December 15, 2004

The Olympic Experience and Athlete Development

Last month I wrote an essay about the COC's "Top 12" selection criteria for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. One of the common arguments against raising the standard is that it robs developing athletes of the opportunity to gain experience at the Olympic level. I promised that I would take a look at some data to see if that argument holds water.

I looked at this from a couple of different perspectives, but I kept one common assumption: I assumed that the ultimate goal is to win more medals. You may disagree with this goal; in that case, the rest of this article really isn't for you. Also, I should warn everybody that this is going to get a bit mathematical.

I don't have access to information about athletes who didn't qualify for the games, what the qualification standards were, or how they were specifically applied. I also can't really get into a lot of sport-specific issues, because the small numbers of athletes make a meaningful analysis difficult. What I can do is take a broad look at Olympic performance across all sports. Let's see what conclusions we can draw.

I used the COC's athlete profile search tool to compile the following statistics and lists. I wrote a MATLAB script to query and mine the database.

Is Olympic Experience Worth Anything?

The first question I tried to answer is this: does Olympic experience increase an athlete's ability to win medals?

I looked at the last five summer Olympic games teams, from 1988 to 2004. If you add up the number of athletes on the five Canadian teams, you get a total of 1543 athlete-games. (Note that this is greater than the number of unique athletes.) Of these, 1037 (67%) were athletes attending their first Olympics.

Of these 1037 first-time Olympians, 89 (8.6%) won medals. Of the 506 experienced Olympians, 64 (12.6%) won medals.

At first glance, this seems to prove conclusively that Olympic games experience gives an athlete a huge advantage when it comes to winning medals. There is one confounding factor, however, which is that athletes who have already been to one or more Olympics are generally older.

Figure 1

Age Histogram

Figure 1 — Age distribution of Canadian Olympic athletes, 1988-2004 (click to enlarge).

Figure 1 (inset right) shows the age distribution of Canadian Olympic athletes from 1988 to 2004. The median age for first-time Olympians was 25 years; the median age for experienced Olympians was 29 years. That four-year difference in age and experience, independent from attendance at an Olympic Games, could partially account for the observed difference in performance.

To study the question of age bias in the analysis, I took all of the athletes in the two groups and divided them into sub-groups by age. I excluded the very youngest athletes, because there were very few with Olympic experience; similarly, I excluded the very oldest athletes, because there were very few rookies. Within each of the remaining age sub-groups, I calculated the percentage of first-time Olympians and the percentage of experienced Olympians who won at least one medal.

Figure 2

Medallists vs age

Figure 2 — The relationship between medal performance and age for Canadian Olympic athletes, 1988-2004 (click to enlarge).

Figure 2 (inset right) shows the results. The red line shows the percentage of athletes with Olympic experience in each age band who won medals, and the green line shows the percentage of athletes without Olympic experience in each age band who won medals. Note that an athlete might have been a first-time Olympian in 1988, and an experienced Olympian in 1992 and 1996; that athlete would contribute to three different points on the plot.

In general, the red line is higher than the green line, which indicates that the athletes with Olympic experience do enjoy an advantage over their colleagues of the same age in terms of winning medals.

There's another interesting result here, which is that age doesn't seem to matter all that much, especially for the first-timers; all age groups had about the same probability of winning a medal. Or perhaps more precisely, the distribution wasn't as strongly peaked as I expected.

But What Kind Of Experience?

So, experience as an Olympic competitor does seem to give athletes a slight edge when it comes to winning medals, which is in line with the conventional wisdom. The next question to ask is whether the quality of that previous experience matters, and if so, how much?

For this purpose, I looked at all the first-time Olympians from 1988, 1992, and 1996. I looked at their best result in their first Olympics, and then checked to see whether they won a medal in their second or subsequent Olympics. I started with 1988 because the boycotts in 1980 and 1984 obviously cause a distortion in this kind of longitudinal analysis, and I stopped with 1996 because the first-timers in 2000 and 2004 may not yet have had time to develop their full potential.

Figure 3

Medal Potential vs Initial Performance

Figure 3 — The relationship between initial Olympic performance and medal potential, 1988-1996 (click to enlarge).

Figure 3 (inset right) shows the results of this study. The horizontal axis divides the first-time Olympians into categories by their best result at their first Olympics. The vertical axis shows the percentage of those athletes who won medals in later Olympic games.

Overall, 33 out of 638 (5.2%) first-time olympians won medals in their second or subsequent Olympics. Figure 3 shows conclusively that the better you do your first time, the more likely you are to win a medal later. No big surprise there.

What I am most interested in here, for the sake of the discussion surrounding the top 12 selection standard, is the group that did not finish twelfth place or better in their first Olympics; the lowest and right-most point on Figure 3. To keep the terminology of the discussion simple, I'm going to refer to these as "D-Olympians," short for developing Olympians. To recap, then, a D-Olympian is an athlete at their first Olympic games who does not finish twelfth or better in any event.

At each summer Olympic games between 1998 and 1996, 25-35% of Canadian athletes were D-Olympians. If the COC top 12 standard could be magically applied with perfect foresight, then these athletes would be among the group excluded from the Canadian team. If we want to provide beneficial experience for future medallists, is this a reasonable place to make a cut-off?

There were 7 D-Olympians (2.3% of all D-Olympians) in the 1988, 1992, and 1996 Summer Games who eventually won Olympic medals. Since I concluded earlier that experience helps, there is a chance that these seven medals would not have been won if the top 12 standard had been applied to the team selection.

Let's look at the seven individuals who later won medals, to see if we can refine our assessment of that chance.

The Exceptional Seven

There are some interesting common threads in this list of seven D-Olympians who defied the odds.

Four of these athletes (Brunet, Walton, Surin, and Chalmers) were close enough to top 12 that they probably would have achieved the COC qualification standard. The standards are always designed to identify those athletes with the ability to finish in the top 12.

All of these athletes were young in their D-Olympic year. The median age for Canadian first-time Olympians in these three games was 25. Chalmers, the oldest in the group, was still young for a long-distance runner.

Five of the seven (Brunet, Surin, Gilbert, Walton, and Montminy) didn't win their medals until two Olympics (8 years) after they were D-Olympians.

Four of the seven (Surin, Gilbert, Walton, and Lareau) won their medals in events that they didn't compete in at their D-Olympics.

Four of the seven (Brunet, Surin, Lareau, and Montminy) claim Quebec as their home province, with one each from Ontario, Manitoba, and BC. Does Quebec do a better job at nurturing D-Olympians than other provinces?

Caroline Brunet (Canoe/Kayak) was 19 years old in 1988 when she finished 13th in women's kayak singles. She went on to win three Olympic medals in 1996, 2000, and 2004. She also competed in 1992, and finished seventh.

Brian Walton (Cycling) was 23 years old in 1988 when he finished 13th in the men's team time trial. He went on to win a silver medal in 1996 in the points race. He did not compete in 1992.

Angela Chalmers (Athletics) was 25 years old in 1988 when she finished 14th in the women's 3000m. She went on to win a bronze medal in 1992.

Bruny Surin (Athletics) was 21 years old in 1988 when he finished 15th in the men's long jump. He went on to win a gold medal in 1996 in the 4x100m relay. He also competed in 1992, and finished fourth in the 100m.

Anne Montminy (Diving) was 17 years old in 1992 when she finished 17th in the women's 10m platform. She went on to win two medals in 2000. She also competed in 1996, and was 24th in the 10m platform. She entered the 1996 games with a fourth-place world ranking.

Glenroy Gilbert (Athletics) was 20 years old in 1998 when he finished 22nd in the men's long jump. He went on to win a gold medal in 1996 in the 4x100m relay. He also competed in 1992, and was disqualified in the long jump. Although not listed on the COC database, elsewhere I find that he was also part of the 4x100m relay team that finished 15th in 1992.

Sebastien Lareau (Tennis) was 23 years old in 1996 when he was eliminated in the round of 64 in men's singles. He went on to win a gold medal in 2000 in men's doubles.

Can we conclude anything about the Olympic experience with respect to developing medallists? If these seven athletes had been denied their first Olympic experience due to a tough qualifying standard, would it have stunted their later careers?

The first four of these athletes were very close to a top 12 finish; they probably would have been selected to their D-Olympic team even in the face of a top 12 standard, simply because the standards are not meant to make such fine distinctions.

Montminy would definitely have made the 1996 Olympic team, even if she had failed to qualify in 1992, assuming that it didn't end her career. Similarly, Gilbert probably would have qualified in 1992, although this is less certain than Montminy's case. Therefore, these two athletes would not have gone into their "medal Olympics" as rookies.

Lareau is probably the only one of the seven athletes who would have arrived at his medal Olympics without any prior Olympic experience, had a top 12 standard been in effect. However, as a professional tennis player, he competed in many events that are considered more prestigious than the Olympics. It seems unlikely that his first-round singles defeat in 1996 had a significant effect on his doubles performance in 2000.


Of course we cannot possibly ever know the answers to the questions I have been asking: "what would have happened if ..." We can't predict, for individual athletes, how the future would have been changed if selection standards had been tougher.

However, my analysis leads me to two conclusions. First, that previous Olympic experience does give athletes a small advantage when it comes to winning medals. But second, that almost all athletes who go on to win Olympic medals finish in the top 12 at their first games. In other words, the athlete who competes for the "experience" of finishing twentieth is almost never going to win an Olympic medal. If medals are important, then the COC's money is better spent elsewhere.

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