Numbers: U.S. Olympic Committee analytics worth their weight in gold

From ESPN - February 13, 2018

Some of the Americans you will see at the Pyeongchang Winter Games are old friends who have dominated their sports for years, like Lindsey Vonn. Others are rocketing toward their first truly global breakout moments, like Nathan Chen. A third group is worth your attention too: athletes now surging into medal contention with the help of data analysis by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Traditionally, the USOC, which distributes about $50 million a year to 39 national governing bodies to support athletes, allocated its money subjectively. Officials responsible for various sports tracked events, talked with coaches, then pitched plans to their bosses for giving out funds. That has changed since Alan Ashley took over as chief of sport performance in 2010 and started asking for metrics linking dollars spent with results obtained. "We are slowly evolving from gut feel to data," says Finbarr Kirwan, the USOC's senior director of high performance, who gave a presentation on the subject at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last year.

The revolution accelerated after London in 2012, when in the throws -- discus, hammer, javelin and shot put -- only 13 percent of American athletes performed better than they had at the trials six weeks earlier. That spurred Kirwan and his colleagues to think: Maybe the U.S. could increase its yield most efficiently by focusing on cases in which Americans were clearly leaving medals on the table, and that led the USOC to develop a program to identify and reward athletes on the cusp, those who could be nudged onto podiums with the right kind of help.

Although statheads have many methods for predicting overall medal counts, there's surprisingly little research on forecasting winners in specific Olympic sports. But we do know this: On average, athletes peak earlier in power and speed than endurance, and women peak earlier than men, especially in power and speed sports. Using that information and some mathematical modeling, USOC analysts began projecting athletes' career progressions. Basically, they graphed each competitor's performance over prior years, then extended his or her curve to 2016, the time of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, to see whether it would rise (or stay) above the average level of bronze-to-gold scores. Comparing those projections with international Olympians, the researchers estimated "medal expectancies" for each athlete.

For athletes on track to medal in targeted programs, the USOC started offering a wide range of assistance. That now includes cutting-edge tech support (such as radar-based tracking of every throw an athlete makes), biomechanical assessments, nutrition consulting, performance bonuses and additional coach travel stipends. The package is worth $500 to $2,000 per month per competitor, according to the USOC (although it's distributed through federations, not directly to athletes).


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