Interview by Babette Berkelaar.
In the world of elite sports, selection processes of Olympic athletes are constantly evolving, driven by the rise of data analyses and a growing call for transparency. Agaath Doeleman, senior data analyst at the Dutch Olympic Committee in the elite sports department, wrote a MEMOS-thesis on how to develop a plan to incorporate data and expert opinion in the selection processes of Olympic athletes.
Reason for MEMOS-thesis
The research started with a request from the Judo Federation to review their data-driven selection policy. “At that time, the federation was developing their internal selection policy for the Olympic Games in Paris. In the past, difficult decisions, for example when two high-rated judokas competed in the same weight class, were submitted to a special committee. The federation wanted a different approach: a fully data-driven selection policy for Paris. The federation has succeeded in that,” said Doeleman.
“What struck me during the research is that it concerns everyone; it is a current theme and athletes are more likely to stand up for their interests.”
Research process and main outcomes
Doeleman investigated how other national Olympic committees and various sports federations determine their selection criteria, with a focus on the use of data and expert opinion. Do they use data? If so, which date sources? Do they use expert opinion? If so, how do they do that? Doeleman tried to find out as much as possible through a literature study, interviews and a survey. Seven national Olympic committees and eleven different sports participated in the study: sailing, triathlon, rowing, football, handball, judo, water polo, athletics, cycling, swimming and synchronized swimming.
The result is summarized in four checklists related to four steps: Plan, Do, Check, Act. Doeleman emphasizes the importance of clearly defining the goal of the selection process, involving athletes from the start, and striking a balance between data-driven decision-making and expert opinion.
The four checklists can be found here, including two overviews of possible factors for data and expert opinion.
Who is the most promising athlete at any given time?
In the search for the most promising athlete, the question regularly arises: who is the best athlete at what time and how do you capture that in figures? Doeleman: “Measuring ‘the best’ can often be derived from world rankings, but this approach does not necessarily guarantee that the athlete most likely to win a medal is identified. Sometimes athletes who are slightly lower on the rankings, for example in judo, perform better against specific top players. Some countries therefore also take into account the track record of an athlete against potential opponents at the Olympic Games in their selection.”
The definition of ‘the best’ also raises questions, according to Doeleman: “Take, for example, the Dutch marathon runner Abdi Nageeye, who excelled with a silver medal at the Tokyo Games, at a temperature of 26 degrees Celsius and a humidity of 80%. This shows that ‘the best’ does not always mean that someone is ranked highest at that moment, but rather the one who performs best in the prevailing circumstances”.
Early versus late selection
The complexity of selection processes is further reflected when deciding whether the current top athlete should be preferred over upcoming talent. Selecting the current top athlete at an early stage offers that athlete the opportunity for extensive preparation for the Games, but carries the risk of missing the potential of upcoming talent. Doeleman: ”This dilemma requires strategic choices: should selections be made early, and if so, what opportunities are offered to promising newcomers? It is recommended that federations enter into discussions with athletes about such strategic choices at an early stage so that a well-supported selection policy is developed.”
Doeleman acknowledges that her research does not offer ready-made solutions. However, it does provide overviews of data sources and expert opinions to be used and how they can be combined. She emphasizes the importance of a good dialogue between athletes and policymakers.
“We have come to the conclusion that the interpretation of measurable variables does not always produce a clear picture. We have consulted the athletes… Initially we formulated everything using data, like rankings… But eventually the athletes said: “Actually, we want the coach to decide who will be selected.” – National Federation, anonymously
In other sports, on the other hand, athletes ask for a 100% objective qualification policy. This indicates the complexity and relevance of the issue.
In conclusion, Doeleman encourages active, international knowledge sharing between coaches, technical directors and athletes, so that a community of expertise is created to further improve the selection processes for Olympic athletes. Her message to the sporting community is clear: read the findings, and let’s work together towards a future where data and expert opinion go hand in hand to realize Olympic dreams.
You can read Doeleman’s full thesis here. Do you have questions about this topic in your own area? Please contact Agaath Doeleman via: email@example.com.