Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

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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.

Sport Geek #72: Qi/Za, the quadruple, and switching places

A brief break – hols and all that – so here are a few things from April to get your chops around.

FOOTBALL

Champions-strugglers-champions (elect) vs Strugglers-champions-strugglers: the Economist looks at how Chelsea and Leicester keep swapping places.  Plus the Guardian shows how British managers are overrated by English clubs – and the stats back it up.

SCRABBLE

Yup, Scrabble. A FiveThirtyEight dive into how Qi and Za have changed the game.

RUGBY

The Guardian on why the Lions selection process is almost as tough as the tour.

SKATING

Quartz on the physics behind figure skating’s most difficult jump – the quadruple.

NFL

The Ringer on how to draft a quarterback.

TENNIS

ESPN on how the Roger Federer revival couldn’t have come at a better time.

Sport Geek #71: Raiders move, Wembley at 10, and Partridge F1

Let’s crack on, shall we?

RAIDERS ON THE MOVE

You might have heard that the Oakland Raiders are going to become the Las Vegas Raiders. This might seem strange after a great season with a great new quarterback (Derek Carr), but there’s a few reasons why. Number one, as ever: money. Forbes does the numbers. Here’s the four key things you need to know.

ALAN AND F1

I love this. The headline says it all: ​”A worryingly deep dive into Alan Partridge’s enduring love affair with Formula 1“.

WEMBLEY AT 10

Of course it’s not good value. Then again, the Raiders new stadium will be 20,000 fewer seats for $1.9bn…

FOOTBALL

José Mourinho thinks it’s getting harder to buy success. Is he right?

Syria: Football on the frontline. A great piece from the BBC.

How to save a penalty: the truth about football’s toughest shot.

GLOBAL!

Forget the NFL, the 39th game and all that – Rugby league’s Toronto Wolfpack are the first transatlantic sports team.

TENNIS

Australian bad boys – unlike Tomic, at least there’s hope for Kyrgios.

That will be all.

Sport Geek #70: some radical ideas

If this week has a theme, it’s some pretty outlandish ideas. Here we go…

Crazy idea #1) Should we relegate half the Premier League each season? It would certainly liven things up a bit. Mid-table mediocrity begone! Weirdly, as the Guardian points out, it’s a idea that’s been around for a while… (since 1926)

Crazy idea #2) Should we make hooliganism a sport? An idea that has come out of… Russia.

Good idea #1) Let’s simplify and speed up golf.

Good idea #2) Why not create an Olympic city to stop the financial ruin of hosting the Games? Or perhaps create a pool of 5-10 cities that rotate. Less waste!

Interesting point #1) Football managers have way less influence than you think. Ranieri wasn’t a genius, and nor should he have been sacked.

Interesting point #2) Sports writing (esp in the US) is a liberal profession. How did that happen?

Interesting point #3) Wimbledon’s football rebirth is, arguably, the greatest sports story (n)ever told.

Adios

Sport Geek #69: snakes, Trump and pop culture

FOOTBALL
Where have Leicester been all season? They’ve played badly, got rid of the manager, and then beat Liverpool 3-1. So are the players really snakes? Perhaps not. The Guardian’s Fiver email picks apart the narrative brilliantly .

RUGBY
What the hell was that? Italy have either betrayed the game, or been brilliantly clever. They still lost though.

POP CULTURE REFERENCES
He _____’d him: sometimes one basketball player does something to another that can only be described with an extremely specific pop culture reference. Such as these.

GOLF
Should golfers play with Trump? Most seem not to care too much about him being, you know, a fascist.

RICH
LeBron James is now ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo on Forbes SportsMoney Index.

NFL
Who to blame for the Patriots’ insufferable success?

CRICKET
T20 is playing the data game.

RUGBY LEAGUE
Forget the NFL or Premier League getting an overseas team – rugby League is way ahead of you there.

Ciao.

Sport Geek #68: Patriot games, Cook chat, and chess drugs

SUPER BOWL

You might hate the Patriots (with all that winning and cheating) but on the field, they did something quite special. So, where next? First, what must teams do to beat them. Second, think about a few things Atlanta could have done differently, and it’s a Falcons win. Third – let’s just go back and bask in the records set. Amazing. And lastly, this was NOT anything like Trump’s victory. Move on.

CRICKET

So long, Alastair Cook
You were very good at batting
And captaining England
But were quite dull at chatting.

300. In T20. Seriously?

FOOTBALL

Post-match interviews. Enough already?

CHESS

PEDs, chess-style.

Cheers.

 

Sport Geek #67: SB LI, 35 is the new 25, and trusting the process

This week is divided into three sections. One is looking forward to the Super Bowl. One is looking back at the Australian Open. And the other is on finance / tanking. Happy reading. ps buy the book if you haven’t yet.

SUPER BOWL 51 – A READER

If you’ve not followed this season in the NFL, it breaks down like this. The Atlanta Falcons have a really good offense – ie they score a lot of points, and have the stand-out receiver in the NFL in Julio Jones. Check out his highlight reel – it’s impressive. However, Atlanta are not an experienced team in the playoffs, and they are up against the New England Patriots. The Pats still have Tom Brady as quarterback, are coached by the best of all time, Bill Belichick, and simply put, this is what they do. Brady already has four Super Bowl wins to his name.

There are plenty of guides to the game out there – so here are some other angles. One – the NFL doesn’t want to talk Trump. Two – you might not like Tom Brady, but the Patriots are great because he takes a big pay cut. And three – the Patriots might never have become so good if it wasn’t for the so-called Tuck rule – which changed the course of the snow-game vs the Raiders back in 2002.

Can the Falcons do it? If Matt Ryan doesn’t throw an interception….

TENNIS – AUSTRALIAN OPEN WRAP UP

Federer beat Nadal and Serena beat Venus in the finals. Just think about that for a moment. Now start here – 50 parting shots from Jon Wertheim on SI. Does Federer’s win settle the “greatest of all time” debate? Maybe… Certainly few are arguing against Serena being the GOAT.

But this isn’t just about the greatest – it’s a triumph against age, a battle won vs time’s slowing spiral.  Here’s to the 35-year-olds.

MONEY

Look at net spend – now let’s give Tottenham some credit.

Hinkie, tanking and the 76ers. Trust the process is a great mantra. If it works – and it seems it might.

See ya.

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