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Ten data-driven sporting victories - part one

Eleanor Dallaway,Editor of Infosecurity Magazine

Over the past 20 years, data analysis has become one of the primary factors for success in sport. We look at ten of the greatest sporting triumphs to date, made possible through the use of data analysis

Michael Johnson’s 200m and 400m gold medals in 1996 Olympics
At the 1996 Olympic Games, Michael Johnson became the only man in history to win the 200m and the 400m gold medals at a single Olympics, setting a world record time of 19.32 in the 200m and an Olympic record of 43.49 in the 400m. By the time Johnson retired from athletics in 2001, he had amassed a total of thirteen Olympic and World Championship gold medals.

Scrupulous planning and rigorous preparation were hallmarks of Johnson’s approach, and since his retirement as a professional athlete, Johnson has founded a business – Michael Johnson Performance – which provides athletes with advanced athletic assessment, using a variety of tools and advanced technological capabilities to assist in evaluating and training any athlete.

BMW Oracle Racing’s victory in the 33rd America’s Cup yacht race in February 2010 showcased extraordinary sailing expertise, but also the power of technology. The design of the boat itself was, of course, instrumental, but to sail it to its full potential, the crew reviewed enormous amounts of reliable data every time they took the boat for a test run.

The team collected performance data from 250 sensors at the rate of 10 times per second, so in any given hour of sailing, 90 million data points were generated. Using Oracle Data Mining in Oracle Database 11g to extract maximum value from the data, the statistics were reviewed and shared with crew members daily. The data was streamed to a data centre where a dedicated team tackled deeper analysis.

Without the data mining, Ian Burns, design coordinator for BMW Oracle Racing, says the boat wouldn’t have run as fast. The technology, he said, allowed the team to compare the incremental improvements in performance from the first day of sailing to the very last day.

Bradley Wiggins wins 2012 Tour De France
When Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012, he punched a button on his SRM bike computer to log the ride data before he celebrated by punching the air with pride. Team Sky’s success in the Tour de France – with six stage wins and number one and two on the podium – was soon followed by the success of the British Cycling team the same summer when Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome took gold and bronze at the Olympics in the men’s time trial.

Team Sky and Team GP have relied heavily on technology for their winning advantage, thanks in large part to Head of Performance Support, Tim Kerrison, who is very data-driven in his approach. While the use of data analysis is customary in the Tour de France, Wiggins and Team Sky have dedicated coaching staff assessing every training session and providing real-time feedback.

Wiggins had an SRM power meter on his bike, with the data feeding through to TrainingPeaks, an endurance training technology that gives insight into performance, form, and how to mould custom training programs for each rider. Brad Culberson, CTO at TrainingPeaks, wrote: “Riders know that having that data available will not only help them be faster, but will help them to stand out in the technologically-savvy programme.”

Saracens win premiership for first time in history
Until 2009, Saracens had been one of the biggest under-achievers in rugby union particularly in the professional era, despite signing star international players. The appointment of Brendan Venter as director of rugby for the club in 2009, however, was a turning point. Venter was a player in the South African rugby team which won the World Cup in 1995, and also a qualified GP.

Bill Gerrard, professor of business and sports analytics at Leeds University, has worked closely with Saracens, and explains how Venter introduced “an in-depth evidence-based approach with the coaching staff which committed to using data to inform their decisions on team selection, game tactics, training priorities and player recruitment.”

In May 2011, Saracens won the Premiership for the first time in their history and have become one of the leading teams in European rugby, reaching the finalist of the Heineken Cup last season.

Peter Nicol defeats David Palmer in 2006 Commonwealth Games squash final
In the 2006 Commonwealth Games, Peter Nicol played in his third consecutive Commonwealth Games final, against ranking world number one at the time, David Palmer. Stafford Murray, Head of Performance Analysis at the EIS, recalls how in the lead-up to the final, David Palmer’s profile was analysed in great depth by team GB:

“We looked at data from Palmer’s matches and put together a normative profile – a thumbprint for how someone plays – which showed that the front left corner was where most of Palmer’s opponents were playing winning shots.” Nicol, he explains, “was weak in that area so his coach changed his forehand technique to reduce the likelihood of error”. Nicol went on to defeat Palmer 3-1.

The winning formula, according to Murray, was a combination of the input of coach and the athlete’s ability to change technically: “In a moment of glory, Nicol was prepared to trust his coach and change his technique.”

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