As sporting events like the Olympics evolve, UF takes the lead in athletic innovation

<p>AI technology transforms global sports</p>

AI technology transforms global sports

Global sports are shifting rapidly, changing how the 2024 Olympics will be played and who will be playing. With new technology emerging and accessibility for athletes improving, sports across the world barely resemble what they did 128 years ago at Athens 1896

This summer in Paris, France, everything will be different. And as that transformation happens, the experts at the University of Florida will be intently watching, studying, and innovating.

Changing the game

UF – the Sunshine State’s home of the Gators and Gatorade – is already known internationally for its sports prowess. But, in the past year, it has grown into even more of an athletic think tank, with a slew of sports-related strategic initiatives coming to life across campus. 

These projects – covering everything from enhancing performance in para-athletes to using AI to collect sports-related health data – are helping shape the evolution of events like the Olympics and the Paralympic Games. What is researched and built at UF will undoubtedly have a ripple effect on the sports arena for decades to come.

“UF is a national leader in sports performance, and we’re ready to showcase our offerings and strengthen our partnerships on a much larger scale,” said UF President Ben Sasse, who launched a $2.5-million UF & Sport Collaborative Strategic Funding Initiative in January. 

The undertaking includes five projects: Sport and Health Leaders (a new certification that will increase students’ understanding of athletes), Gator AccelerAItor for Sport Analytics (a move toward a master’s program in AI in Sports Analytics), Gator Nation Gameday Live (an opportunity for students to produce sports broadcasts), AI-Powered Athletics (a program for analyzing student-athlete health data through AI), and Transforming Sport Science Research for Every Body (a research initiative designed around para-athletes). 

The latter two projects strongly tie into this year’s Olympics and Paralympics, which focus on incorporating AI and supporting inclusivity. The forward-thinking Paris games will feature the latest audio-visual technologies, as well as augmented and virtual reality, to give fans – onsite and at home – the most immersive viewing experience possible. The games will also open up the playing field to athletes who may not have had access to the events in prior years. 

All this progress is signaling a new way to watch and participate in sports, and UF is helping move the needle forward.

Championing inclusivity

“There’s a Place for Everyone in Sport” is one of the headers on the Olympics’ Paris 2024 website – on a page dedicated to “Leveraging the Games to Make Society More Inclusive.”

Nearly 350,000 visitors with disabilities are slated to travel to Paris this year to watch the Olympics and Paralympic Games, making it a priority for the city of Paris to ensure that “these fans have proper accessibility to have a truly inclusive experience at the Games,” the website says. “Paris 2024 is also committed to extending these efforts long after the Games to build a legacy. We want to harness the Games to show that sport boosts inclusivity in ways that benefit society.”

The same is true at UF – an institution dedicated to boosting sports inclusivity. Because para-athletes are severely underrepresented in academic research, UF’s College of Medicine is undertaking the Transforming Sport Science Research for Every Body project. Its goal is to advance the analytic capacity of the UF Health Sports Performance Center, making it a centerpiece of research and testing for able-bodied and para-athletes.

College of Medicine faculty members are uniquely positioned to spearhead this project, as the UF Health system is one of only three national medical centers in the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s Medical Network, as well as the only center in the nation that can comprehensively treat most medical issues for able-bodied and para-athletes.

“Because so much attention has been given to elite athletes, the incredible tools, resources, and technologies in sport science have not always been leveraged for the greater good of the overall population,” said Heather Vincent, Ph.D., the director of the UF Health Sports Performance Center. “Our goal is simple: to advance sport science for every body. We want to advance sports medicine for the whole public and bring this science from elite athletes to the level where everyone can access it, whether they are competitive athletes or just regular citizens being as active as they can.”

Studies will be conducted using specialized treadmills, testing equipment, and force sensors that can accommodate wheelchairs and adaptive needs. From these studies, investigators hope to develop new training techniques, devices, and optimized nutrition guidance for para-athletes.

“We are looking for that ripple effect in medicine and science, where we not only apply this research to our patients and athletes but also equip our trainees to bring it to the community,” said Kevin Vincent, M.D., Ph.D., the chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at UF. “We want to make that impact outside of the traditional academic setting so that it reaches parents, coaches, and everyone in the wider public who needs it.”

Harnessing AI

In the same spirit of positively impacting “the wider public,” the International Olympic Committee released the AI Olympic Agenda in April, identifying the most effective ways to leverage the power of AI in the Olympic Games. 

Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee (the governing body of the worldwide Olympic Movement), stated: “AI can provide more athletes with access to personalized training methods, superior sports equipment, and more individualized programs to stay fit and healthy… AI will make organizing sporting events extremely efficient, transform sports broadcasting, and make the spectator experience much more individualized and immersive.”

Scientists and sports experts at UF share a similar sentiment. In fact, the groundbreaking AI-Powered Athletics project (a collaboration between the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and the University Athletic Association) is building an entire infrastructure around the kind of AI-related sports innovation that Bach is championing – one that is based on studying health data from student-athletes and utilizing cutting-edge wearable sensor technology.

“The University Athletic Association at UF collects a large amount of data from student-athletes on health, nutrition, and sports performance, including wearable sensors at practices and games,” said Daniel Ferris, Ph.D., a professor in the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering at UF. “Most of the data is under-analyzed and under-utilized, and our proposed treatment of the data could greatly benefit team performance and student-athlete health and well-being.”  

When the data from the pilot project – which will be collected through wearables, performative assessments, and medical examinations – is analyzed, it may further incubate larger-scale research proposals to federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. 

“We have a team that is passionate about building analytics and user-facing apps that will – in the future – serve all people, not just athletes. For instance, we know the challenges that result from a sedentary lifestyle in terms of our healthcare and the related public policy; it’s a crisis,” said Kristy Boyer, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering at UF. “There’s a lot of data that indicates that if we can get people active, get them moving, and teach them about their bodies holistically using these tools, it will reap benefits for disease prevention.”

Revolutionizing the future of sports

Season by season, the sports landscape is getting greener, more advanced, and more inclusive. AI is permeating the modern Olympics – in everything from athlete performance predictions to real-time event analyses – and this is only the beginning of a technology-centric way of approaching global athletics.

Everyone is welcome to participate in this new environment – from para-athletes and able-bodied athletes to in-person attendees and sports fans watching at home with the help of AI and virtual reality. 

In the words of Bach: “We are more determined than ever to build bridges, to bring the world together in peace and solidarity, to celebrate the unity of humankind in all our diversity. We are always stronger together, and we are ready to contribute to making the world a better place through sport.”

UF is contributing to this seismic change, one strategic step at a time.

Abby Weingarten July 7, 2024