Analytics At Rio 2016

Analytics are having a more profound and emotionless impact on Olympic sports


With data analytics very much an established feature of any sporting competition with the financial muscle to make it viable, the Olympics is set to be no different. In the more traditional track and field athletics disciplines, an athlete’s performance is so closely quantifiable that is makes the field ripe for data mining. In Rio, no step will go uncounted, no distance unmeasured, no gust of wind unaccounted for. It’d be tough to find an Olympic sport in which the use of advanced analytics wouldn’t be applicable, from shaving that extra millisecond during a 100m race to conditions in an archery event.

In the world of Olympic analytics, however, not all sports were created equal. Gold in the 100m sprint, for example, is essentially worth more than gold in beach volleyball or handball - both might be entertaining sports but the spectacle of the 100m sprint renders it infinitely more coveted a medal. And what remains to be seen following Rio is which sports in which countries receive the most funding from their national governing bodies - some sports just mean more to the public than others.

According to Vocativ, Nike Oregon Track Club Elite - who train ‘Olympic-calibre runners’, according to the site - is using IBM’s Watson supercomputer to develop training routines; it will sift through both performance data and existing training material to produce workouts. It seems incredibly unlikely, though, that the Algerian rowing team or the Swedish Taekwondo team, for example, will be afforded such luxury by their national governing bodies when they begin their preparation for Tokyo 2020. If not all medals are equal, then calculating the return on investment from governing bodies to their various sports is in its essence a subjective process; when is a silver or bronze worth more than another sport’s gold.

Funding for Olympic teams is set to become much more of a meritocracy in the coming years, and governing bodies will take on the role of venture capitalists, allocating funds where they see a return. Analytics will build a picture of not just past success but of potential, and funding will be allocated accordingly in the hope that it can be funnelled to the most promising talent. And data collected at Rio this summer will be directly used to determine how much funding teams receive for Tokyo 2020.

Training for the next games begins almost immediately after the last one has come to its conclusion and, according to the Financial Times, the UK’s sport-funding body is hoping that the data can be used to speed up decision making regarding funding. ‘The quicker and more accurately we can make our decisions and get the right support to the right athlete and the right sports, the greater our competitive advantage,’ Simon Timson, director of performance at UK Sport, told the FT. ‘It gives us a lens to look into how ambitious and realistic the proposed target range for Tokyo might be. So we can understand whether we should be investing in fewer or more athletes.’

This all results in a more conscious effort to get a return on investment with regard to medals, perhaps to the detriment of less well-followed sports or athletes with hidden potential. Analytics also brings up issues of opportunity - it may help a long-distance runner achieve better times, but they’ll need to improve their times to get the funding for analytics. Undiscovered potential is a worry moving forward if teams deemed less viable medal contenders aren’t given the financial clout to become medal contenders.

‘I wouldn’t look at it so much as what’s fair and what’s not fair,’ said Scott Blackmun, CEO of the US Olympic Committee. ‘Think of the way a private equity investor, or a venture capital investor, looks at it. They’re not trying to make decisions based on what’s fair, they’re trying to make decisions based on what’s going to have the best results.’ There is, of course, the argument that analytics at the event could be used to uncover potential where it might otherwise be overlooked but, as all sport becomes associated with cold meritocracy and scrutiny, it seems that the Olympics is set to become even more of a numbers game.

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