Ottawa Citizen - - SPORTS - DAN BARNES dbarnes@post­ Twit­­dan­barnes

There is no paral­y­sis in the anal­y­sis that Cana­dian Tire’s data-crunch­ing wizards are do­ing for sport in this coun­try.

It’s all about mov­ing for­ward. Sooner. Younger. Faster. More ef­fi­ciently. And al­ways, to­ward the podium.

Lap times in swim­ming, start times in luge, split times in speed­skat­ing; the eight mem­bers of a sports an­a­lyt­ics team cre­ated a hand­ful of years ago in Oakville, Ont., punch it all in, go­ing back through decades of medal-win­ning per­for­mances. They spit it back out in user-friendly bits and pieces for coaches, high­per­for­mance di­rec­tors, Own The Podium of­fi­cials, and ath­letes be­ing tasked with own­ing those podi­ums.

Work­ing in part­ner­ship with Own The Podium and na­tional sports or­ga­ni­za­tions, they are fore­cast­ing fu­ture re­sults, work­ing on prob­a­bil­ity mod­els, and de­vel­op­ing in­ter­ac­tive tools so sport bod­ies can lever­age those an­a­lyt­ics.

There are two dis­tinct pieces to their math­e­mat­i­cal toil; firstly, find­ing di­a­monds in the rough, the ath­letes who should be sup­ported with de­vel­op­ment re­sources and fund­ing; and se­condly, find­ing a per­for­mance edge for those ath­letes who are al­ready within reach of the podium.

“In short-track speed­skat­ing, we fo­cused on where the in­di­vid­u­als have to be on the last lap,” said Mark Mer­ritt, vi­cepres­i­dent of credit risk man­age­ment and cus­tomer an­a­lyt­ics for Cana­dian Tire.

“If they’re in sec­ond or third, do they have a chance of win­ning that race? What we found out was, by the sec­ond- or third-last lap they have to be in first place, or they have to be in a po­si­tion to be in first place, or they will not win.

“It’s things like that. Strat­egy. De­vel­op­ment. We’ve done some things on judg­ing bias in some sports. It’s a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing. It’s been a blast do­ing this.”

They have worked with nine sum­mer sport bod­ies and 10 win­ter sport or­ga­ni­za­tions. Their work on luge has fo­cused on the start, its me­chan­ics and align­ment. But the work didn’t start there.

“First chal­lenge was, there are 20 luge tracks around the world, at dif­fer­ent al­ti­tudes,” Mer­ritt said. “We had to fig­ure out how to stan­dard­ize those so the times are iden­ti­cal across all of them.”

They sliced and diced through the data, ac­cord­ing to Justin Det­lor, man­ager of sports an­a­lyt­ics for Cana­dian Tire, to re­move vari­ables like ice tem­per­a­ture, air tem­per­a­ture, snow, wind, sun and al­ti­tude.

“The whole field can shift be­cause there is heavy frost­ing or snow fall­ing. Cre­at­ing some of those ad­vanced stats, the Corsi of luge, it gives them more info to what’s ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing when you strip out the en­vi­ron­men­tal de­tails.”

And then they ze­roed in on the starts.

“So we’re able to use large amounts of data, we’re talk­ing all of the World Cups that have hap­pened in the last 15 years,” Det­lor said. “It’s thou­sands of runs down the track. When you slice and dice that data, it al­lows us to look track by track and say the im­por­tance of the start at this track is worth X amount of what you do down the track.”

At hel­la­cious speed, a hun­dredth of a sec­ond equates to about an inch of lin­ear move­ment. Ath­letes rou­tinely miss the podium by a hun­dredth or two. How does Canada find that inch?

“What we’ve been able to do is ul­ti­mately de­ter­mine what mat­ters in a much quicker way, we take that into the daily train­ing en­vi­ron­ment and change what we do in terms of ath­lete prepa­ra­tion to make sure they have a re­ally good race model or plan lead­ing into the start of World Cups,” said Jeremiah Barn­ert, strength and con­di­tion­ing coach at Cana­dian Sport In­sti­tute Cal­gary.

Luge Canada has worked with the data an­a­lysts for more than two years, but Luge Canada high-per­for­mance di­rec­tor Wal­ter Corey col­lected race data for 15 years in Ex­cel files. The an­a­lysts turned that moun­tain into a user-friendly trea­sure trove, ac­ces­si­ble, un­der­stand­able and use­ful.

“We’re tak­ing the in­for­ma­tion and mak­ing an eval­u­a­tion and mov­ing for­ward,” Corey said. “Some­times the eval­u­a­tion is sta­tus quo. Fact is, you’re us­ing it. These types of tools re­ally just help pro­fes­sion­al­ize and help you make bet­ter decisions or ask bet­ter ques­tions.

“And we’re just dip­ping our toe. The thing with an­a­lyt­ics, they’re not go­ing away.”

Luge Canada will be fo­cus­ing more on us­ing an­a­lyt­ics to aid tal­ent iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in the next qua­dren­nial. Find­ing them ear­lier, faster, younger. Be­cause it isn’t al­ways easy to un­earth the di­a­mond in the rough.


Scott Hunt, left, is one of the sports data an­a­lysts help­ing ath­letes like luger Kim McRae to fo­cus their train­ing and race plans.

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