Category Archives: olympics

Guardian writing: Rio Olympics

Two women’s soccer analyses, two gymnastics live blogs, one examination of how rare Michael Phelps’ accomplishments this year are, and one look at the next generation of U.S. Olympians.

Aug. 9: U.S. women win gold in gymnastics team final (live coverage)

Aug. 10: U.S. women’s soccer team has improved, really (group stage analysis)

Aug. 11: Biles, Raisman medal in all-around (live coverage)

Aug. 12: Why Phelps is still great at an age when most swimmers have faded

Aug. 13: USA’s women lost. Blaming it on “cowards” misses the point

Aug. 20: USA have a wealth of young talent for 2020

I also wrote for Bleacher Report and will have another post summing up my work there.


Doping: It’s complicated

“Ban the Russians!”

Like “Equal Play, Equal Pay” or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” it’s a catchy slogan, but it merits further investigation.

Plenty of columnists have ripped the IOC for allowing any Russian athletes into the 2016 Olympics, arguing that the organizers should’ve issued a blanket ban in the wake of the McLaren report, which unveiled a shadowy state-sanctioned doping and concealment program not seen since the bad old days of East Germany.

The ruling forced each sport’s federation to decide on Russian participation. All track and field athletes, all weightlifters and a handful of others were tossed out.

But others were allowed, and the issue came to the forefront in the Western media not when two Russian men won judo gold, not when three fencers and two shooters won medals for Russia, not even when a Russian in the historically doping-heavy sport of cycling took silver (granted, that just happened this morning), but when American swimmer Lilly King wagged a finger at Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, who trains in Southern California but has served one doping suspension and avoided a second in the muddy realm of meldonium tests.

King won their showdown in the pool, a nice feel-good moment for Americans and anti-doping authorities. And that led to this awkward press conference, in which Efimova was asked whether she should be in Rio and King was asked whether Team USA should expel athletes such as Justin Gatlin, who has been twice punished in doping regulations.

The vilification of Efimova didn’t sit well with columnist Alan Abrahamson, one of the few Olympic writers who pays attention to Olympic sports outside the Olympics.

Efimova, now 24, is a four-time breaststroke world champion. She is the 2012 bronze medalist in the women’s 200m breast. She has trained at the University of Southern California; indeed, she moved to Southern California in her late teens. This means many things, among them: She has submitted to American drug testing.

Abrahamson goes on to compare Efimova’s suspension to that of U.S. swimmer Jessica Hardy, who used the “tainted supplement” defense to get a reduced suspension, come back to win medals and appear in chocolate milk ads. But Efimova, he says, is somehow beyond redemption.

You have someone whose English was — and remains — not great, who when she bought a tainted supplement at GNC was in her early 20s, who relied on a friendly American clerk to help her — and now she’s depicted as a world-class villain?

AP columnist John Leicester also saw the gray areas.

Foolish, then, but not Lance Armstrong.

The arbitrators noted that Efimova impressed them “as sincere and honest and appropriately remorseful for her mistake. She did not seek to blame others for her rule violation and she accepted responsibility for her actions.”

These all-important nuances got drowned in the Olympic pool.

Meldonium is tricky. It was added to the banned substance list Jan. 1. Then a lot of Russians and a handful of people from other countries — including one American (see below) — tested positive. WADA ruled that trace amounts lingering from pre-Jan. 1 usage would not be punished, and that’s why Efimova is in the Games.

You can make a counterargument on Efimova. You can say she was reckless with supplements a few years ago. You can also argue that all these meldonium users knew they were cheating before WADA banned the substance, and you can argue that’s a second strike that should keep Efimova out of the Games. Legally, I doubt that argument would stand up (in fact, it didn’t — Efimova appealed and was ruled eligible).

Morally? Ethically? Up to you.

How about banning everyone who’s ever run afoul of doping authorities? Tricky.

The Wall Street Journal looked into the issue and counted 11 U.S. athletes who have positive tests in their past. I compared spreadsheets and came up with 11 names:

Screenshot 2016-08-10 at 10.58.34 AM

The first pattern you’ll notice is that there is no pattern. That brings us to the moral of the story:

Every case is different.

You have LaShawn Merritt, suspended because he failed to realize a “male-enhancement product” included something he can’t take. Most likely not intentional cheating, but not smart by anyone’s account.

Weightlifter Sarah Robles has insisted she was using medication to treat polycystic ovary syndrome. Her suspension ended in time for her to make the team for Rio.

Did you forget about Hope Solo? She received a warning when her medication was flagged.

And notice recreational drugs on the list — if you look at the whole USADA list, you’ll see enough “cannabis” to wonder how many athletes you’ll bump into at a Snoop Dogg or Phish concert.

Do you ban Merritt? Robles? Solo? How about Abby Wambach, who has admitted using recreational drugs during her playing career?

Opinions may vary. These aren’t easy decisions.

But you know damn well that a lot of the people speaking out about Efimova and every Russian judo athlete, sailor or gymnast would scream bloody murder if a U.S. sports hero like Wambach or Robles was banned. (They might concede Gatlin or Merritt because track and field somehow isn’t as inspirational to many in the media.)

And in that sense, Efimova is right. We’re still fighting the Cold War. Because we’re too lazy to get into the nuances or find a new narrative.




Your Rio 2016 meta-medal guide

I did tell you Ginny Thrasher (Springfield) would be someone to watch. Sure enough, she’s in the shooting final.

What else have I written to preview these Games? Glad you asked …

In addition to my analysis of Olympic odds, projections and TV offerings, I have a few general overviews up at Bleacher Report

Thrasher was mentioned in my look at teen phenoms of the Games, which includes a few players soccer fans will recognize.

I’ve given a guide of everything to watch in men’s swimming. (Not just Phelps.)

Will Usain Bolt lose? I said yes, as one of my Bold Predictions for the Games.

And if you read just one thing to get the broad overview, flip through my broad overview.

Because Samuel L. said so.



Rio 2016 Olympics: Prediction analysis, schedule notes and rants

The USA will win 88 medals this summer. Or maybe 136.

Hey, the Olympics were totally predictable, they wouldn’t be any fun, right?

Prediction analysis

No, I didn’t do event-by-event predictions this year. I hope to revive them at some point in the future, but I need to do it in a way that is (A) unique and (B) not a total back-breaker.

This time around, I figured I would see what others are picking. In the interest of not burying the lead, here’s the summary …

Screenshot 2016-08-05 at 2.01.46 PM

Let’s explain what these sources are:

1. Gracenote. Formerly Infostrada, this is the gold standard in number-crunching. They feed in results from every competition under the sun and push out projections. They release a summary called the Virtual Medal Table (a name I actually used in compiling World Championship medals back in 2004 for USA TODAY, which should really copyright things like that, Prep Rally and Ever Wonder).

They don’t give event-by-event projections — at least, not for free — but they are thorough and perhaps the most objective (least biased, if you prefer) projection out there.

So that might be bad news for those hoping the USA will win 100 medals.

2. Odds. Oddschecker rounds up several betting sites and highlights the best odds for many athletes. But they’re not complete. To fill in the gaps, I went to Skybet, William Hill, Bovada and Sportsbet (Australia).

Depending on the site, these odds might be based on substantial research as well. But then you may still have a bit of a bias toward English-speaking countries. It’s hard to set odds on athletes who are beyond our familiarity. Sometimes, bettors might recognize a name of someone who isn’t statistically favored but has a compelling story that leads us to think they might outperform the Gracenote projections. The USA certainly does have some athletes who only turn up the jets for the Olympics. But so do a few other countries.

The numbers given above are my summary of all the odds I could find. There were no odds for six events, including the three tennis doubles competitions, where the withdrawals of Roger Federer and the Bryan brothers have thrown things for a loop.

3. The Wall Street Journal does something similar to Gracenote (or, for political junkies, FiveThirtyEight, which doesn’t have any substantial projections that I can see). They take a ton of data and run a bunch of statistical simulations. Then they just give us the summary, not the event-by-event count. Spoilsports.

4. Sports Illustrated’s Brian Cazeneuve does the old-school heavy lifting to go through each event. His picks were published before some of the Russian athletes’ fates were decided and before a couple of people (Roger Federer, the Bryan brothers) withdrew from tennis. But they’ve comprehensive, and they offer interesting notes on each event. Take a look.

5. The Associated Press compiled picks from its staff. I couldn’t find a file that included women’s wrestling for some reason, but the rest are posted.

The AP picks seem rather sentimental. Sure, no one wants to be the guy who picks against the American hopefuls, and perhaps each reporter who contributed predictions felt compelled to go with the best-case scenarios for athletes on their beats. But some of the picks seemed like longshots. Some outliers: women’s archery, men’s high jump, women’s steeplechase (Emma Coburn has a chance to make a big breakthrough for U.S. runners, but she’s not a favorite), women’s shot put, men’s canoe doubles slalom (kayak singles, maybe), women’s field hockey (again, possible but not probable), men’s 81kg judo, women’s 50-meter rifle 3-position (Ginny Thrasher is a great dark-horse pick), men’s 80kg taekwondo (Steven Lopez to turn back time?), men’s 86kg freestyle wrestling, and women’s weightlifting (three athletes, three medals).

If you want to see the U.S. contenders’ actual odds (sort of — I’ll explain), check this spreadsheet:

Disclaimer: Those are simply the lowest odds I could find, either through Oddschecker or whatever source I used to fill in events that Oddschecker didn’t cover. They’re not all from the same source, so don’t think of them as an apples-to-apples comparison. Also, if a U.S. athlete simply wasn’t listed, I assigned the number 200 or 500 depending on the circumstances.

Also, I took the three event-by-event picks into a spreadsheet and did some crunching to figure out who’s a unanimous gold-medal pick, who’s a majority gold-medal pick, and who is the next most likely medalist. The summaries are on the two spreadsheets here:


About the TV coverage (info and rant)

That last spreadsheet has schedule and TV info as well. But …

There’s little guarantee that a network will be broadcasting an entire event. They might pick up the finals, they might hop around between a couple of events. For an actual game, especially in soccer and basketball, you’re likely to see all the action.

But not always. For example: On Day 1 (Aug. 6), CNBC is scheduled to show Germany-Australia women’s soccer and USA-Colombia women’s rugby. Both start at 5 p.m. EDT. The Olympic Soccer Channel will be busy (USA-France women), so if you want to ensure seeing the soccer and/or the rugby live in its entirety (rugby games are roughly 20 minutes), you’ll need to be ready to go online.

And they’re fluid. The official listings may have a block that says “Archery, Rugby, Water Polo.” Now suppose the U.S. women reach the rugby quarterfinals and play in the middle of that block. You’ll likely see more rugby in that block that you would have otherwise. If something completely unexpected comes up, one of the networks might cut away to it.

And you could always have weather issues and other delays. Sailing has a “reserve day” as well as other mechanisms to deal with rescheduling. You might also recall the Korean fencer who was forced to sit on the piste for an hour, holding up the rest of the day’s action, while judges sorted out a protest.

And because discrepancies and incomplete data are facts of Olympic scheduling, I’ve double-sourced and triple-sourced the schedule as much as possible. Sports Media Watch did a good job compiling day-by-day listings, and I checked them against NBC’s vague listings. I’ve also checked the sport-by-sport schedule at NBC’s site. And to get a rough guess of when events will end (soccer games will always be a hair under two hours, barring extra time in the knockout rounds, but sailing and cycling could end up all over the place), I went to the BBC’s site and did a lot of time conversions in my head.

Other things to bear in mind: In elimination tournaments like boxing and beach volleyball, you may have an interesting matchup that just pops up on the schedule. And speaking of boxing, I didn’t do Spanish-language listings here, but Telemundo will show more live pugilism than the English networks.

My priorities here: Medal events, U.S. team events, early rounds of daylong events with U.S. contenders, other random items of interest.

So take the TV listings with a grain of salt and bear rough priorities in mind. NBC is going to show the swimming relay finals live, no matter what. Other events are more malleable. Let’s say a network is planning to show a judo final live because Kayla Harrison or Marti Malloy might be involved, and they’re not planning to show an archery final live. But then (just hypothetically, not a prediction) Harrison or Malloy doesn’t make that final, but Mackenzie Brown is shooting for gold. If you’re an NBC producer, your choice is pretty obvious.

Sure, some of NBC’s decisions are baffling. Their selection of sports has modernized — more offbeat, hipster stuff will be live, and a lot of traditional Olympic fare (gymnastics, diving) will be reserved for prime time. At the same time, they seem stuck in some dated thinking about viewer demand for live events, as if gymnastics and diving fans are walking around with their hands over their ears until prime time.

Consider Aug. 9. Live events at 3 p.m. EDT that day include the women’s team gymnastics, expected to be a U.S. rout, and women’s synchronized platform, not a U.S. strength but still one of the traditional Olympic favorites. They won’t be broadcast live. At 3 p.m. EDT, you can watch basketball, soccer, tennis, table tennis, handball, sailing, beach volleyball, rugby, and taped canoe/kayak.

The prime-time NBC show, giving a good overview of the major events of the day, makes sense. For a lot of people, that’s all of the Olympics they need. It only makes sense to show the best action from the afternoon’s gymnastics, editing out the lulls in the action. But the idea that showing the event live on MSNBC at 3 p.m. will spoil the viewing experience, especially in an era in which your friends will all share the results as soon as they happen, makes no sense today.

But that’s why we have the live streams. In high-speed Internet we trust.

Last point: Let’s ditch the cynicism for a bit. If you don’t care about synchronized swimming or shooting, fine. But these people have devoted much of their lives to being the best synchronized swimmers and shooters they can be, often without any real financial reward. And they’re drawn to international competition in a spirit of goodwill that is sorely lacking in today’s geopolitics. Choose what you want to watch, and cheer.

You can still make fun of the boxing judges.

My hope is that we actually get so interested in these athletes that we follow them outside the Olympics. Not just in the NWSL (women’s soccer). I’m going to track World Championships over the next Olympiad. Then maybe I can do my own projections next time. Or just punch holes in everyone else’s, which seems a lot easier.

Olympic schedule for WoSo fans looking to branch out

I’ve been tinkering with schedule spreadsheets and decided to try one for women’s soccer fans who also want to sample the rest of the Games, with an emphasis on soccer and women’s sports.

Check Aug. 3-9:

Women’s 2016 preview – 3-9

And Aug. 10-14:

Women’s 2016 preview – 10-14

Disclaimer: Everything is subject to change, and I’ve hit the occasional discrepancy in a few times. And if it’s on NBC or NBCSN, you may be hopping between events and not catching things quite live. The best place to check for the latest info and live streaming is the NBC live stream schedule, which is going to be your best friend for the next three weeks.