The Olympics: Some Personal Experiences with Technology, Politics and Sports
Originally published August 1, 2012
As the London Olympics are launched this week, I sit down to write my monthly column in the knowledge that by the time it is published they will be in full swing. These quadrennial global epics dominate the media limelight as the world turns its attention to the host country, the pageantry and the competition. (Technically speaking, they have become biennial events now that the Summer and Winter Games alternate and now we have an Olympics every two years.)
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First, let me provide a little background. I spent many years of my life practicing judo. Starting at a fairly young age, in my native Cuba, I started taking judo lessons, and over the next four decades it was a major part of my life. I continued learning, competed nationally and internationally, was promoted several levels up the black belt ranks, earned my way through college teaching judo, and even became an official in Olympics and World Judo Championships. At the peak of my fighting days, during my senior year in college, I was on the Puerto Rican triad that won the Caribbean championship in the late-‘60s.
In those days I felt on top of the competitive judo scene, naively of course, as one is apt to do in one's youth. The introduction of judo as a permanent Olympic sport at the 1972 Munich Games – it had been an "exhibition" event at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 – was a giant step for the martial art, but for me it was a strong personal disappointment since as an exile from Cuba and politically estranged from that regime, I did not meet the citizenship requirements to represent Puerto Rico, where I was living at the time, or the United States or any other country for that matter. That was my first confrontation with the realities of the often capricious interaction between politics and sports.
The upshot of this turn of events, however, was fortunate for the sport. By then I had joined IBM right out of college and was working as a systems engineer. I was still actively involved with judo, both practicing and teaching it, so I decided to apply IT to the sport in a manner that had never been done before. Since I could not compete, I computerized scoring and recordkeeping of international judo competitions and, in the process, developed what is still today the body of statistics utilized for the sport.
Judo arose as a distinctive martial art, or fighting style, in 19th century Japan. It was conceived by a thoughtful and skilled master by the name of Jigoro Kano who founded the Kodokan, to this day the principal center for judo worldwide. There were no statistics in judo for most of its existence. By design there were no weight or size categories in combats. The samurai code of bushido provided the umbrella of tradition for the culture from which judo emerged, and fights were presumably to the death, hence not much recordkeeping was required beyond knowing who won. As judo developed into a sport and its body of practitioners and fans grew, it became important to answer the theoretical questions sport fans are fond of asking about who would have prevailed between two fighters whose careers or lifetimes had not coincided. The need for objective parameters or indicators to assist in this analysis started to create an environment that was ripe for statistics. This reached a climax when after World War II, judo truly became global and the International Judo Federation was created in recognition that the sport now transcended Japan. Weight categories were created to accommodate the fact that it was already a standard in boxing and wrestling, the principal empty-handed fighting sports in the world scene, but also because it opened more medal opportunities for countries other than Japan, who still dominated the sport's elite.
The time for judo statistics was ripe and when I set out to automate the process of keeping track of scores and recordkeeping in the sport, I stumbled on this need. In computing wins and losses it became obvious that averages would be interesting, first over a tournament, and then cumulatively over relevant time periods, tournaments and lifetimes. The types of techniques used in winning – throws, locks, chokes, etc. – started to display fighting profiles for individual Judokas and for national teams. This started to demonstrate strengths and weaknesses of certain styles and the vulnerabilities of some nations when facing others. Length of combat – short was good since it indicated dominance – became interesting and new records were established. The role that penalties, or fouls, played in the matches became important in deciding how to apply and score them. In summary, before long we were able to provide judo with its equivalent of batting averages, runs batted in (RBIs), earned run average (ERA) and a slew of other indicators; and it became possible to carry out more rigorous analysis of what was happening in the sport and using statistics, rather than anecdote or speculation, to develop strategy. While "moneyball" judo has never truly caught on, at least the critical tools to make it happen were now in place. As an IT professional who was also a long time practitioner of the sport, I had been in the right place at the right time to make that contribution to the sport, and thus judo statistics were birthed.
And this introduction of IT into judo at the World Championships and the Olympic Games brought my attention to how technology transforms sports, and how the Olympics is often the stage for it to happen. For highly popular sports like baseball, football, golf or tennis, we don't need to wait for an Olympics. We know well how the instant replay has changed football and how new materials have changed tennis racquets and golf clubs. Or look at sailing. New materials for hulls and sails, as well as IT through simulations and modeling, have allowed new designs that are now essential to be competitive. (And Oracle’s Larry Ellison with plenty of IT dollars and technology to apply was an important factor.) But for those sports that don't have wealthy practitioners or sponsors, or a large commercial marketplace associated with them, it is often the prestige and global visibility of the Olympics that allow for technology to have an impact.
In Munich I first saw lasers being used to measure distance in field events, such as discus and javelin throws. Swimming has been revolutionized by the contact pads touched by competitors at the end of every lane with sensors detecting two millimeters of compression. Track has now incorporated synchronized starting systems that connect the starter's gun with pressure detectors in the starting blocks, not just to launch the stopwatch but to alert judges to false starts. Fencing has for decades featured electric sensors to capture and score contact. This approach has now also been adopted by Tae Kwon Do. Pole vaulters have benefitted from the new fiber glass materials that have substantially increased the strength and flexibility of the pole. In judo, aside from the active use of IT for statistics collection and analysis, we saw the advent of special electronic scoreboards and displays that were popular with the fans. And, of course, television has converted practically every sport into home entertainment.
Furthermore, the whole Olympic scene has now been transformed with the Internet, social media and streaming video bringing all events, all the time, to all who want them, as well as history, statistics and the related human side of competition. Ubiquitous Olympics, if you will.
But back to politics again. Athletes compete for love of the sport, but the competition is fierce. It was probably put best by George Orwell who “defined” sport as “war minus the shooting.” When such activity takes place in a global scenario like the Olympics, it just cannot isolate itself from the tensions of world affairs. In his fascinating essay The Sporting Spirit, Orwell cautions nations by suggesting that at the international level sport mimics warfare. History has probably proved him right since there have already been three Olympic Games in the last forty years during which lethal attacks have taken place: Munich, Atlanta and Beijing.
We remember the 1936 Games in Berlin manipulated by Hitler to appear as a showcase for the Aryan race and his snub of Jesse Owens. There were no games in 1916, 1940 or 1944; they were cancelled because of the two world wars. In fact, the first Olympics after World War II were held in London in 1948, and Germany and Japan were excluded from participation. There were boycotts in 1956 (Melbourne) over the Soviet invasion of Hungary as well as the Suez crisis. (The water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union was so intense that it is still referred to as the “Blood in the Water Match” because of the amount of blood in the pool.) The People’s Republic of China did not participate formally in the Olympics until 1980 (1984 for Summer Games) as a protest against Taiwan’s participation. For decades The Black Power salute of African-American athletes from the podium at the Mexico City Games in 1968 also caused uproar both in the IOC because of the breach of protocol as well as with the media coverage back in the U.S. And returning to my personal experience, politics also played a very significant role in each one of the games in which I officiated.
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The tragedy of the 1972 Munich Olympics can never be forgotten, and the International Olympic Committee just commemorated its 40th anniversary with a “moment of silence” at the Olympic Village in London. For those of us that were present there and lived through those difficult moments, it was a life marking experience. I recall the tension and angst inside the Olympic village in those fateful hours; the brief exhilaration of relief when news of the rescue attempt mistakenly announced that all were safe; and then the anguish and sorrow following the revelation of the full scope of the massacre. I remember well the ceremony the day after held to honor the athletes killed, and the IOC’s defiant decision to continue the games to show that the Olympic spirit would not be broken by such actions.
The Montreal Games of 1976 saw a huge increase in the security precautions, and also the use of the Olympic boycott or ban as a political tool. Games had been boycotted before, as noted above, but I saw it play out personally for the first time in Montreal. The Chinese issue again came to the forefront after the People’s Republic of China became the official Chinese representative of the United Nations in late 1971. This put in motion the diplomatic recognition of the PRC by many countries, including Canada. As a result the host country, under pressure from the People's Republic of China, refused to let Taiwanese athletes compete under their official name (Republic of China) or use their national flag. This led to a Taiwanese boycott of the Olympics. In addition, there were strong attempts to ban New Zealand for having previously participated in a rugby tournament in apartheid South Africa. When the ban was not imposed by the International Olympic Committee, 26 African countries walked out. Many friends and athletes from boycotting countries had their hopes for a medal dashed as a result.
1980 was marked, of course, by the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games as reprisal for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (Even though I was invited as an Olympic official by the International Judo Federation, by then I had become a U.S. citizen and did not attend.) In typical Cold War reciprocity, 14 communist countries boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Both the Moscow and Los Angeles Games were much diminished as a result of the lower level of competition.
The 1988 Games were the last Olympics in which I officiated. These were the Seoul Games; and, of course, the North Koreans could not abide South Korea's moment in the limelight and decided to boycott that Olympics. They were able to co-opt two allies, Cuba and Ethiopia, to join in that boycott too.
Politics have continued to haunt the Olympics. Athens would never have been able to win the venue in today’s economic crisis in Greece. China’s first games were marked by a huge increase in state control and repression in their attempt to insure the “perfect” games.
And now on to London 2012 and their record-breaking third hosting of the Olympic Games. Aside from the still persisting refusal of Iran to let their athletes compete against Israelis – an Iranian gold medalist allegedly missed making his weight in Athens in order to avoid fighting against an Israeli Judoka – there are a handful of other minor political issues. The highest priority in London 2012, however, protecting against terrorist attacks is the strongest evidence that this is still a very big issue. In fact, Prime Minister David Cameron flatly stated, “This is the biggest security operation in our peacetime history, bar none, and we are leaving nothing to chance.”
I have not been an Olympic official for quite some time, but my heart still skips a beat when I sit in front of the TV set to watch the torch being lit in an Opening Ceremony, the action in an Olympic judo final or the Olympic flag passing hands from the current host to the next one. Today politics is still paramount at the games, but as we saw the concern is primarily about keeping the games safe from terrorism. And this is increasingly about technology...especially IT and business intelligence.
So, politics, technology and sports. I have seen them intersect and interact so many times and so intimately as an Olympic judge in Games gone by. Interesting that today I still feel I can make a contribution in making them safer and better through our involvement and leadership precisely in IT, analytics and business intelligence.
Recent articles by Dr. Ramon Barquin
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