Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas and miscellany

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Sport Geek #49: a colossal waste of drugs

July 31, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


The one thing you need to read before the Olympics (Nick Harris).

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was aware Russia ran a state-sponsored doping programme in which the head of that nation’s WADA-accredited lab was a central figure as long ago as the first week of July 2013.
I know this because I told them.
… This is not an opinion piece. This is the story behind the story

But, assuming you have a little more time…

We all have wonderful memories of London 2012, but was it a gigantic waste of time and money? The Guardian’s Richard Williams puts the case.

How to fix the doping problem: extend the blame beyond athletes, argues Silvia Camporesi in Aeon.

You’ll still watch it though, won’t you? But why? Simon Kuper in the FT (free to read) examines our fascination. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #48: from Russia with drugs

There are always a few worries ahead of any Olympics. Will the venues be ready? Is the athletes’ village a bit crap? Will there be a terror threat? That sort of thing. But this one is something else. Those questions are all still relevant, but the shadow cast by Russia and doping is on a different scale. Plus there’s Zika, and it’s quite literally a shitshow.

So here are three takes on it. First, a whistleblower gives an account of what it is like to be the ultimate party pooper. No prizes for guessing that it’s not much fun. Then Dan Jones in the Standard delivers what many people are thinking – that the IOC are spineless, gutless, and so forth.

However, Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky gives a typically counter-view, suggesting that any Russians at the Games will be the cleanest of all, and banning Russia anyway wouldn’t work: “anyone running a similar system with a crooked laboratory will just make doubly sure there are no leaks. Blanket bans would only make sense if several countries or federations had been caught.” Not popular, but it’s a view. Meanwhile, here’s a history of doping in sportContinue reading

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Sport Geek #47: veni, vidi, vulnerability

After a hiatus, the newsletter is back. Here are a few things from the past month or so you really should read, if only you had the time. Excuses, excuses…


How good was the Open? Really good.

How bad is golf and the Olympics? Really bad.


The England manager call is one the FA literally cannot afford to get wrong.

If Euro 2016 was a bit on the long side, the 2020 edition will be even more over-stretched.

The story behind that amazing Messi picture at the Copa America.

How Africa boycotted the 1966 World Cup.

A great read on the World Cup of unrecognised states.


Tim Duncan is retiring as the last of a dying breed.

How the salary cap actually favours already talent-rich teams.

Call it the LeBron Paradox: how, exactly, did a team featuring the greatest player in basketball history, flanked by a pair of three-time All-Stars, get to be seen as an against-all-odds underdog?


In another era, Andy Murray would have been recognised as a tennis great.

Serena Williams’s problem: If you do something well enough for long enough, there comes a time when people start to think it’s easy.

Wimbledon 2016: The anatomy of championship point.

Sexism, scandals, and matchmaking: a year of tennis, in one brilliant comic.


The humiliating practice of sex-testing female athletes.


Michael Phelps is headed to the Rio Olympics with a new superpower: vulnerability.

That will be all. Off you go.

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Sport Geek #46: little guys and bad times

[This is a Brexit-free post]

There is something of an underdog theme this week. Marcus Willis, Iceland, Cleveland and (stretching it here) Dustin Johnson. Read on, read on… Continue reading

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Euro 2016: survival of the weak

euro numbersThe Euros start today. And go on for a bit, and a bit longer, and then eventually there will be a final, I promise.

If you feel that there’s something not quite right about this edition of the quadrennial, you’d be spot on. It comes down to the numbers.

In previous editions, the Euros were contested by 16 teams. Four groups of four, top two go to the quarter finals and so on. Great. But this edition is 24 teams.

Let’s take a step back: how did we get to 24 teams?

Well, it started with 53 teams, divided into nine groups of six (and one of 5). In those groups, the top two went through, plus a third place team, and then the other eight third place teams had a playoff.

From 53 to 23 (plus the hosts) isn’t much of a cut off. To compare, the World Cup for 2018 goes from 210 to 31 teams, and the UEFA (ie European) part of that goes from 54 teams to just 13 (plus Russia as hosts).

So rather than eliminate 76 per cent of the European teams in qualifying, as the World Cup does (the overall rate is 85 per cent), the Euros eliminated just 57 per cent of the teams in qualifying.

That basically means you can be a very average team and still get through to the finals. Obviously, not the Netherlands, but that’s another story.

And then there’s the finals themselves. The Guardian have done it brilliantly: a tournament of 24 is a terrible number. To get to the knock out stages of 16 teams (rather than 8 as before), you are eliminating not half, but just a third of teams from the group stage.

In other words – 53 goes to 23 (plus host), 24 goes to 16, then it’s a knockout (with some severely complicated rules along the way).

It’s almost harder to fail than it is to progress.


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Sport Geek #45: The Greatest

muhammad aliThe death of Muhammad Ali has, quite rightly, inspired some fantastic obituaries, which I suggest you read in the section below. Frequently Ali is said to have ‘transcended’ his sport. While it’s hard to disagree, what do we mean by that?

Literally, the definition is (via Merriam Webster):

–  to rise above or go beyond the limits of
 to triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of
–  to be prior to, beyond, and above (the universe or material existence)

Ali clearly meets the test: he was a political and religious figure as well as a cultural icon, and a boxer whose fights are legendary. But who since can be said to have transcended his or her sport in a comparable way?

Michael Jordan? Serena Williams? Tiger Woods? All have redefined their sports, and, especially in Williams and Woods cases, have broken racial barriers. Great for the sport – but is that transcending?

Statistical leaders – Jack Nicklaus and Roger Federer, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt – are amazing sportsmen who have pushed their event to a higher level, but it ends there.

What of those who have, it seems, carried the hopes of an emerging nation? Ayrton Senna, Sachin Tendulkar, Diego Maradona? There is something more transcendent here, yet all seem somehow small when compared to Ali.

Lastly, what of one area where Ali could not make much of an impact: gender? Perhaps Billy Jean King, who did so much for women’s tennis and sport in general, could be said to have transcended her sport. Yet this feels like two parallel careers, whereas Ali’s influence, one feels, exists in more of a continuum, equally comfortable in the ring or on chat shows, or giving voice to political concerns.

This, then, is Ali’s legacy: he was not just an icon – for many of those exist – but an icon for whom all others can never quite compare. Read the obits – they are worth your time. Plus there are 7 other articles to make you feel smarter. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #44: freak wins, poor cousins, and surefire failures

God, the sport just keeps on coming, doesn’t it? A friend the other day posted to a WhatsApp group: “England played and won a rugby game today, a fact I have only just discovered”. Amid the French Open, international football, drug stories, Mourinho and GP, there it was: England beating Wales, scoring five tries in the process. Did you miss it? I did.

Is there too much sport? There have always been four golf majors, four tennis slam events, and one FA Cup. But now there are 21 F1 GPs, a move to expand the Champion’s League, more cricket, more golf and tennis events packaged as premium. Rugby summer tours; football summer tours. Cricket all year. Athletics World Championships every two years. It’s exhausting.

Ironically, the Americans seem to be the only nation to keep things in check. The NFL? 16 game season since the 70s. NBA? The 82-game schedule has been around for ages, as has the MLB 162 games. Where’s the fixture inflation there? Although to be fair, that’s quite a lot already.

Sometimes, less is more. Let’s just hope the Euros, Olympics and World Cup stick at the 4-year cycle. Otherwise our heads will explode.

So to the choice items of the week. Accept no other substitutes. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #43: chops, meteors, and brawls

Welcome. Let’s get on with it, shall we?


Why are there no English batsmen with over 10,000 Test runs (Cook’s impending milestone excepted)? Because England we’re shit in the 90s. (Me / FT).

Stuff you learn: chop. As in, why is Chris Gayle such a chop? (Guardian)


How it all went wrong for Louis van Gaal. (BBC). How one tackle by a bouffant Arsenal defender changed football forever (Vice). How Newcastle‘s theory of ‘winning’ totally screwed up (theallrounder). And how West Ham’s stadium defence is “bullshit” (Vice again).

Brilliant: measuring the cliche of tough places to go… (S Chicken) and talking of cliches, don’t abuse Michael Owen. (Vice) Continue reading

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Sport Geek #42: cheap sumo, the rain in Spain, and Pop’s pops

No grand thoughts this week – just 10 bits of quality writing to make you feel smarter.

“People are celebrating Olympic champion winners, but we are sitting crazy and replacing their urine.” Amazing quote in a NYTimes story of how dozens of Olympians could be barred from Rio after 2008 blood samples have been retested. And there’s more to come.

NFL careers are short. No wonder many are preparing for a life after football at business school. (FT, free)

A wonderful interview with Ben Stokes, England’s most explosive cricketer. (Guardian)

STATS! An interesting look at how run rates change across a T20 innings. (DW)

Controversial cheap moves in sumo and hundreds of years of greatness compared – it can only by FiveThirtyEight.

If you thought Sir Alex Ferguson was tough on the media, check out the NBA’s Gregg Popovich. The problem is, he isn’t just slapping down journalists. He is doing the fans – the ultimate paymasters – a disservice. (The big lead) Continue reading

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Sport Geek #41: What Trump and Leicester City have in common


Perhaps we should all just go and re-read the Black Swan.

Leicester City’s Premier League triumph and Donald Trump’s road to the GOP nomination may seem like strange things to compare, but they are probably the two most unlikely major things that have happened this year.

These were not simply one-off unlikely single events. They are long-run wins, persistently written off by the media until they were a near certainty. Now both events are seen as game-changing: Trump has “already changed US and world politics… Themes and ideas that were on the fringes have now entered the political mainstream, and they will not disappear if and when Mr Trump loses”, according to the FT’s Gideon Rachman. Leicester have shown how “every club in the league now has the financial capacity to compete” according to the Telegraph.

The odds were both ridiculous for a limited field. There are 20 Premier League teams: for one to be 5000-1 to win the title is extreme, as was Trump’s 2 per cent chance given by FiveThirtyEight.

What comes next? Here the contrast is stark. Most neutrals hope that Leicester can have a decent-to-good run next season, while hoping that Trump’s campaign at best stalls, or preferably implodes. The tragic outcome would be the reverse.

And so to the matters of the week. Continue reading

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