An Olympic musical – why every millisecond matters  //  The Winter Games draws to a close with an Olympic musical

01 Mar 2010 Posted by
Canada sits atop the Winter sporting world this morning, having claimed a record 14 gold medals in their home Olympic Games.  It’s a record for any Games, beating the previous record of 13 held by Norway (Salt Lake City, 2002) and the Soviet Union (Innsbruck, 1976).

The 14th medal also probably felt like five for Canada, as their men’s hockey team defeated the USA in overtime, exacting revenge for a 5-3 defeat earlier in the tournament.

The USA, for their part, will be content to have won the most medals at the Games, 37 in total, though “only” 9 were gold.  Much like Beijing, they were eclipsed for the top step on the podium, but depth of performances saw them gather a record number of medals.  After an excellent start, they were on track to top both the gold and total counts, but Canada won 10 medals in the last week of the Games, to storm to the top.  An amazing turn-around, considering that Canada had never won a gold medal on home soil until moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau broke the drought.

Money in = medals out, and the value of being at home

The results once again highlight the value of home-ground advantage in the Olympic Games – few host nations have not excelled on the medal table – Spain, Australia, Italy, China, and even Greece come to mind as countries who have seen a spike in their medal tallies as hosts.  That says a lot about money invested – the relationship between money in and medals out is pretty well established in high performance sport, unless of course money is squandered in an inefficient or corrupt system (think Athletics South Africa where 80% of the money in goes towards unnecessary salaries, various perks and who knows what else…).  Hosting the Games means investing money in athlete preparation, a strategy used by China to win the most golds in Beijing in 2008.

There is also the intangible benefit of competing at home, less easy to quantify or even explain, but it adds to that tiny 1% that an athlete needs to move from becoming part of the group to becoming its champion.  I posted the other day on the mental vs physiological edge, and I really do believe that the mental edge provided by being at home (assuming of course that the athlete doesn’t collapse under the weight of expectation, when home ground advantage can have the opposite effect), contributes significantly to performance.  We have seen this in soccer – France in 1998, Korea & Japan in 2002, Germany in 2006 (whether South Africa can produce the same in 2010 remains to be seen…).

The Olympic musical – 4 years of training to be note on the timeline

Speaking of 1% differences, here is a website that is well worth a look – a fascinating piece from the New York Times looking at the margins between victory and defeat as “an Olympic musical” (thanks again to Joe for the link), where each sound effectively represents an athlete crossing the finish line after the winner.

We all recognize how tight the margins in sport are are.  No one who follows high performance sport will tell you that victory is ever achieved easily.  For example, if you play the musical for The Men’s Super G skiing event (fourth from top), think for a second about the 7th note you hear.  It’s basically indistinguishable from the third note, but that difference in sound is the difference between feeling that four years of training have produced something (a bronze medal) compared to a feeling of “if only”.

Another fascinating event is the women’s 1000m speedskating, won by Christine Nesbitt of Canada, in what was the closest finish of the Games (the same margin separated Germany and Japan in the women’s pursuit race but that is not shown).  The 10th placed athlete was 0.87s behind, which is an enormous gap at that level, but the musical makes it easy to conceptualize how ‘unforgiving’ the sport can be.

It really strikes home when you think of it this way:  If that women’s 1000m race were to be contested another 10 times,  there is a high probability that the same three women would win the medals again.  Perhaps the order would change slightly, they’d swap medals, but I’m pretty confident in saying that Christine Nesbitt would feature every time, probably win at least 50% of the races if they were re-run.

You would certainly feel that the chances of the 10th placed finisher jumping seven places to win a medal are very slim indeed.  Yet when you conceptualize it by listening to that musical time-line, the 10th note is over in the blink of an eye, yet that gap is too large to be overcome merely by more effort.  That athlete, a beep in a musical time line, is simply too far away to challenge for medal in their current condition, regardless of motivation.  And if that is true for her, then think of the woman who finished 4th, only 0.06s off the podium.

The only thing that will see that gap narrowed is a year, maybe two, maybe even four years of hard training or some other intervention that changes the athlete, either physiologically or psychologically – think altitude training, more power-based work at the gym, sports psychology, equipment etc.

Those are the margins which separate the medalists from those who have reached the pinnacle of the sport, yet they are so far.  I spoke the other day of the “so near yet so far syndrome” in elite sport, where you can at once be within touching distance, but the gap is almost insurmountable.  This illustrates it really nicely.

The other thing, as an aside which I have to take, is that it really highlights how doping messes up the natural order.  A drug doesn’t have to transform an athlete’s physiology to have a huge effect on the outcome – a 1% improvement is enough to make this musical completely different.  Laboratories usually can’t find these margins of performance difference, and so when evidence is scarce that a drug has a beneficial effect, think of these Olympic musicals to understand why science doesn’t necessarily have to prove anything.  They just work…

Sports Science and four years of effort

It’s really a remarkable illustration of what high performance sport is all about, and what we as scientists are all about.  Because if you are a sports scientist reading this, and you don’t recognize that you are hunting that kind of performance improvement, then you’re in the wrong industry!  The reason excellence, or even perfection in preparation matters, is because if you fail to aim for perfection, then you fall short and your athlete becomes a sound-byte, not the starting note!

I have some more thoughts on the Winter Olympics, despite my very limited exposure to them on SA TV, but I’ll put those over for a day.

Ross

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