Artificial Intelligence in Sports: Potentials and Risks

The World Economic Forum, which brings together more than 3,000 politicians, business leaders, economists, professional experts and journalists every year to articulate the world’s biggest challenges, highlighted a few months ago misinformation as the greatest risk factor for human beings and nations around the globe. Misinformation – i.e. incorrect, erroneous or incomplete messages, which at first appear to be real information – are therefore today, according to the WEF, a greater risk factor than climate change, inequality and migration. The reason is the explosive technological development of artificial intelligence, where text, sound, images and videos with manipulated content can be spread by social media in a split second.

AI is used with great success throughout society

Artificial Intelligence are computer programs and algorithms designed to imitate – or more precisely supplement – human intelligence and perform tasks that normally require human thought processes and reflections. The programs and algorithms are able to analyze large amounts of data, draw conclusions, predict actions and recommend decisions based on existing knowledge and experience in scientific articles, encyclopedias, newspaper articles and opinions from professional experts. IA is used today on a large scale and with great success in many different sectors: food production, software industry, antivirus programs, cyber security, diagnosis of cancer and other life-threatening diseases, control of surgical robots, language teaching, traffic infrastructure, music composition, film production and much more.

Sports technology is big business

AI has also revolutionized the sports industry in recent years, primarily within performance analysis. AI technologies enable real-time data collection and analysis during sporting events. This is done via sensors embedded in equipment on athletes, which record data points such as speed, acceleration, heart rate and positioning. AI algorithms process this data to provide valuable insight into athletes and team performance, enabling coaches and professional experts – physiotherapists, doctors, performance analysts and sports psychologists – to make data-driven decisions – also during matches and in competitions. Today, in the vast majority of sports, there is a close interaction between the global sportstech industry and top athletes, coaches and experts. It is estimated that over the next five years, the global sportstech industry’s market value will grow from 18 billion US dollars to over 40 billion US dollars, with annual growth rates of 15-20 percent. Modern sports tech ranges widely: From the development of sports clothing, nanotechnology and laser irradiation to the production of equipment for bicycles, boats and cars, high-speed cameras and the integration of sensors for biomechanical analyses, the use of drones for technical and tactical analyses, sensors for measuring heart rate, lactate, fluid balance and sweat production during training and competition to simulate matches through visualization.

AI holds comparative advantages

AI contains a number of obvious benefits for athletes, coaches and professional experts – doctors, physiotherapists, dietitians and sports psychologists – in relation to performance optimization, both in training, matches and at international championships. The AI algorithms can generate predictive models that predict athletes performance and potential injuries. The coaching staff can use this information to optimize training programs, prevent injuries, adjust training loads and modify techniques, and optimize recovery and rehabilitation. Predictive analytics also help teams identify patterns in opponents’ strategies so they can devise effective game systems and strategies. Likewise, Virtual reality simulations combined with tracking sensors can allow athletes to participate in virtual training and rehabilitation exercises that mimic real-world scenarios. AI technologies can also act as tools for game strategy and tactical analysis by processing vast amounts of data from past matches, scouting reports and performance data. AI-powered systems can make suggestions – here and now – about substitutions, tactical adjustments and game plans, helping teams gain clear competitive advantages.

AI in sports also contains serious risks 

The use of AI in sport, however, also contains a number of serious risks, which especially the international sports organizations and federations should deal with much more actively than has been the case so far.

One of the biggest risks is data protection and security for the individual athlete. The implementation of artificial intelligence in sports involves the collection and analysis of a range of personal information about the individual athlete. It is extremely important that this data is not misused in relation to the individual athlete’s privacy and security. Indeed, sports organizations and federations must comply with strict data protection regulations and implement robust cyber security measures to protect this sensitive information from unauthorized access or breach.

Secondly, AI technologies in sports entail a number of ethical considerations, especially in relation to fair play and “equel competition terms” for all athletes. Resourceful nations and global commercial companies can gain a number of unfair advantages through the use of artificial intelligence, just as there will be great risks of manipulation of results. There is clearly a great need for the international federations to establish clear and transparent guidelines to preserve the integrity of the individual sports and ensure that AI is used ethically and in accordance with the sporting regulations in the individual sports. If this does not happen, athletes and teams from strong sporting nations such as the US, China, Japan, Russia, UK, France, Australia and the Netherlands will achieve significant comparative competitive advantages in many sports.

Third, implementing AI technologies in sports may face technical limitations and implementation issues. It requires significant financial resources, sophisticated algorithms and reliable data sources. Sports organizations and federations must invest in the necessary infrastructure, expertise and resources to ensure the responsible and effective use of artificial intelligence in sport. If this does not happen, the use of artificial intelligence in the coming years may have far greater negative consequences than medical doping has had for international sport over the past decades.

You can read more about AI in sports here:

  • Chris Brady, Karl Tuyels & Shayegan Omidshafiei: AI for Sports (CRC Press, 2021)
  • Duarte Araújo, Micael Conceiro, Ludovic Seifert, Hugo Sermento & Keith Davids: Artificial Intelligence in Sport Performance Analysis (Routledge, 2021)
  • Robert P. Schumaker, Osama K. Solieman & Hsinchun Chen: Sports Data Mining. (Springer, 2010).