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Barbara Kendall won gold, silver and bronze medals in her Olympics career and now sits on the board for a prominent AI company, and she offers her thoughts on AI's future in sports.

By Simon Ogus
August 18, 2016

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Technology has played a major role in the Olympics this year in Rio. Athletes are using technology to train more efficiently, wearing specialized equipment for increased strength and are recovering more quickly all due to advances in technology and new innovations.

Barbara Kendall has seen this transformation in a way few ever can. She competed in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics in Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney and won gold, silver and bronze medals through her 25-year sailboarding career. When her athletic career ended, she got into the technology world and is now a member of board of directors for the artificial intelligence (AI) company Arria NLG.

In an interview with SportTechie, Kendall talked about how technology has changed since her Olympics career and how artificial intelligence continues to change the way sports are played and viewed.

SportTechie: Please discuss the evolution of AI within the sports world and how it evolved to the levels that you see in today’s Olympic competition.

Barbara Kendall: Artificial intelligence is disrupting the very way we view sports and athletes play the game—and automation is playing a huge role in this. For example, sports teams are putting robotic sensors in athletic clothing and equipment, gathering data when athletes are wearing or using them and then leveraging the data in all sorts of ways: from providing sports fans with real-time stats and coaches with data to help them inform and coach performance.

ST: How is the data being gathered as the athletes wear the sensors during competition?

BK: As [with] the rest of the world, the sports industry is being inundated with data—almost always available in real time and from an overwhelming number of sources. As discussed in the above, sensors athletes wear during events is one of the main resources for collecting data—and can absorb and regurgitate performance and results, from speed to distances to strength; or scores to percentages of possession; passes assist goals and [more]. Data from a live event can even be combined with existing data from past performance.

ST: What are some Olympic examples of how data gathered and processed by AI speeds up the adjustment time for athletes and teams within competition as compared to previous Olympics where this technology wasn’t available?

BK: We’re seeing a huge influx of tech usage during this year’s game, across a range of different arenas. Some specific examples:

• Sailing: GPS trackers on boating equipment provides real-time and accurate recordings for race results, speeds and tactical decision-making.

• Fencing: Sensors in the gear allows judges and viewers to see the exact moment and location of a hit.

• Tennis: You can see on the arena’s screen the speed of the hit in real time.

• Rowing: Trackers are measuring stroke rate per minute in real time and the statistics are instantly displayed to viewers.

• Camera technology has advanced in sports like hockey, tennis and rugby. Camera referees are being used to remove doubt in referee decisions, which can help reduce controversy.

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ST: What are the main benefits of AI from the fans’ perspective and why should they be interested in what the technology can do for their viewing experience?

BK: How fans consume and watch sporting events is constantly being disrupted by emerging technologies (think of how many more are using mobile devices), and AI is just the latest. Fans can see real-time statistics for their favorite players and their competitors, making viewing a more interactive experience. AI (real-time stats) and new technologies (such as 3-D cameras or 360 viewing) mean that fans are immersed in a live game—even if they aren’t physically at the event.

ST: What has been the timeline in your career to go from Olympic-caliber athlete to AI business leader?

BK: I heard about Arria’s technology about 18 months ago and was particularly intrigued by the weather forecasting ability of Arria, which would help at sailing competitions. Once I dug deeper into the potential of what this technology could do, I wanted to be involved to try [to] bring this technology to the global community of sport. My time as an International Olympic Committee member finishes after Rio, which will enable me to spend more time to become immersed in AI.

ST: Where else is this data utilized within sports?

BK: The data can be leveraged by athletes and coaches, but also by judges and allow them more accurate readings of results. This allows to less error and faster decision making; and no need for ongoing disputes.

ST: With this technology not being available for many Olympic coaches when they began their careers, how has the process matured and what has the learning curve looked like?

BK: Many of the bigger sporting nations that have good government support have a sports science and technology arm to assist with trying to enhance the performances of athletes whether it is physically or with equipment. The specialist scientists work with the coaches so they can utilize this information or technology. With AI this information will be easier to understand and access which will enable emerging nations to also benefit.

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