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Olympics (2/16/2010)

A love/frustration relationship
By Paul Bessire

As a fan of competition - and something more compelling than Ali's anti-climactic "return" to The Bachelor - I love the Olympics.

Individuals representing country and self perform at their peaks and the highest known levels of a fabricated and often bizarre event just to be crowned the very best in the world while said world watches. The stories of perseverance and sacrifice are enriching as the athletes quests for glory and greater meaning are chronicled - some only to fall short of a goal by a inches or fractions of a second.

While we all strive to survive, provide and be happy, the opportunity to be the best at something - anything - can add motivation and significance to the mundane. It's why I decided to go on my own and create this site, to prove that I can build an unmatched methodology for predicting sports outcomes. And in the Olympics, the "best" is definable and the Games occur so infrequently that it means that much more to the competitors.

But as fond as I am of the stories in the Olympics, as a prognosticator, they frustrate me. As you can see, the Predictalator has not generated any results for Olympic events. While it is a goal of mine to be able to answer every question in sports, for individual Olympic sports (hockey and other team sports with prevalent data can be done easily; we just did not have the time this year), the Predictalator may never be able to appropriately project results. The athletes and the events just won't cooperate.

One of my favorite sayings as it relates to what this site does is that a player "plays to the back of his baseball card." Given a fairly standard career trajectory of physical and mental skills, players are very unlikely to change significantly from what is expected of them early in their careers. "It is what it is," would be another way to say it.

Olympians are a little different. While, I believe that everyone has some peak that should be quantifiable in someway, with most individual sports in the Olympics, the top athletes train to specifically hit this peak in the medal rounds of the Olympics, so it is very difficult to project.

Can you imagine Peyton Manning training so that he is at his best at the Super Bowl? Of course not; it's actually more the opposite than anything else. Team sports competing in recurring seasons require the athletes to perform at their peaks as often as possible because the athletes of opposing teams are directly interacting and most games have great significance.

Since we do not have those significant events preceding the Games, there is generally not nearly enough data to accurately capture the abilities of an Olympic athlete. Even in the case that there is, we know that the athlete will probably perform better than his/her previous best when the Olympics come. It's not impossible to (try to) account for that, but it's definitely a pain.

Now think about what separates the best from the worst among Olympic athletes. In last night's "500M" (really 1000M because they combine two races) speed skating event, less than half of a second divided first place and 11th. When running an event 10,000 times as the Predictalator does, variance is one of the more critical inputs as it dictates the likelihood of an upset. Regardless of the input, when that little separates the best from the not-even-close-to-medal-contention, outputs of any Predictalator analysis would likely give almost everyone in the field a legitimate chance to win, let alone medal. There would not likely be a clear favorite, which would render the analysis essentially meaningless.

People are fascinating. One would assume that there should be one person out there who is clearly the best 500M speed skater - someone who was perfectly molded to skate quickly on a long track for a short distance and who has couple the physical tools with the best possible training. But even when we can definitively say that, for now, MO Tae-Bum should hold that title as the best in his event, it's hard to argue that he is better than everyone else.

Lastly, there is the most important factor of team sports, which the Predictalator can best illustrate, but is absent from most individual sports: the ability to exploit an opponent's weaknesses. It's why the Cavs could have defeated the Lakers, yet lost to the Magic. And it has very little to do with who is going to win the Women's Downhill. Sure, the course is more like the opponent, so weather, location, altitude and track conditions may favor some styles over others and can be utilized by the Predictalator, but that's not the same thing. Aside from the Tonya Harding approach (not recommended), there is nothing that Lindsey Vonn can do to use her strengths to exploit weaknesses of others in the competition and improve her likelihood of winning the race. She just has to go as fast as she can from top to bottom. It's like asking who is most likely to win a golf tournament in which Tiger Woods is competing. It's always going to be Tiger Woods. Not much fun or intrigue in that.

I love the Olympics, yet they annoy me. Individual events provide the best stories and plenty of headaches. Meaningful data doesn't exist, athletes do not distinguish themselves enough, there are few factors worth considering and don't get me started on judging... But, then again, I was cheering just as loud as anyone else when Michael Phelps touched that wall first.

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