posted a screen shot from his own cyclometer on Twitter, displaying a finish time that was inside the time limit: “By my count, I’m at 32:24. I’m honestly not sure where 32:32 is from.” In a second tweet he asked spectators to support him in getting visible evidence: “What would be incredible is if someone could get a picture of me crossing the line with my time on the finish line. Thanks.”

Like the tennis players, Ted Kind didn’t succeed with his appeal to the authorities. Nevertheless, if the ruling of sports since its beginnings in the 19th century has been a constant balancing act between the (technically supported) authority of referees and the statistical insights and visual evidence available to the broader public, athletes’ and spectators’ easy access to mobile media changes the game once more. While most of the examples discussed here mainly have anecdotal value, this does not mean that unofficial photographic evidence is always inconsequential, nor that governing bodies should not take account of such evidence. Depending on the guidelines for officiating a competition, codified by the governing bodies of each sport, the referee’s decision-making process might actually take into account images from mobile media that are not part of the approved technical arsenal.

Take for example shot putter David Storl’s performance at the 2013 World Athletics Championship in Moscow. During the competition, Storl’s best throw was first judged invalid when judges ruled he had stepped out of the designated area. However, a press photographer confronted the judges with a series of six shots from his automatic remote camera. The photos proved that Storl’s foot had not crossed the boundary while he was throwing. The officials overruled their prior call and Storl won gold. This decision was possible because rule 146.3 in the Competition Rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations allows that: “Any protest shall be made orally to the Referee by an athlete, by someone acting on his behalf or by an official representative of a team…. To arrive at a fair decision, the Referee should consider any available evidence which he thinks necessary, including a film or picture produced by an official video recorder, or any other available video evidence.” Given this rule, it is open to debate what would have happened if Storl himself would have recorded the competition to prove himself right to the judges.

The ruling of sports has always been shaped by the use of media within the bounded space of competition (whistles, cards, lines, etc.) and the mass media technology observing the game from outside that space. Media technology has offered not only different perspectives from that of the official but also more precise visual evidence, thus provoking constant criticism and defense of refereeing as well as its constant technical upgrading. The now-ubiquitous mobile media available to spectators and athletes alike continue this long-running dynamic of competing perspectives. As the examples here have shown, mobile media images are entering the field without being authorized as tools of the officials. Interestingly, each sport has its own specific preconditions for the interference of non-approved media into the specialized regime of ruling and judging – not only because of the different traditions and attitudes of the governing bodies but also because of the very different spatial and visual structures of each sport. But mobile media have already started to undermine the distinctions between athlete, spectator, journalist, and referee. Will the officiating of sports keep up with more the general trends in our “participatory culture” and allow for crowdsourced decisions? It will be interesting to observe how sports organizations react to this development. The vanishing spray in football, a line that is spontaneously drawn only to dissolve after a minute or so, is a first sign that the formal tools of ruling the game can also be mobile and transient.


Markus Stauff is a member of the media studies department at the University of Amsterdam. He has published many articles and essays on sport and media, and he is co-editor of the book Filmgenres: SportfilmMarkus is on Twitter at @staumar