Big Data: The Performance-Enhancing Method of Choice at the 2016 Olympic Games

The 2016 Olympics officially kicked off in Rio de Janeiro last week and nowhere is the use of data and analytics more pronounced this August than the summer games.  As the world’s most accomplished athletes from 206 countries compete for medals across 28 sports, data – not doping – appears to be the next-generation performance enhancement method of choice.

Optimizing athletic performance is not a novel concept. Long before big data entered the mainstream lexicon, the term ‘performance enhancement’ as it relates to professional athletes was most commonly associated with PEDs, or performance-enhancing drugs. It’s been four years since the last summer Olympic games and since then we’ve experienced tremendous innovations in technology, particularly as it relates to the way data is recorded, stored, and analyzed.

Advancements in business intelligence software have paved the way for sophisticated data capture and monitoring capabilities, allowing athletes, teams, and coaches to collect information from a variety of sources. The result? The ability to optimize physical performance like never before.

Sleep cycles, hormone levels, nutrient deficiency, speed, heart rate, hydration levels, brain waves, and body temperature are just some of the possible data points that can be collected from wearable devices, health trackers and medical devices today. So is performance-enhancing data the new PED?  We think so.

Knowing how and why an athlete performs under specific conditions and in certain physical environments is powerful stuff. Nothing says ‘ridiculous unfair advantage’ like being able to track and interpret data as it relates to the health of an athlete or their equipment – from bike wheels to sailboat tillers.

It goes without saying that the desire for improvement is a constant in the arena of professional sports and, as sensors continue to record every facet of an athlete’s performance, big data continues to aid in the development of personalized training programs tailored to the unique needs and gaps of athlete and team. Sure, performance-enhancing drugs may increase speed, but performance-enhancing data gives athletes the ability to see what others can’t – allowing them to track and understand their own limitations, the factors that contribute to peak performance and the likelihood of injury.

Take U.S. women’s cycling for example. Underfunded, underperforming, and overlooked, the U.S. women’s cycling team hit an all-time low in early 2000. Twelve years later, at the 2012 World Championships, the team was still in free fall. It wasn’t until they adopted an experimental data-driven approach to training, that team USA was able to up their game. At the 2012 London Olympic Games, the U.S. women’s cycling team took home the silver medal; coincidentally in the same year they lost the world championships by a five-second deficit (the equivalent of a cycling lifetime). Their success at Rio? Good as gold.

Great Britain’s rowing team agrees that big data and sports intelligence is the future of winning. While GB’s Olympic record is shinier than most – taking home the gold at every Olympics since 1984 – the men’s rowing team is second to the U.S. in medals won. Their victory at the 2012 Olympic games in London, while notable, was marginally achieved by a mere eighteenth of a second. So as the team’s eight rowers prepared for the race to Rio – their sights set on gold and the world title – they turned to data intelligence as a way to improve performance. In addition to enhancing individual and team endurance and speed, data analysis allowed the team to quantify boat performance as well; the goal being always the same: to continuously gain a competitive advantage over the competition, no matter how small the percentage.

But the use of data and sports intelligence science isn’t limited to game-day prep. Big data is core to tracking real-time performance in Rio as non-intrusive sensors monitor and collect actionable data on physical well-being and speed – data that will be used to inform performance at Tokyo in 2020, ultimately mitigating the risk of injury and enhancing the potential for victory.

The most data-driven Olympics in history, the 2016 games are a data goldmine ripe with real-time, granular intelligence on the world’s best athletes in their prime. Already the centerpiece of this year’s summer games, data-driven insights are a game changer for the sports industry as athletes look for accurate (and safe) ways to quantify performance and identify the competitive limitations.

So does having numbers on your side increase the chance of victory? Absolutely. Down to the millisecond, what seems marginal in the real world is significant when viewed through an Olympic lens. It’s the difference between gold and silver. It’s the difference between winning – or not.