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U.S. Olympic Committee analytics worth their weight in gold

U.S. luger Chris Mazdzer won a surprising silver in Pyeongchang. EPA photo

Some of the Americans you'll see at the Pyeongchang Winter Games are old friends who have dominated their sports for years, like Lindsey Vonn. Others are rocketing toward their first truly global breakout moments, like Nathan Chen. A third group is worth your attention too: athletes now surging into medal contention with the help of data analysis by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Traditionally, the USOC, which distributes about $50 million a year to 39 national governing bodies to support athletes, allocated its money subjectively. Officials responsible for various sports tracked events, talked with coaches, then pitched plans to their bosses for giving out funds. That has changed since Alan Ashley took over as chief of sport performance in 2010 and started asking for metrics linking dollars spent with results obtained. "We are slowly evolving from gut feel to data," says Finbarr Kirwan, the USOC's senior director of high performance, who gave a presentation on the subject at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last year.

The revolution accelerated after London in 2012, when in the throws -- discus, hammer, javelin and shot put -- only 13 percent of American athletes performed better than they had at the trials six weeks earlier. That spurred Kirwan and his colleagues to think: Maybe the U.S. could increase its yield most efficiently by focusing on cases in which Americans were clearly leaving medals on the table, and that led the USOC to develop a program to identify and reward athletes on the cusp, those who could be nudged onto podiums with the right kind of help.

Although statheads have many methods for predicting overall medal counts, there's surprisingly little research on forecasting winners in specific Olympic sports. But we do know this: On average, athletes peak earlier in power and speed than endurance, and women peak earlier than men, especially in power and speed sports. Using that information and some mathematical modeling, USOC analysts began projecting athletes' career progressions. Basically, they graphed each competitor's performance over prior years, then extended his or her curve to 2016, the time of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, to see whether it would rise (or stay) above the average level of bronze-to-gold scores. Comparing those projections with international Olympians, the researchers estimated "medal expectancies" for each athlete.

For athletes on track to medal in targeted programs, the USOC started offering a wide range of assistance. That now includes cutting-edge tech support (such as radar-based tracking of every throw an athlete makes), biomechanical assessments, nutrition consulting, performance bonuses and additional coach travel stipends. The package is worth $500 to $2,000 per month per competitor, according to the USOC (although it's distributed through federations, not directly to athletes).

From 2014 to 2016, the results were impressive. Michelle Carter, Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs, shot putters identified by the USOC's analysis and given extra support, all won medals in Rio. American distance runners, another focus of the new analytics, improved too.

Which brings us to 2018. USOC assistance has already boosted the biathlon, in which even the most promising American athletes used to struggle for funding. After a long career, Lowell Bailey was nearly ready to retire to work a cattle farm; instead, he won the men's individual at the 2017 world championship, and Susan Dunklee earned silver in the women's mass start. Now both have a chance to be the first U.S. athlete to medal in their sport in the Olympics.

USOC officials are also excited about the luge, in which their support has helped the national federation develop a deep bench since Erin Hamlin in 2014 became the first American to win a luge singles medal. Every member the U.S. is sending to Pyeongchang has won at least one medal in a World Cup event over the past two years.

Finally, keep an eye on Matt and Becca Hamilton, siblings who will represent the U.S. when mixed doubles curling makes its Olympic debut. They won nine of their 11 games in the 2017 world championships, and the USOC has assessed them as strong performers.

None of these athletes is a household name -- yet. Some have been laboring in obscurity for years. That's precisely the point. Data doesn't care about TV-ready smiles or shoe deals. It just shows us athletes whose talent marks them as ready to win. The USOC might have a mercenary goal, nabbing the most medals for the least money, but its embrace of analytics is moving American efforts back toward the Olympic ideal.