Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Sport Geek #79: 9,000 yards, arm wrestling, and an Apple Watch

The US Open is underway, so nothing recommended here other than to stay tuned. FWIW I think it’s been a hugely interesting event, with the women’s draw wide open, and one half of the men’s reading like a minor ATP 250 event. Great story lines: CoCo, Venus, Kanepi, that DelPo match. Tennis has entered a weird period with ageless veterans and a unknown emerging pool.

I’ve not done a round up for a while (summer and all that) so here’s a few things recent and not quite so.

UGLY

Stealing signs in baseball with an Apple Watch? Yup.

The Guardian looks at how Bahrain uses sport to whitewash a legacy of torture and human rights abuses.

TALL TENNIS

Are tall players the future? The NYTimes looks at the height thing. Plus the Economist looks at Zverev, who is both tall and possibly the Next Big Thing (pun intended).

LONG GOLF

Do we really need to lengthen golf courses? Golf Monthly asks the question. Some have already made their minds up – 9,000 yards?

NFL

Top read: Aaron Rodgers, unmasked.

FOOTBALL

Neymar: crunching the finances is Nick Harris in the Mail. Forget the shirt sales argument, for one.

Expected goals starts to move into the mainstream.

How do you quantify finishing skill?

Penalty-takers: pure luck?

ARM WRESTLING

Go on.

ATHLETICS

Usain Bolt in charts.

WOMEN’S SPORT

Can it break through to become self-sufficient?

Cheers

The Olympics needs a new hosting blueprint. Here’s one.

Paris Olympics, earlier

The latest round of Olympic bidding has highlighted what has been known for ages: that hosting the Games is a BAD IDEA.

Paris and LA have been awarded the 2024 and 2028 events. No other cities were in the running, after several, including Rome, Boston and Hamburg dropped out.

The Winter Games bidding for 2022 was a similarly feeble contest, with Almaty and Beijing the last two standing. Beijing – a city with no snow – won.

Why has the Olympics become so toxic?

The main reason is cost. Who can sell the idea of spending anything from $10bn – $50bn to a population that is feeling the pinch? Even populist dictators might baulk at the expense.

But costs are OK if there are benefits. Clearly, the benefits have been exposed as a bit of a con. Soft power? There are cheaper ways. Tourism? It actually drops. Infrastructure boost? Do it anyway, if it’s worth it. Happy population? Not necessarily.

So what would be a better way of hosting the Games? Here are a few ideas that are frequently put forward, and my thoughts on their strengths.

Idea #1: pare it down

The Olympics is too big as it is. If you want to make hosting affordable, get rid of sports that don’t need to be there. Football, tennis, golf – there are bigger prizes in those sports. Politically tricky, but doable.

Problem is, that still leaves a lot of events, and in any case, the main costs always seems to be the centrepiece athletics stadium, the athletes village, and the infrastructure. Cutting out a few events won’t help here.

Idea #2: joint cities

This has a certain appeal. Joint city hosting would spread the cost, surely? Not quite. The only example of joint hosting of a recent major event is the World Cup of 2002 between Korea and Japan. That was not a great success, with both countries building expensive stadiums and infrastructure. Rather than splitting the cost, it merely added to it.

For the Olympics, it would present a tricky branding challenge – every Games is “City year” eg London 2012. I guess you could have Rome-Madrid 2036 or whatever, but it’s less appealing. The city backdrop is part of the experience – think Rio’s beach or Sydney harbour. While the World Cup hops from stadium to stadium, an Olympics has a ‘village’ and a base. Two bases would be odd.

Further, where do you have the opening and closing ceremonies? The 100m final? It would be fine to divvy up some events, but the location of the showpiece athletics would naturally make the Games forever associated with that host, not the other.

Idea #3: spread far and wide

An Olympics with events around the globe sounds inclusive and idealistic, but it would have all the problems of idea #2 and more. One of the main ideas is that spectators can visit the city and see a range of sports, not just one. There would be no cohesive experience which would annoy lots of fans. Broadcasters would hate it – it would be far more expensive and hard to cover.

The experience of the Euro 2020 will be interesting in this regard – it’s taking part in 12 cities. If it somehow works (big if), spreading the Olympics *might* become an idea that takes off. Unlikely.

Idea #4: permanent hosts

Some have suggested a single permanent Summer and Winter host. I think that’s a bad idea, for several reasons. One, monotony. Two – it places quite a burden on the host city. Instead, the IOC should pick five cities that rotate the Games. Each would represent their continent, and the IOC would be have the extra incentive to invest some of the broadcast revenue in keeping the infrastructure maintained.

This has a lot of appeal – theoretically no more white elephant stadiums, crumbling facilities or overspending.

There are downsides: with a gap of 20 years, it’s possible that things fall apart anyway. The Olympic roster changes, which means new facilities would always be needed; stadiums will still be unused (or underused) for two decades.

However, picking the right hosts would mitigate those downsides. Cities that are big enough to cope with the set-aside of facilities could easily be found – London, Tokyo, LA would be great candidates.

The downside is regional jealousy. China would want to be a permanent host, for sure. As would the US. That might annoy Canada or Japan. But given that there is a dearth of cities with the current system, it might be a better plan.

The other positives to a permanent city plan is that it would kill off the expensive bidding process, which also would stop the bribery and backhanders. The IOC would have to reform from a princely tour of spoilt delegates to a proper administrative commission – a far better outcome. Cities would have far longer to plan, meaning cost overruns should be a thing of the past, or at least less likely. Hosts wouldn’t have to cut corners to get the Games ready. In any case, it would be a question of upgrading facilities, not a rush job of building from scratch in 7 years.

The benefit of putting on an Olympics is pretty small. Tourism suffers, rather than getting a boost. Countries that want to boost their profile have any other number of ways to do it – host a world championships, finance a Grand Prix, host an expo or something. The Olympics is too big to be used as a political tool anyway.

The other upside of permanent hosts is that it is also closer to the original Olympic ethos, which was to have the Games in the same location each time. Evolving that into five Olympic hosts – one for each of the rings, which could be a nice marketing touch – makes sense.

Anyway. Don’t hold your breath.

 

Sport Geek #78: worst 20s, Venus rising, a breakdown breakdown

WIMBLEDON

It’s on, Murray is out, and there’s lots to talk about. What can we do about retirements? Here’s a good run down of all the options – and which might be least bad. Of all the 30-year-olds still at the top, the resurgence of Venus Williams is perhaps the most remarkable.

During the Nadal-Muller match, my wife remarked that it was surely a big advantage for Muller to be serving first in that marathon 5th set. So is it? Apparently not. Although that analysis is a few years old, it won’t have changed much. And lastly, does the Wimbledon seeding system work?

FOOTBALL

So how does a football transfer really work? Key feature: WhatsApp.

The worst 20 seconds of football ever? As several people pointed out, it’s hard to tell who’s actually attacking…

RUGBY

A fantastic anatomy of a rugby turnover – if you will, the breakdown of a breakdown – all the bits that lead up to it. The English isn’t perfect, but stick with it.

OLYMPICS

Why any city wants to host the Games is beyond me. Of course, dictators are usually up for it, but Paris and LA? They hardly need the exposure. Here we go again. This sums up many feelings.

BASEBALL

People really care how far home runs go. I don’t get why – it’s a home run, just enjoy it. Anyway, the stadium kinda gets in the way, leading to lots of clever maths.

CRICKET

T20 and data. T20 and data! Nerd heaven. And lastly, why are there so many South African cricketers in England?

Sport Geek #77: 15 from 1, 700th in the world, and nothingness

Good afternoon sports fans.

RUGBY / LIONS

As the Lions prepare for the second test, the greatest challenge in world rugby since last week, here are two questions to ponder. One, should the Lions pick 15 players from one team (via Economist)? In terms of results, it might be better; in terms of ethos, I say – what’s the point? The other is why the All Blacks are so good. The FT has a stab at answering.

GENDER TENNIS

Was McEnroe right to say that Serena would only be around 700 in the world on the men’s tour? To my mind, it’s a non-starter. Comparing across the sexes is pointless, and only gets people unnecessarily annoyed. Anyway, Vox has a good explainer here.

NFL ECONOMICS

How much is a quarterback really worth? Nobody actually knows, even with Derek Carr’s contract. Here’s a great rundown via the Ringer.

BASEBALL AND THE ABSENCE OF ACTION

What happens to a sport when nothing happens? Sports Illustrated gets existential.

BOXING

Remember when Mike Tyson took a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s ear? the Guardian goes back in time.

Cheers

Sport Geek #76: meta-doc; clay GOATS; and living Gods

RUGBY (LIONS! LIONS!)

Not every sport makes a great documentary. Not every documentary is SO good that it is the subject of its own documentary. Living with Lions is that documentary.

NFL

The league just isn’t set up to cope with tanking. But that’s what’s going on. (BBC)

BOXING

I have yet to see an article that thinks the McGregor-Mayweather fight is a good idea. Here are two very different styles on saying why it’s very bad: dogshit (Deadspin) or idiocy (The Guardian).

NBA

How the Warriors duped the NBA (FiveThirtyEight). Or, put another way (via the Economist) how they have broken basketball.

Also: the truth about the hot hand. (ESPN)

TENNIS

The greatest clay-courter ever? A great piece comparing the achievements of Evert and Nadal on the red stuff. (Tennis.com)

BASEBALL

What does it feel like to get hit by a pitch? (ESPN)

FOOTBALL

How Iran’s success reflects the failures of Asian football. (Economist)

ICYMI

The Age of the Living God: Superstars are staying superstars for longer than ever. (The Ringer)

Numbers, racism, terrorism and the media: why we can’t get it right

Was the man who drove a van into the public in Finsbury last night (June 18) a terrorist? The question isn’t meant to be a racially-motivated one (we’ll come to that), but a question of numbers.

If three people plan an attack using a van and knives, that’s clearly terror. A lone man drives a car onto a pavement? Is that terror or just murder?

If terror requires an ideological target, then the car attack on Westminster Bridge was terror, and so was the attack on Muslims gathered after prayer. In fact, in both cases the attacker was shouting their motives out loud, so we don’t have to dig too deeply to ascribe a motive. But calling both men terrorists is deeply unhelpful.

The problem here is that if every racially-motivated attack is terror, where do we stop? We are in a constant reporting of a terror war, which only serves to inspire the extremists on both sides. Yet to call it (merely?) a hate crime is a big step, especially if the authorities are calling it terror.

To try and take terror out of the equation for lone attackers now is also a problem of the sequence of incidents. Muslim attacker (Westminster Bridge) = terrorist; White attacker (Finsbury) = hate crime. That’s not acceptable.

(Manchester was terror, no question – there was a network involved. Jo Cox’s murderer? He was tried for murder, but it was clear it was treated as a terrorist murder – this article explains the nuance.)

It’s also a question of race. Politicians are already striving for equivalence – look at Theresa May’s line that this attack was “every bit as insidious and destructive to our values and our way of life” as previous ones. That entire expression ‘every bit’ implies that you’ve already thought it – that Muslims are somehow fair game, as opposed to the people (more white, though not exclusively) in Borough Market. And that you need to check your racism at the door. This is the language of white privilege talking to an ethnic minority, and well-intentioned though it is, there is a code here. Saying ‘we care just as much’ is to assume that somewhere, there’s an assumption of less care, whether it’s you thinking it or me.

The problem that underpins all this is the breathless coverage. We need to move to a media environment where we think more along the lines of suicide reporting – more coverage is NOT a good thing.

It’s worth noting Simon Jenkins on the Westminster attack – his words are just as relevant today:

The actions of the authorities and the media in response to Wednesday have ramped up the hysteria of terror. This was ostensibly a random act by a lone player without access even to a gun. To over-publicise and exaggerate such crimes is to be an accomplice after the act. London’s response to the Westminster attack is an open invitation to every crazed malcontent to try it again.

There have been lots of calls to change our terror reporting. Looking at the coverage today, it’s clear no one is paying attention.

We are stuck in a cycle of labelling every attack as terror, unleashing 24-7 coverage and endless articles, and then wondering why it happens so often. I’d like to think there’s a way out of this dystopian mayhem, but if it starts with relying on the media to tone it down, don’t expect any progress.

Britain’s voting system is delivering what the public want

Hello hung parliament: Britain is back into deals and power arrangements, after just two years of Conservative majority. Another election in 2017 is a possibility if things fall apart.

The question I want to explore is this: is the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) delivering what voters want?

FPTP is one of the main criticisms of the UK political system. Each MP just needs to win the most votes in a seat, which can mean that they need to win far fewer than half the votes to be elected. That means smaller parties can pick up lots of votes, and get no seats, and results are skewed towards the winning party.

The most egregious example of this is the UK Independence Party – UKIP – in the 2015 election. With 12 per cent of the overall count – 3.8 million votes – they won just a single seat. FPTP clearly screwed UKIP in 2015.

This is nothing new. The Liberal Democrats have always suffered in this way, and their manifesto invariably contains a section on voting reform, moving to systems such as single transferable vote.

Whatever the merits of other systems, the question for the British people is not just about smaller parties. Does FPTP skew the result towards one or both of the two main parties, Conservative and Labour?

To assess whether FPTP is delivering an unfair outcome, the best measure is to look at the percentage of seats won compared to the percentage of votes won. This takes into consideration the different number of seats available in each election, and (importantly) voter turnout.

A perfect system would deliver a score for each party of 1. That would mean votes translate into seats at exactly the same rate. A score above 1 means the party gets more seats for their votes; a score less than one is the opposite, the party gets fewer seats per vote.

The Lib Dems have clearly suffered, with their scores in the last 10 elections running like this: 0.25, 0.16, 0.38, 0.44, 0.43, 0.42, 0.17, 0.15, 0.14, 0.13.

UKIP’s 2015 result was 0.01 – far worse than anything the Lib Dems have endured. (The Green party’s score in 2015 and 2017 was 0.04 and 0.10 – also a terrible ratio).

Some smaller parties lose out – that’s clear. Others do better – the Scottish National Party have in the last two elections got around 1.8 – in other words, close to twice the seats that their vote share suggests. Sinn Fein, the DUP and Plaid Cymru have also all scored above 1. The lesson is that smaller parties do well if their vote is concentrated in a region, rather than spread out over England.

But I think the bigger issue is whether the main parties are getting seats far out of proportion. That’s a more alarming question, as it has far greater impact on whether a party can force through legislation that half the country doesn’t want.

The latest election has in fact delivered the fairest set of results in the last 40 years (looking at the last 10 general elections). The Conservatives got 1.15 seat share per vote share; Labour got 1.01. This is the only time in the data that I’m looking at that the winning party was below 1.2. FPTP is not the problem here in terms of delivering voter intention. In fact, a hung parliament is exactly reflective of the votes cast. Continue reading

Sport Geek #75: the case for legalising drugs in sport

This week, a polemic. I’ve been thinking about Maria Sharapova’s return to the circuit, the plan to wipe world records in athletics, and drugs generally in sports. The truth is, I can’t see a way out, and I don’t think I’m alone. The road goes nowhere. So the conclusion I keep coming to is: make performance enhancing drugs legal.

This is clearly not a popular view. But let’s try it out for a moment. I’m going to look at the main objections and try and unpack this. Bear with me.

Testing doesn’t work

Of course testing works on a basic level, but the big picture is testing clearly doesn’t work. We have a situation where retrospective testing has caught a whole bunch of athletes from London 2012 and Beijing 2008 years later. Is that good? Not really. The clean athletes have missed their moment of glory, the public has moved on, and the history books just look messy.

Also, as pointed out elsewhere, most major drug scandals are due to whistleblowers, not testing: Russia, Lance Armstrong, Balco. Even Ben Jonson was (probably) set up (he got busted on a drug he wasn’t taking, apparently).

Added to that, testing catches about 1 per cent of athletes. Whereas most estimates put non-approved drug use at around 30 to 40 per cent. It’s woeful. Even if we got to catching a third of athletes, there are generations that got away with it. The war was lost a long time ago. And in the future? Continue reading

Sport Geek #74: the (nearly) two-hour marathon

Marathon world record, from Sports Geek (published 2016)

In my book, Sports Geek, I bravely (stupidly?) suggested that the two hour marathon was way out of reach. The reasoning was: we’re getting excited by current times, not looking at context. Also, we are not looking at the half marathon as proxy. As I put it:

… we aren’t learning from the past. If we extrapolated the marathon records set in the 1960s, we would have expected the two-hour mark to be broken back in 1977. Clearly, extrapolation isn’t everything.

I then looked at the half marathon as a proxy – the ratio should be around 2.1, and the half marathon world record is nowhere near 57 minutes.

A look at the half marathon record progression shows a more consistent pace of improvement. It also shows that to get to 57 minutes, we are looking at many decades, if ever.

This might simply tell us that runners don’t take the half marathon as seriously. Or, it might give us a warning sign not to expect the 2-hour marathon for many years to come.

So to the recent assault on the two-hour mark. Man, that was close. You can call it either way – as Quartz put it, even in a rigged race they failed. Or, it was a fantastic attempt to show what can be done. Regardless, it has put up for discussion the whole limits of performance issue, and may change running for ever.

THREE THINGS FROM ELSEWHERE

Is LeBron James better in the playoffs? No, he’s always this good.

Swearing makes you stronger. Fucking brilliant.

Women coaching men.  Tough gig.

Sport Geek #73: wipe clean, F=ma, and Sochi success

Unquestionably, the most interesting story from a sports stats perspective this week is the proposal to erase lots of athletics world records. This has been an idea that has been kicked around for a while, but not taken that seriously, until now.

Of course, under any set of reset rules, someone will lose out. Currently Paula Radcliffe is making a lot of noise, and you might see her point. However, I think it’s a great idea, and here’s why.

First, the current marquee records of the women’s 100m, 200m and 400m are a total sham. They were set in the drug-fuelled years before serious testing took place – pre 1989. Everyone knows they are a joke, and the inability of women to challenge them since should be seen as a sign of strength in drug testing, not weakness. That means though, that the true world record holders, whoever they are, are being denied glory and financial reward. I looked into this for my book, Sports Geek. The problem can be summed up as: Flo-Jo.

Second, athletes should remember that records are temporary, medals are permanent. Lots of runners have been delighted to set world records, but know that someday it goes. (I suspect Radcliffe’s determination to hold on to her marathon record is in part due to her inability to win Olympic gold. The title of her website is “Paula Radcliffe – Marathon world record holder”). The point is: it’s a privilege, not a right, to be the holder of a world record.

Lastly, if a couple of legit records get wiped, maybe that’s acceptable collateral damage. Fans and commentators will know the true mark, as will competitors. Just as sprinters know that the women’s current records are a sham. Wouldn’t it be better to inject some honesty into the game, for fans and competitors alike?

Read more: Sean Ingle in the Guardian.

FOOTBALL

Manchester United are unlucky – FiveThirtyEight crunch the numbers to show how.

F1

When your biggest star dies, someone or something has to take the blame. Vice looks at Senna, 20 years on.

NFL

“[American] Football as we know it is done, because the lawyers are here.” SBNation looks at a sport in turmoil, the equation that can’t be beaten (F=ma if you must know), and what the future might hold.

BASEBALL

It’s taken more than a century but Major League Baseball finally has its first African player. Quartz explains.

TENNIS

Welcome back, Maria? SportingIntelligence looks at the doping dilemma, and also Pep Guardiola (who failed tests for nandrolone, which I didn’t know before)

BOXING

Anthony Joshua: he the man. The Economist asks if boxing’s heavyweight division will get a revival?

OLYMPICS

Where’s the tumbleweed disaster? City Journal looks at Sochi, the Olympics that didn’t turn to dust.

That is all.

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