Canadian Olympic Committee Amplifies Analytics in Deal with Data Company


It’s just about the trendiest word in high-level sport.

On Wednesday, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and the analytics software company SAS announced an eight-year partnership to give the high-performance sport community access to advanced data technology, or if you will; analytics.

SAS calls itself a “leader in analytics,” and the “A” word has been popularized through everything from staff hirings in the National Hockey League to the book-inspired film Moneyball.

In the context of Wednesday’s announcement and Olympic athletes, “analytics is bringing the data together, identifying the patterns, and modelling some kind of outcome,” said Carl Farrell, executive vice president and chief revenue officer for SAS.

According to SAS executives, there is also a predictive power through their software and data scientists. For the COC, this could help optimize decisions over things like an athlete’s training plan or talent identification for a national sport organization.

Some athletes are already aware of the insights available from collecting data.

Earlier in his career, four-time Olympic medallist kayaker Adam van Koeverden began keeping data on his training and races.

“It’s a deeper level of intelligence and confidence around every decision that you make,” he said.

However, he cautions it will be important for someone to filter the data for athletes.

“I think you need to compartmentalize the data that you’re getting as an athlete and know where it’s valuable and when it’s valuable,” he said.

Canada’s Heather Moyse is a two-time Olympic bobsleigh champion as brakeman for Kaillie Humphries.

Bobsleigh coaches recruited her from rugby at age 27, because of her running speed and power.

She says there was no data at first, just qualitative observation, and the ability to identify athletes at a younger age would be ideal.

Finite resources

The other aspect that analytics and Moneyball have in common is that similar to the low-budget Oakland A’s (the Major League Baseball team featured in the story), Canadian national sport organizations don’t have endless amounts of money.

They have to pick and choose where to allocate resources, and therefore some have already delved into the potential of analyzing data.

“High-performance sport has evolved so much where it’s become very evidence-based and very analytical,” says Jacques Landry, high performance director for cycling canada.

For one project, Cycling Canada sport scientists, along with an analytics team from Canadian Tire (another COC partner), have been working to develop what is called a “podium pathway.”

This tool allows Cycling Canada to determine how an athlete ranks against all international competitors according to their ages. Then they can see how long it will take for the athlete to reach Olympic, World Cup, or world championship podiums.

It’s a concept Own the Podium has been pushing for years now.

Landry stresses it’s a predictive tool to assist coaches, and only as strong as the amount of data available.

“It prompts us to basically look more in depth at that athlete, identify those gaps and work on those,” he says.

For another project, Landry says his team has miles of race video they wish they could breakdown to glean strategic insights, but that’s not currently possible.

“We lack the manpower at this point in time,” he says.

The road ahead

Chris Overholt, the COC’s chief executive officer says today’s partnership will add to the work already being done in the system with Canadian Tire, Own The Podium, and sports like cycling.

It is unclear how many other national sport organizations or athletes will benefit, because the partnership is still in its early stages.

“We imagine the teams will come together and further amplify the work that’s already been done,” says Overholt.

For now, the plans are to create a council consisting of both data and sport experts to guide the work ahead.

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