Technology or Sport?

This article originally appeared as a guest editorial in the Contest Column of the April 1988 issue of CQ Magazine.

Technology or Sport?
by Randy Thompson, K5ZD/3

In a world of computer designed bobsleds, golf clubs with square grooves, and instant replay, there is no denying the effect of technology on sport. As a “techno-sport”, radio contesting has certainly felt its share of the technology boon. Increased scores have been the result, but has the hardware begun to overshadow the operators?

Fifteen years ago, a 2-element 40 meter beam was the mark of a big station, the Signal One was ahead of its time, and the Japanese were just introducing their first solid-state radios. The radio of choice among contesters were made Collins and Drake. Keyers were becoming common, but one with memories was still a luxury. The personal computer, online logging, and packet radio were still years away.

Contrast this to the competitive contest station of today. Japanese radios have virtually eliminated vacuum tubes and most American radio manufacturers. Instant band changing, frequency memories, split frequency operation, and multiple VFOs are “must haves.” Never mind the 2-element 40 meter beam, now it takes a 3-element full size to be king of the hill. A 2- or 3-element 80 meter beam is only a Mastercharge away. Not only are there CW keyers with memories and programmable functions, the “digital voice keyer” has arrived. Personal computers have invaded every aspect of our lives and contest logging and duping programs abound. Leading clubs are using Packet radio to establish elaborate multiplier spotting networks.

The ultimate integration of technology and contesting was accomplished in 1986 by N6TR, who actually programmed a Z80 microprocessor to tune a radio, find a station, and make a completely automated QSO. No longer a science fiction fantasy, he did it with available computer technology and software savvy. Is this where we wish the technological orgy to lead?

A contest should ultimately be the test of an operator’s skills, experienc and stamina against all others. Hardware is important as even a great operator can not overcome the limitations of an inferior station. However, the station should not become the sole determinant of winner and loser.

Many contests today are nothing more than strings of CQs, call signs, and 5NNs. Easily automated – especially on CW. The operators of today are using superior radio stations. Working a station has become just a matter of busting the pile-up. Once again, the level of hardware becomes the dominant factor.

The contest community needs to consider its future. Do we maintain the current trend toward simple contests and bigger stations which de-emphasize operator skill? Or do we move toward more complex contests with rules and exchanges that reward the operator’s skills and judgement?