February 20, 2018

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Analysts do a deep data dive for Canada's athletes in Pyeongchang

The odds on 178 different shots have been calculated for Canada's curling teams. Short-track speedskaters know what position they must be in with 10 laps, five laps and two laps to go.

Data analysts crunched numbers and built projection models for Canada's athletes for the first time at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

They went deeper for the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.

"What we have done for several sports in Pyeongchang that we did not do for Rio was the second-generation of analytics where we're starting to get into tactics and strategy," said Mark Merritt, chief credit risk assessor for Canadian Tire.

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The odds on 178 different shots have been calculated for Canada's curling teams. Short-track speedskaters know what position they must be in with 10 laps, five laps and two laps to go.

Data analysts crunched numbers and built projection models for Canada's athletes for the first time at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

They went deeper for the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.

"What we have done for several sports in Pyeongchang that we did not do for Rio was the second-generation of analytics where we're starting to get into tactics and strategy," said Mark Merritt, chief credit risk assessor for Canadian Tire.

The Olympic and Paralympic teams' sponsorship agreement with the retail chain gives athletes and coaches access to seven analysts who predict consumer behaviour for the company's financial services arm.

They went 8-for-12 in Olympic medal predictions for the Canadian team in Rio and foretold five world records that were set, Merritt said.

As was the case in Rio, their work doesn't encompass every sport at the Winter Olympics. They're not forecasting a total number of medals for Canada in Pyeongchang.

With limited staff, they focused on sports where analytics would be the most beneficial for Canadian athletes.

Merritt says his team is projecting 32 medals coming from bobsled, skeleton, luge, freestyle skiing, figure skating, short and long-track speedskating, curling, snowboard and cross-country skiing.

Analysts were in the field in December at both the luge World Cup in Calgary and the Olympic curling trials in Ottawa.

"If analytics can show you (that) you might really want to make call A, but maybe call B leaves your opposition shot C, which he misses all the time, then you've got a better chance to win," Curling Canada consultant Nolan Thiessen explained.

Pyeongchang threw a couple of wrinkles into the prediction game for Merritt's team.

The bobsled, skeleton and luge track at the Alpensia Sliding Centre is so new, there haven't been enough runs down it to produce a large sample size of data.

"We do have the World Cup data from last year and also some training runs," analyst Scott Hunt said.

"If the weather conditions are similar to what they were for the World Cup last year in Pyeongchang, then we can make reasonable predictions."

Also, which Russian athletes the International Olympic Commitee will allow to compete in Pyeongchang is a variable in Canada's medal chances.

How the information is delivered to coaches and athletes — so their eyes don't glaze over — has changed in the months since Rio.

Business intelligence tools communicate the information graphically "as opposed to spreadsheets and numbers, which helps them understand it much quicker and easier," Merritt said.

Luger Kim McRae has no interest in looking at it, however. She understands its importance, but leaves it to her coaches and high-performance director to interpret the information for her.

"I just get the big picture," she said. "I don't like the detail and the coaches know that. A lot of times they just change things and do things and I say 'I trust you. I'll just follow the plan you guys have set in place for me.'"

But teammate Sam Edney likes to see for himself what the data says once in awhile.

"There are moments when you definitely want to look at that data and you want to sit down and really analyze it and go over it in depth," he said.

Data analytics is another tool that's emerged in the sports tech race, but a required one in order to be a world power, according to Own The Podium's chief executive officer.

"It truly is a competitive advantage," Anne Merklinger said. "There's no doubt."

The Canadian Olympic Committee's recent partnership with SAS, an international analytics and software company, will expand the reach of analytics for Canada's sport community.

"SAS is going to be doing more of the data collection and data management," Merritt explained. "We'll focus more on the pure analytics of it."

What's next? Third-generation analytics for the 2020 Summer Games.

"We are very excited about what we call gold-medal profiling," Merritt said. "Being able to take a very specific athlete and helping them figure out how to become a gold-medal winner. That's everything from diet to biometrics.

"We are just starting into that. You will see that in Tokyo."

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