Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Australian Olympic Success: Winning with Quants not Jocks

The July issue of Wired magazine gave a powerful example of Competitive Advantage via Quantitative Methods in the Olympics. It pointed out that Australia generates 6 times the medals per capita as the United States and four times as many as any other members of the G20. The article also points out that this is not a coincidence, but instead the rigorous application of the scientific method to engineer exceptional athletic performance. The exponential growth in Australian medal counts over the past 40 years clearly distinguishes their paradigm as a competitive advantage.

Australian success is owed to the creation of the AIS, the Australian Institute of Sport. The AIS is “a global leader in merging science with athletic talent.” (McClusky) It was founded in 1976, in the model of Eastern Bloc athletics programs to make Australia shine at the Olympics. “AIS hoped to capture the intensity and success of the Soviet academies, without going to the same excesses. The idea was simple: Get the best coaches and the best athletes together on a year-round basis, without any distractions, and hope that athletic magic would result.” (McClusky) It began with a focus on dedicated funding for year-round sponsorship of high potential athletes, but in 2000 expanded into broad-based research focused on the creation of competitive advantage through nutrition, potential identification, performance quantification, recovery optimization and training optimization.

  • Quantification: “A lot of things you don’t know, simply because you can’t measure them.” “Getting data like this puts you in a position to ask intelligent questions.” (McClusky)
    • OptoJump: System for footfall tracking.
    • Minimax: GPS and computer installed on crew boats, developed at AIS for “instant motion analysis of [rowing] athletes during competition.”
    • AIS Swimming Facility: Includes 30 cameras mounted above, around, and under the water and a motorized cart that runs alongside the swimmers to capture data on their strokes. One of the starting blocks is rigged with force plates and motion sensors; a snake of bundled cables runs over the wet deck to a computer with a huge plasma screen for a monitor.” (McClusky) “The system maps all of the parameters of the start she’s just performed—the amount of force she pushed with, the angle at which it was applied, her angle of flight through the air, the distance she went before entering the water, the angle of her entry, and her depth under the water.” (McClusky)
    • CSIRO Sailing Wind Forecasts: Scientists from CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research provided the Australian sailing team with hyperaccurate near-real time wind forecasts and contributing to Australia's 2012 Gold medal in sailing.
  • AIS Funded Research: Much of this research is available on the AIS sponsor’s website, with one research synopses stating potential areas where a competitive advantage may be gained through the use of…” clearly identifying this as CAvQM.
    • Benefits of altitude training for aerobic athletes
    • Benefits of compression garments for recovery
    • Benefits of hydrotherapy for recovery
    • Developed a test for EPO, a performance enhancing drug
    • Determined that consuming beet juice "can improve aerobic exercise performance by as much as 2 percent.” (McClusky)
  • Athlete Identification: It is more efficient to identify talent amongst professional athletes than to let athletes pick the sport of their choice. China and the USSR would test children and invest heavily in their training, but even this practice is inefficient. It is much more effective to identify the key predictors of exceptional performance and test large groups of professionals to identify the best performers.
    • “They pioneered programs to identify athletic potential and even to find athletes who might excel at a different sport better suited to their abilities. “
  • “An Australian racer qualified for the Olympics just 18 months after she first saw a [skeleton] sled. Amazingly, she had completed only 220 runs before qualifying. (A typical US skeleton racer makes upwards of 2,000 runs before appearing in the Olympics.)” (McClusky)
  • They determined that one significant predictor of success had nothing to do with the sled itself or even the skill of the pilot. The faster a competitor pushed the sled through the 30-meter start zone before jumping on it, the better they performed. So researchers set up a national testing campaign, looking for women with backgrounds in competitive sports who excelled at the 30-meter sprint." (McClusky)
  • AIS has even evaluated considered genomic evaluation of athletes

Personal Commentary
Some of these concepts such as athlete identification or quantification of performance we’ve touched on in prior blogs. This case differs in composition though, regarding the focus on communication and the lack of co-located technicians and athletes. It is only fleetingly mentioned in one article, but athletes are spread throughout the country so AIS uses “an extensive WAN infrastructure that enables access… through the use of a Citrix WAN scaler and presentation server.” (Browne) I've cited the importance of communications in creating competitive advantage, but it is nonetheless surprising to notice it in the athletic arena as well.

The ultimate irony may be though, that in developing a research based competitive advantage in a free country, it is difficult if not impossible to prevent the export of that advantage to other countries. Accordingly,  we must realize that only research that can be protected as trade secrets can create enduring competitive advantage (by making the research's export an act of intellectual property theft). 


“One Hundredth of a Second Faster: Building Better Olympic Athletes.” By Marc McClusky. Wired. July 25, 2012.

OptoJump Sales Materials on Youtube

“Technology One of the Good Sports for ASC.” By Marcus Browne. ZDNet. January 25, 2008.

“Compression garments: Do they influence athletic performance and recovery?” By Lee Wallace, Katie Slattery and Aaron Coutts, School of Leisure, Sport and Tourism, University of Technology, Sydney.

“Gene testing: a valuable proposition.” By Grant Nahill.

“CSIRO technology gives Australian Olympic Sailors the winning edge.” August 16, 2012.