Research Sports Technology

Book Review: Beyond The Finish Line


This is one of the rare occasions where I am asked to review a book. Of course, being a sports technology site, the book in question (Beyond The Finish Line) has something to do with sports technology. It may not be full on about sports technology or deep diving into the mechanics of a technology, it is still relevant. In fact the book provides context to why the technology or solution was developed in the first place and how it became what it is today and ends off with the questions of “did it really solve the problem?” and “what next?”.

What Is The Book About?

The full title of the book is – Beyond The Finish Line: Images, Evidence, And The History of The Photo-Finish. That second part of the title gives us a pretty decent idea of what technology this book talks about – photo-finish technology. The entire book is very historical and factual. It starts with the idea that technology might grant us the solution for “dead heats” – the situation where the competition is so close, we cannot confidently/objectively determine the top 3 placings. The desire to resolve dead heats brought about photography in sports and using that to capture an image of the finish line. It depicts different innovators trying to improve the process and technology, even competing among themselves to take things to the next level through different competitions at the national to international level. The book goes through the motivation behind, the parallels, the challenges, and the different stakeholders involved. One could say it was all for the sake of capturing the finish line moments and accurately determining the real winners. Or from a slightly different point of view, it’s also about precisely measuring infinitesimal improvements in sports performance. But there is even more to it.

Triple dead heat. Source: link

The Author

Jonathan Finn is an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University (at the time of writing this). He has a PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies and he is trained in art history and visual cultural studies. He has done a lot of work (research) on visual communication and how photography and images are used in different social and institutional practices. A couple of his prior publications include: “Capturing the Criminal Image: From Mug Shot to Surveillance Society” and “Visual Communication and Culture: Images in Action“. More recently, his work is focused on the intersection of sport and surveillance, from satellites to wearable fitness tracking devices. “Beyond The Finish Line” is one of the products/outcomes of that.

My Quick Overview

To be honest, this is not a typical book I would pick up to read unless I am doing something related to sports history or working on a project about photo-finish. There are a lot of historical events and who did what and who wrote about something and what were the rules at the different periods. The first chapter was particularly hard to go through (especially at the start) because there are a lot of names mentioned and a fair amount of philosophical discourse. It gets easier for me when technology and sports performance is brought up in the second half of chapter one. From chapter two onwards, things were pretty much in chronological order and there is some sort of flow which is helpful. Basically with each chapter succession, there is an incremental improvement of the photo-finish technology from the late 19th century, stretching throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. It is interesting that even though technology and advanced electronics improves automation, reduces human error, it only almost eradicates the “dead heat” yet does not quite do it due to various reasons. The ending in chapter six is somewhat philosophical again where the reader is brought back to the title “Beyond the finish line”; it leaves me with the thoughts of how far technology has come and whether it solved the problem (of dead heats) or in some way actually added to the problem.

I do have three takeaways which I cover below:

Sports And Business

Usain Bolts’ Photo-Finish at the Rio Men’s 100m Semi-Finals. Source: link

Sports and business is very very closely intertwined. The idea of using photography to capture who crossed the finish line was adopted in horse racing in 1890s. Although there wasn’t a lot of accuracy due to human error and inconsistencies in camera setups, the photos were valuable for journalism (newspapers) and entertainment. For that reason, photographers would be at every race to capture race finishes. Subsequently, growth in sports betting also led to the demand for better identification of winners through photography. Businesses were built to develop and sell cameras as the business of photography grew. This ultimately led to innovations (patents) to improve technology, the better design of camera and timing equipment and even to improve processes. The bulk of chapter 4 dives into the business of photo-finish technologies and marketing within Olympics. It really brings a different perspective to how much is involved (tech and business negotiation/management wise) to successfully pull off an Olympic Games and how businesses pushed so that both sports and businesses could benefit from it all.

Science And Regulations

Source: IAAF track and field facilities manual

Before I read this book, my thoughts on good photo-finish technology was: we just need super high speed cameras placed around a race track, synced with high quality/fidelity cables, and coupled with really good trigger sensors so everything is fully automated and precise. But now I understand that every sport governing body has different regulations because there are different limitations and tolerances/consistencies to consider for each sport and their environment. A track and field race track is very different from a down hill ski slope and a swimming pool lap. The race environments were built to meet standards set by their governing bodies and some tolerances are allowed. So if tolerances are allowed (for e.g. +/- 0.01m error in track and field), it means athletes do not race in exact similar conditions. In other words, say sprinters sprint at around 10m/s, Sprinter1 could be sprinting 10mm more than Sprinter2 in a 100m race due to track error. Therefore it wouldn’t be fair to capture the finish at a much higher precision (for e.g. up to 1/10,000th of a second) because the distance in 0.0001sec is about 1mm and Sprinter1 would have lost simply because of the allowed track error. This was an eye opener for me.

Sports Performance and Photo-Finish Tech

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 05: (L-R) Reece Prescod of Great Britain, Justin Gatlin of the United States, Yohan Blake of Jamaica, Akani Simbine of South Africa, Christian Coleman of the United States, Usain Bolt of Jamaica, Jimmy Vicaut of France and Bingtian Su of China compete in the men’s 100m final during day two of the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London 2017 at The London Stadium on August 5, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 700043868 ORIG FILE ID: 826741938

So photo-finishes in races tell us exactly how fast each athlete performed and can be used as an indicator of performance. The documentation of timings started off only for the winners in competitions and it was only much later on in the 1960 Rome Games where timings of all competitors were recorded. This meant performance of all athletes are recorded and every athlete has an official recognition and a personal benchmark to beat. Looking at this (recording performance of every competitor) now, I would think: of course that should be done and it makes perfect sense. But it has taken around 60 years for it to happen, from the late 1890s when photo-finish and capturing timings was first implemented. It makes me think that development and application of technology in sport can sometimes be very focused on one thing while missing out on lateral opportunities that have even wider benefits. Perhaps we should start looking at the technologies we have now in sports, think laterally and explore further on how they could be applied to reap exponential returns.

Finishing Thoughts

Overall, this is a great book. It has lots of interesting stories or recounts of events. I particularly like the second half of the book which details more about technology and patents, sports business development and the world of Olympics. A bit thought-provoking towards the end. The first half felt a bit draggy for me but I think it sets a good backdrop for the middle or second half. I probably shouldn’t have tried to understand every detail and just moved on with the gist of it. For those who are into sports history and like technology stories, this should be on your “to-read” list. For those who are techies like myself, glance through chapters 1 & 2 and go from chapter 3.

Thanks to Erin from McGill-Queen’s University Press for setting me up and sponsoring this post!

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