Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Category: Ideas (page 1 of 3)

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

The 10 best sports graphics / data visualisations of 2016: call for entries

As the headline suggests, I’m looking for the best sports graphics or data visualisations of the year. Here are the rules:

  • Link needed
  • Doesn’t need to be interactive at all
  • Only one per publication / blogger / writer
  • All chart types considered – doesn’t have to be fancy if it makes a great point
  • Winner and 2 runners up will get a prize. Really.

Leave a comment in the field below, or email me if you know my address, or I’m @robminto on Twitter.

TalkSport interview

Listen again to the TalkSport interview I gave to Hawksbee and Jacobs on Friday October 21.

We talk about football stats, the greatest boxer, north vs south in rugby, Bolt being slow, drugs in cycling and lots more.

 

 

Are Australia now too nice to be cricket winners? The run rate suggests so…

Here’s a thought to enrage a few alpha Aussies. Apparently, the Australian cricket team have become too nice.

This is the team that pioneered “mental disintegration” of the opposition; whose hard-nosed captain Allan Border declared that he would “rather be a prick and win”; the team of Michael Clarke’s “get ready for a broken fucking arm“. Nice? Nice?

Apparently so. According to an article in ESPNCricinfo, Australia have an identity problem, the current captain, Steve Smith, said that his team was at times too quiet and lacks energy.

Smith was quoted as saying:

“We’ve got some pretty quiet characters, so even if it’s not making noise verbally, it might be just about having a bit more presence and the old Australian way of puffing your chest out and making your presence felt for the quieter guys. It’s trying to do that, get into the game that way and try to provide some sort of energy that way.”

How does that translate on the pitch? It’s hard to measure attitude or hostility, especially in fielding and bowling. Maidens and wickets don’t reveal whether they were taken with guile or brute force. Catches aren’t graded on alertness.

But there is one measure that shows the attacking intent of a team: the run rate. Aggressive teams score fast. The Australians had a reputation of scoring hard and fast to put the game out of reach, and deliberately targeted opposition bowlers. If we want a proxy for hardness, this isn’t a bad place to look.

Of course, it’s is not a perfect measure – run rates can be influenced by the pitch, the opposition, the prevailing style of umpiring (restricting bowlers), and the match situation.

Still, it’s interesting to look at the run rate under successive Australian captains. I have averaged it over a rolling 10 innings to smooth out the effect of some of the factors above. What does it reveal?

The data is taken from Cricinfo for the following captains:
Allan Border (1984-1994)
Mark Taylor (1995-1998)
Steve Waugh (1999-2004)
Ricky Ponting (2004-2011)
Michael Clarke (2011-2015)
Steve Smith (2015-present)

(I’ve rolled Adam Gilchrist’s matches in charge into Waugh and Ponting’s figures – he was only captain for six Tests, rather than a long-term appointment.)

aus-rpo

Source: ESPNCricinfo

What can we see?

Essentially, the massive change is from the Border-Taylor era to Waugh-onwards. That’s where the run rate goes up from around 3 per over to 4 and above. That’s the equivalent of an extra 90 to 100 runs per day scored, which is a big difference in terms of finishing games off rather than getting a draw. Waugh took Australia from hard to beat to utterly ruthless – and the run rate shows.

Under Ponting, the run rate starts to drop. When Clarke took over it had hovered around 3.5, and was getting close to 3. Clarke then presides over the greatest swing, from under 3 to over 4.5, and back to around 4, partly as the team’s fortunes swing from series whitewash to series whitewash, both victories and losses. As nice vs nasty goes, Clarke’s most comprehensive wins came when fast bowler Mitchell Johnson was at his mustachioed best.

And now under Smith, the rate is dropping fast again. The current decline under Smith is from 4.4 to 3.3 in just 10 innings – the most consistent drop on the chart.

While a lower run rate might not be conclusive proof of being too nice, you can certainly see that under Waugh the Australian Test side was a run machine. And under Smith, there is clearly a problem.

Perhaps the question is better rephrased: not whether nice teams can win, but whether winning teams are ever seen as nice.

Squawka podcast: Sports Geek interview

Check out the latest Squawka podcast via audioboom. Worth a full listen, but I’m on around 28 minutes in.

INFO:

Ozil? De Bruyne? Coutinho? Eriksen? The level of playmakers in England’s top division has skyrocketed over the past few seasons and Nic English is joined by Muhammad Butt, Squawka Dave and James McManus to discuss exactly who is top dog.

There’s also time for a very special interview with Rob Minto – author of Sports Geek – to discuss some of the myths in sport and why he’s on a mission to debunk them.

2 strange things about the Boat Race

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The Boat Race is a bizarre event in many ways. The course is incredibly winding and gives a potentially huge advantage to the crew on the Surrey station (the south side). It’s elitist. The participants are typically now international rowers rather than amateur undergraduates. It’s way longer (over 4 miles) than usual rowing races (2k).

But there are two other odd things going on.

1) The race is getting slower

For many years, as boat technology improved and crews trained harder and smarter, and the rowers became international pros, the winning time came down. From the 1950s to 2000, typical times went from around 20 minutes to 17. The course record was set in 1998, at 16:19 by Cambridge. From 1996 to 2005, 5 of the 10 winning times were sub-17 seconds.

But since 2005, there have been none below the 17 second mark. As the chart below of the rolling 10-year average shows, since 1999 the times are getting slower. (I’ve used the 10-year average to smooth out what is otherwise a very bumpy chart, and show the trend. The average also mitigates the impact of the bad-weather years.)

boat race 10 year rolling average winning time

Why the drop in pace? It’s hard to say for sure. My guess is that technological and fitness improvements are now very incremental. The shift to a global talent pool happened a while back. Instead, the races are tight, with clashing oars and cat-and-mouse tactics. It’s all about winning, not the clock.

This leads to the second odd thing:

2) The reserve crews are frequently quicker

Obviously, you would expect the Blue crew to beat the reserves (Goldie of Cambridge, Isis of Oxford). But some years the reserves, who race just before the Blues, are quicker. In fact, in seven of the last 18 years, the reserve crews have registered a faster time. The average gap between the winning times is also narrowing.

blue vs reserve

This suggests that there is a deeper pool of talent available to both teams. But it also backs up the idea that the Blue race is all about winning.

 

5 reasons why the word ‘phablet’ won’t catch on

Journalists and analysts love a new word. The current favourite is “phablet”, used to describe the new larger-sized smartphones that are nearly tablet-sized, but still a phone.

It’s a ghastly word, but don’t worry – it won’t catch on, despite the pick up in interest (see chart below). Here’s my theory why:

1) “smartphone” hasn’t caught on as a phrase

Smartphone is used in the industry to distinguish between the newer, touchscreen devices and older models termed feature phones that look like this (remember these?). It’s used all the time in articles and research.

But not in common language. No-one says “hey, have you seen my smartphone?” People still talk about their mobile. Or their phone. Because smartphone is both clumsy to say, and sounds pompous.

2) nobody cares about these distinctions in other areas

Like smartphone vs feature phone, we have laptop, netbook, PC – all industry distinctions. People just refer to their computer. And as we move to a world of uniform touchscreens, the only decisions people will care about are the cost, the operating system (Apple vs Android vs maybe Windows), and the size.

3) portmanteau words might be catchy, but don’t often work

Grexit? It’s had it’s day (see chart below). Descriptive words like “onesie” are much better.

4) people prefer to talk about brands

Seen my Kindle? Pass me the iPad?

and the biggest reason of all: 5) your mobile is not your device, it’s your number

Whatever device people call you on, that’s your mobile. As Christopher Mims pointed out on Quartz, we use these things less and less for calls – as little as 10% – but that doesn’t mean phone calls are completely dead. We still need to make and receive calls. And if you are sharing your contact details, no-one will ever ask for your “phablet” number – just as no-one asks for your “smartphone” number. They will ask for your mobile number.

Because you move your number across devices – I’ve had the same number for over 8 phones now, I reckon. Whether I have a phablet, a smartphone, or a something else, when it rings, I’ll answer it – and I’m on my mobile.

Charts:

The Getty watermark is a stroke of genius. Here’s why.

I had an article in today’s FT (June 1, 2012) on Getty Images watermark (Getty shifts with new stamp of ownership), but in the interests of journalistic fairness, I couldn’t say exactly what I thought. So here’s what I think.

In brief: the company has changed the watermark from an obstructive, possessive gesture to a helpful, open one. It is not longer a simple stamp across the image, but a cleaner box with a short-form URL and a photographer credit.

It’s a stroke of genius, in my view. Why? Well, there are several reasons I can see. In no particular order: Continue reading

John Terry vs Chris Huhne, Fred Goodwin vs Johann Hari: why it pays to wait

I can’t help thinking about four recent falls from grace. In essence, two are about awards, the other two about pre-emptive punishment. In all cases, we could benefit from being less hasty. I’ll explain why.

Let’s start with pre-emptive punishment. John Terry was stripped of the England captaincy while pending an investigation over racist abuse. Chris Huhne quit the cabinet following charges over his wife taking speeding points for him.

In these cases, the alleged crimes are totally different, but the principle is the same. Should someone step down from high office (the cabinet, the captain of English football) before their case is heard? And in both instances, the MP and player can remain just that. Why not go further – if they are not acceptable to lead the team, should they even be in it? If Huhne is not fit for cabinet, should he represent his constituents in Parliament?

Yet it was over the Terry case, the more morally worrisome and noxious case, and over an individual with prior bad behaviour (violence, infidelity), that Fabio Capello, England manager resigned. Capello said it was unfair to pre-judge the case. And surely, he has a point? If Terry is innocent, will the FA give him back the captaincy? About as likely as Capello managing England again.

Terry may be an odious person, certainly. But this is all the more reason to not give him the captaincy in the first place.

Which brings me neatly to getting things right in the first place.

Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood. Johann Hari was forced to give back his Orwell prize for journalism.

In both cases, it seems the witch-hunt was hugely enjoyable for the press and public alike. Goodwin is an unrepentant, apparently unpleasant banker. Hari is a delusional journalist, protected by the Independent who should have sacked him when his dishonesty came to light.

In both cases, their prizes inflated their egos and should not have been given. Neither man can be blamed for accepting. If you are a multi-millionaire banker dealmaker, or a fêted journalist, darling of the left, a gong is exactly what you think you should be getting.

And yes, in both cases, a few checks would have made all the difference. Did Hari’s article stand up to scrutiny? It fell over pretty fast, as soon as a light was shone on his sources. Why give knighthoods to sitting CEOs? Why not wait and see if their deals work out, or if they bring a bank (and the country) to its knees?

In all four cases, it pays to wait, check and not jump in. Should Huhne still be a minister? If Terry was a good choice for captain before (he wasn’t), he still would be now. Hari should not have been awarded the Orwell prize; Goodwin should never have got close to a knighthood in the first place.

A banker, a footballer, a politician, a journalist. Very different crimes or charges. These men are problematic, certainly, but our eagerness to award or judge makes the problem far worse.

Occupy Wall Street: how quick were the media on the uptake?

The Occupy Wall Street movement is spreading and sprawling, into different countries and encompassing many issues.

But how fast did it take for the news media to catch on? This is possible to quantify using two things – Factiva to show the volume of news, and Google Trends to show how people are searching.

Factiva searches give the volume of news articles by day. Google Trends show the search relevance and volume. Plot them together, and you get an idea of when the public were searching for something, and when the mainstream media wrote about it.

Here’s the chart:

You can see straight away that there is a two day lag between the Factiva news peak and the Google peak, on October 15th for search and October 17th for news.

But there was a previous search peak on Oct 6th that was scored 15.7 by Google, not far below the peak of 18.1. But the Factiva volume at that point was 349, over 50 per cent below the highest single day news volume of 792.

In fact, up to the peak, there is a news lag, shown by the gap between the pink line and the blue bars. After the peak, the blue bars trend higher than the pink line, suggesting that the news media is playing catch-up while searching has tailed off.

Ok, some caveats. Google Trends is good – it made a big deal about how it could predict outbreaks of flu back in 2008. But it’s not everything, and Twitter data might be even more revealing. Ditto Factiva: an excellent source, but if we looked at their blogs results rather than news publications, it would be closer to the google trend line.

But I think it’s an interesting way to see what we are searching for, and writing about – and where the gaps are.

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