Archive for the ‘Major events’ Category

‘Sport does not exist in a vacuum. Fifa has a responsibility to act on Russia’

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

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Roger PielkeBy Roger Pielke Jr

29 July 2014

Over the weekend, British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg told the Sunday Times that Russia should be stripped of the 2018 World Cup. Clegg joins several senior German politicians in calling for the next World Cup to be moved as a sanction against Russia for its role in the continuing conflict in the Ukraine. The renewed calls for sanctions have been prompted by the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines 17 over eastern Ukraine, allegedly by Russian-supported Ukrainian separatists.

Does FIFA have a responsibility to engage in global geopolitics? Its history and actions say yes.

Yet FIFA’s first reaction to calls for stripping Russia of the World Cup prompted FIFA on July 25th to issue a “Statement on Russia 2018.” In it FIFA rejected calls to revisit the 2018 World Cup hosting decision: “History has shown so far that boycotting sport events or a policy of isolation or confrontation are not the most effective ways to solve problems.” FIFA continues: “We have seen that the FIFA World Cup can be a force for good and FIFA believes this will be the case for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.”

Yet, FIFA’s reading of history is not quite right. Decisions about football competitions based on political considerations, including international sanctions, have a rich history. Just two weeks ago the UEFA Emergency Committee decided that no Champions League or Europa Cup matches are to be played in Ukraine or Israel. These decisions were based on concerns about the ongoing conflicts.  Another decision was made “in light of the current political situation,” with UEFA deciding that teams from Russia and Ukraine will not be allowed to face each other in the international competitions.Russia flag

While the recent UEFA decisions might be characterized solely in terms of security, there is a far more direct precedent. In March 1991, the Yugoslavian team Red Star Belgrade defeated Olympique Marseille to win the European Cup,  the event now known as the Champions League. Less than five months after reaching the pinnacle of European football, Yugoslavia was the subject of the first of a long series of United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on the nation due to its escalating civil war. These sanctions included explicit mention of sport and they prompted football governance organizations to respond.

In early 1992 the UN Security Council passed a resolution (number 757) calling on all states to “take the necessary steps to prevent the participation in sporting events on their territory of persons or groups representing the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.” Both FIFA, which oversees global football, and UEFA, which oversees European competitions under FIFA, followed up on the UN sanctions by prohibiting Yugoslavia from participating in the European championships or in qualifying for the World Cup. Of note, Yugoslavia’s replacement in the 1992 European Championships was Denmark, who subsequently went on to win the competition.

The UEFA sanctions also meant that Yugoslavian club teams could not participate in international competitions. This included the recent European champions Red Star Belgrade.  The Sunday Times opined that “For the man in the street, Red Star’s disintegration has been more devastating than any other effect of UN sanctions” (quoted in Mills 2009). Before Yugoslavia ultimately disintegrated into independent nations it was allowed back into international football competition in December 1996, and both it and Croatia, formerly part of Yugoslavia, qualified for the 1998 World Cup.

The Yugoslavian case is not unique. As long ago as 1961 FIFA suspended the South African football association from participation over the issue of apartheid, following the actions of the African Football Confederation (CAF) three years earlier. In this case FIFA acted before the United Nations imposed sanctions. The issue of South Africa’s participation became a major point of contention within FIFA itself over more than a decade.

FIFA has also used football as a diplomatic carrot. In 1998 Joao Havelange, president of FIFA, announced that FIFA would organize a football match between Israel and Palestine. He exclaimed: “Where politics, diplomacy and the business world have failed, I believe that football can succeed” (quoted in Boniface 2002). Obviously not.

History shows that of course sports organizations respond to political context. FIFA (and its member confederations) have included geopolitical considerations in their decisions about participation and hosting of football competitions, including the World Cup.  FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, likes to present himself as the equivalent of a head of state. And FIFA is quick to engage in geopolitics when deciding on where to host the World Cup.  Sport does not exist in a vacuum, of course FIFA cannot ignore global geopolitics. FIFA has a responsibility to engage, even when the stakes involve more than its own narrow interests.

Thus it is unlikely that FIFA’s July 25th statement reaffirming its support for Russia 2018 will be the last word on this subject. In particular, if the United Nations or even the European Union decides to impose sanctions upon Russia, pressure will increase dramatically on FIFA to respond accordingly. The Yugoslavian experience sets a powerful recent precedent.

Russia is spending a reported $20 billion on preparing for the 2018 World Cup. However, the costs of stripping the nation of the World Cup would likely be much greater than these direct costs and go far beyond those which can be measured in dollars. Europe has faced international criticism for its divided views on imposing economic sanctions on Russia. But the reality is that Russia is in a position to inflict severe economic pain on Europe as well, due to its significant reliance on Russian gas.

Right now it appears that neither FIFA, UEFA nor the EU are prepared to take any steps to question Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup. No doubt they are hoping for a resolution of the conflict in a manner the does not involve international sanctions. However, politicians have already started the sanctioning equivalent of rattling swords. Such calls to use the 2018 World Cup as a means of punishing Vladimir Putin and Russia will likely become louder the longer the Ukrainian conflict continues.

Ultimately, if the Ukrainian conflict escalates to the point where the United Nations begins to discuss sanctions, the Yugoslavian precedent means that it would likely be difficult to exclude sport as part of that discussion. Not only would such steps call into question the 2018 World Cup, but also the participation of Russian clubs in international competitions as well as effects on other international sports. With the rise of football in its visibility and significance around the world, so too has its value as a bargaining chip in international politics. Russia 2018 is far from settled.

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Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, where he also directs its Center for Science and technology Policy Research. He studies, teaches and writes about science, innovation, politics and sports. He has written for The New York TimesThe GuardianFiveThirtyEight, and The Wall Street Journal among many other places. He is thrilled to join Sportingintelligence as a regular contributor. Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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Germany: deserving, obvious World Cup winners (almost nobody predicted)

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

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So the World Cup is over, Germany are fitting champions, Lionel Messi couldn’t add the ultimate title to his glittering CV and the host nation is left to ponder what might have been. So who could have forecast this? Actually, a huge variety of ‘experts’, theorists, modelers and systems tried to predict the outcome of the tournament, from Goldman Sachs to boffin statistical organisations. In his latest post for Sportingintelligence, and as a wrap-up of an ongoing evaluation of rates of success (click HERE for Part 1 and background and click HERE for Part 2 and HERE for Part 3Roger Pielke Jr announces the winners and losers from the forecasting game. 

Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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Roger PielkeBy Roger Pielke Jr.

16 July 2014

Another World Cup is now history, and with it my World Cup prediction evaluation exercise. As a reminder, this exercise is based on rankings made before the tournament started with the details of the evaluation explained here.

So to the results. Overall, Andrew Yuan, whose predictions were popularised by The Economist, took first place, beating FIFA’s rankings by a single match. Of course, it is no surprise those two were so close as Yuan and the FIFA rankings had 60 of 63 identical match predictions.

After FIFA there is a three-way tie for the bronze medal, with Bloomberg, Elo rankings and Hassan and Jimenez sharing the third step of the podium. Of note is that the latter was produced four months ago, well before the national team rosters were even announced.

The full table is as follows, and article continues below:

Pielke FINAL WC

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One of the leaders after the group stage of the tournament, Danske Bank, performed the worst in the knockout portion of the World Cup, and slipped from the podium. By contrast, the worst performer during the group stage (Financial Times) was joint first during the knockout matches. With these methods, past performance is apparently not a good predictor of future performance.

None of the other methods outperformed the naive baseline based on TransferMarkt player values that I assembled prior to the tournament. Three methods actually under-performed that naive baseline. Were you to pick one of these methods (other than FIFA or Transfermarkt) at random prior to the tournament, you would have had a 10 per cent chance of beating FIFA and a 50 per cent chance of beating Transfermarkt.

The table above also shows how each method performed in the knockout portion of the tournament, in anticipating advancement from the group stage, and in anticipating the finalists. Interestingly, the overall winner was only one of two methods which failed to anticipate one of the finalists.

No method anticipated both Germany and Argentina in the final, and no method picked Germany to win it all. This website’s editor considered other models to predict the winner before the tournament, and made a personal forecast of an Argentina-Germany final, but he picked the wrong winner.

Here are some more general lessons to take from prediction exercise:

1: Prediction evaluation is highly sensitive to the methodology employed. For instance, were the evaluation method to award a three-game “bonus” to any method than anticipated a finalist, Andrew Yuan would fall from first place to sixth place. The weighting of results can consequently dramatically change the evaluation rankings.

In any prediction evaluation it is therefore important to settle upon an evaluation methodology in advance of the data actually coming in. It is also important to keep separate the roles of predictor and evaluator. It is obviously very easy to “game” an evaluation to look more favorable to a particular prediction method, simply by choosing a convenient evaluation metric. Be cautious with anyone who offers you both a prediction and an evaluation of their prediction, especially after the fact.

2: Beating a simple baseline is very difficult. We might debate how “naive” the FIFA rankings or Transfermarkt valuations actually are in practice. But both clearly outperformed more sophisticated approaches. The only method which actually out performed FIFA was one which successfully picked two of the three matches that they had different across the entire tournament. Was that luck or skill? None of the other 10 methods added any value beyond the FIFA rankings. Should they have even bothered?

Even though outperforming a naive baseline over a tournament is difficult, that does not take away for the entertainment value of predictions. For instance, FiveThirtyEight performed poorly according to the evaluation methods here, but nonetheless offered stimulating commentary throughout the tournament, in part based in its predictions.

3: Ultimately, we can never know with certainty how good a predictive methodology actually is in practice. Some systems that we wish to predict have closed boundaries, such as a deck of 52 cards. We can develop probabilistic predictions of poker hands with great certainty. In the real world, we can sometimes (but not often) accumulate enough experience to generate predictions of open systems that also have great certainty, like the daily weather forecast.

But other systems are not subject to repeated predictions and/or are so open as to defeat efforts to bound them. The World Cup, and sporting events in generally, typically fall into these categories. Arguably, so too does much of the human experience. Perhaps baseball, with its many repeated events over a short time period might be considered more like a weather forecast than a World Cup.

Ultimately, making good decisions depends on understanding the difference between skill and luck, even if we can never fully separate the two. A prediction evaluation exercise can help us to quantify aspects of our ignorance and lead to questions about what is is that we really know.

Ultimately, the answers to these questions cannot be resolved empirically.

After this exercise, there is one thing we all know for sure. Germany are world champions, despite being looked over by the predictions. I hope you enjoyed this exercise over the past month. I’ll be doing similar exercises in the future and welcome your suggestions. Get in touch via Twitter or via my blog, details below.

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Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, where he also directs its Center for Science and technology Policy Research. He studies, teaches and writes about science, innovation, politics and sports. He has written for The New York TimesThe GuardianFiveThirtyEight, and The Wall Street Journal among many other places. He is thrilled to join Sportingintelligence as a regular contributor. Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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Bankers and bookies oust FIFA as best bets for World Cup forecasts

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

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This post has been updated on 27 June, UK time, an earlier version of same story is below

Yesterday’s games at the World Cup mean the World Cup group games (48 of 48) have been completed.  There have been expected victories for some nations, big upsets for others – Adios Spain! Bye-bye England! - and more goals than most fans would have expected. So who could have forecast this? Actually, a huge variety of ‘experts’, forecasters, theorists, modelers and systems have tried to predict the outcome of this tournament, from Goldman Sachs to boffin statistical organisations. In his latest post for Sportingintelligence, and as part of an ongoing evaluation of rates of success (click HERE for Part 1 and background and click HERE for Part 2) Roger Pielke Jr sorts the best from the rest. 

Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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By Roger Pielke Jr.

27 June 2014

The group stage is over, and after 48 matches we can declare a winner in the first part of the World Cup prediction evaluation exercise. We made a ‘naive’ prediction ourselves based on the financial value of the squads; and we’re comparing this to 11 other predictions made by parties ranging from bankers and bookies to boffins and FIFA rankings.

Congratulations to Danske Bank and Andrew Yuan who take joint first, each picking 32 matches correctly and 11 of the 16 teams which advanced. The Elo ratings and Bloomberg also picked 11 of the 16 teams to advance but fell one short overall, picking 31 matches.

Article continues below

Pielke 48

 

The FIFA rankings fall fifth despite having only one match picked differently than Yuan, illustrating the fine edge to predictive success. Hassan and Jimenez tied the FIFA rankings, despite producing their forecast last February. The pre-group stage odds  from Betfair.com are next, followed closely by Infostrada.

Each of the seven methods discussed so far showed skill in that they outperformed the naïve baseline based on the estimated transfer market value of each of the teams. Still, the naïve baseline was just four games out of first, but only anticipated eight of the 16 teams moving on. That is the same number of teams to advance in Brazil who also advanced in 2010 in South Africa, which could have been used as another naïve baseline.

Three predictions win the “why bother?” award by under-performing the naïve baseline – 538, which only picked seven of the advancing squads, Goldman Sachs and the FT. The latter was included in the evaluation despite not being proposed as a forecasting tool. The other two don’t have that excuse for their underperformance.

The main lesson that I’d suggest taking from the exercise thus far is that it is very difficult to generate predictions that can outperform a fairly simple baseline approach. It is even more difficult to outperform the existing ratings systems of FIFA and Elo. All 10 methods were just one match away from underperforming the FIFA rankings. Ultimately, most of these prediction methods are consequently of certain entertainment value, but uncertain value in their prognostications.

Of course separating luck from skill is not possible in such an exercise. The strong performance of ranking systems in 2014 was in part due to the low number of upsets (7 vs. 14 in 2010) and draws (9 vs. 14 in 2010).

Consider that in 2006 and 2010 the FIFA rankings would have correctly predicted 26 and 20 matches (of 48) respectively in the group stages (this data sent courtesy @roddycampbell).

So was Danske Bank lucky and Goldman Sachs unlucky? Or was the former actually a more skilled forecaster? These are all good questions for the pub as the data do not provide answers.

We are now in a position to set the stage for part 2 of the prediction evaluation. Before I describe how I have chosen to evaluate the matches for this phase of the contest, let me remind you that there are many different ways to structure such an evaluation. I don’t think that there is any single best way, however it is important to be clear about procedure before evaluating. You don’t want to find yourself setting up the rules for evaluating a prediction after the fact, especially if you are one offering predictions.

* I use each method’s overall ranking of the teams presented before the tournament began. Several forecasters are providing updated predictions as the tournament unfolds, and the betting odds obviously change.

* If no such ranking was provided I use instead the ranked probability to advance from the group stage.

* As before, I convert probabilistic predictions into deterministic forecasts. There are obviously no draws in the knockout stage.

* I will generate a prediction for each method for each match. In other words, there will be at total of 15 matches predicted by each method over the knockout stage, regardless how they do in each round.

* At the end of the tournament I will provide a ranking for predictions in the knock-out stage as well as an overall ranking based on both the group stage and the knock-out stage predictions.

For the upcoming round of 16 matches, every method is in agreement on six of the matches, with the favorites as unanimous selections: Brazil, Colombia, France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands. A majority favour Colombia and Belgium, but Uruguay and the USA get a few nods.

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Roger PielkeBy Roger Pielke Jr.

24 June 2014

We are fast approaching the end of the group stages, and the battle for the top of the prediction league table is tight. Five approaches within one game of the lead after 36 of the 48 matches have been played.

For detailed explanation on the predictors, follow the links above, but to summarise, we made a ‘naive’ prediction ourselves based on the financial value of the squads; and we’re comparing this to 11 other predictions made by parties ranging from bankers and bookies to boffins and FIFA rankings. Those Fifa rankings have held sway … until now.

Sitting alone at the top is Danske Bank, which has the most games picked correctly overall. Among the leaders at the halfway point were the FIFA rankings and Andrew Yuan, who I noted had 47 out of 48 matches in common.

Here is the table after 36 games.

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Pielke Part 3 table

Yuan took that one match that they split (Mexico-Croatia) ensuring that the FIFA Rankings cannot finish first. The Naive Baseline has had a good run, passing up four of the methods, and now trails the two rankings, FIFA and Elo, by just one game.

I’ve added an additional method of ranking the predictions, according to the number of countries picked to advance from the group stage. All methods have already slipped from perfection, with only five approaches correctly picking 3 of the 4 teams so far to advance. The others, including Danske Bank at the top of the table, only have 2 of the 4. It just goes to show that prediction evaluation is highly sensitive to the metrics of assessment that are used.

Looking ahead, all methods have picked France, Argentina, Germany, Belgium and Russia to advance. But no method has picked Costa Rica, and only two have the USA. On Friday I’ll provide a summary of the group stage of the competition and set the table for the knockout stage.

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Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, where he also directs its Center for Science and technology Policy Research. He studies, teaches and writes about science, innovation, politics and sports. He has written for The New York TimesThe Guardian,FiveThirtyEight, and The Wall Street Journal among many other places. He is thrilled to join Sportingintelligence as a regular contributor. Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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Upsets, giant-killings, adios, bye-bye: FIFA rankings STILL ahead in predicting results

Friday, June 20th, 2014

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At the completion of the Italy-Costa Rica match in Group D in Recife, half of the 2014 World Cup group games (24 of 48) had been played.  There have been expected victories for some nations, big upsets for others – Adios Spain! Bye-bye England! - and more goals than most fans would have expected. So who could have forecast this? Actually, a huge variety of ‘experts’, forecasters, theorists, modelers and systems have tried to predict the outcome of this tournament, from Goldman Sachs to boffin statistical organisations. In his second post for Sportingintelligence, and as part of an ongoing evaluation of rates of success (click HERE for Part 1 and background), Roger Pielke Jr sorts the best from the rest. 

Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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Roger PielkeBy Roger Pielke Jr.

20 June 2014

With Costa Rica’s surprising victory over Italy the group stages have reached their halfway point, with 24 of 48 matches in the books. There is still a lot to be decided and the same goes for the World Cup prediction evaluation exercise that I’m tracking. But like the World Cup itself a few pieces are starting to fall into place.

For background detail on the 11 different prognostications we are tracking, see the original piece; but their identities are clear enough in general in the updated prediction league table (below), which is starting to show some spread.

The FIFA Rankings and Andrew Yuan are sitting at the top with 16 correct outcomes from 24 games. The naïve forecast that I chose to use as a threshold of skill, based on transfer values, has slipped into last place alongside Infostrada and the FT.

Article continues below

Pielke 11 WC predictions, 24 games

The spread across the methods in matches picked correctly is only three games, which would suggest a chance for those behind to catch up. I was curious about this so I created a crosstab showing how many of the 48 matches that each method has in common with each of the others. It shows that catching up is possible, but the opportunities are limited.

I was surprised to see how many matches are in common across the methods. For example, across the 48 group stage matches the approach based on estimated player transfer values has between 36 and 42 matches in common with each of the 11 prediction methods that I am tracking.

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Pielke WC sameness

On the one hand, this makes sense as the powers in world football are generally the same independent of methodology. If the top eight teams across the groups are each predicted to win their group stage matches, then that alone accounts for 24 of the 48 total matches. But on the other hand, skillful prediction means outperforming a simple approach, so it should be fully expected that a skilled method would be able to identify some of the opportunities for upsets.

For instance, several of the methods lost all of the matches played by Spain and England, including the transfer value baseline. Were those games inherently unpredictable? Or do they reflect a fundamental conservativism in the methods? In an alternate universe where England won their first two matches, the FIFA rankings would trail the transfer value approach, and the Elo ratings would be out in front all alone.

The FT method (which to be fair, was designed to say something about players not teams) has the greatest deviation from the other approaches, with Goldman Sachs not far behind. These approaches thus have offer a much wider spread of predictive outcomes, which could mean a big improvement on the baseline approach or a big degradation.

Prediction entails risk, and most methods have taken very little. It is well understood in studies of risk that we’d rather take a high probability of being right or wrong with the crowd, rather than stick our necks out and risk being wrong on all on our own. The World Cup predictions would appear to bear that out.

The two leaders thus far are the FIFA Rankings and Andrew Yuan.  This is not surprising as they have 47 out of 48 Group Stage matches picked identically. Their ranking against each other will be decided by a single match.  This raises an important question with relevance far beyond the World Cup or sports: what is the point of a complex prediction methodology that essentially replicates a simpler, readily available index?

None of the methods are able to outperform the FIFA Rankings – thus far – providing some good evidence of their value in ranking teams. There are 24 group matches left to play, and no doubt more surprises are in store. However, the results so far indicate that while there is a lot of entertainment value in the World Cup predictions, there is little evidence of value added.

The next update will come after the 36th match, Croatia vs. Mexico on Monday. Stay tuned.

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Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, where he also directs its Center for Science and technology Policy Research. He studies, teaches and writes about science, innovation, politics and sports. He has written for The New York TimesThe Guardian,FiveThirtyEight, and The Wall Street Journal among many other places. He is thrilled to join Sportingintelligence as a regular contributor. Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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Picking World Cup winners? After 12 games, FIFA rankings beating eminent thinkers

Monday, June 16th, 2014

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The final whistle in the Germany-Portugal match in Group G in Salvador marked the end of the 12th game of the 2014 World Cup, and thus a quarter of the group stage is complete. There have been expected victories for some, big upsets for others and more goals per game at this stage than any World Cup since the 1950s. Who could have forecast this? Actually, a huge variety of ‘experts’, forecasters, theorists, modelers and systems have tried to predict the outcome of this tournament. In his debut post for Sportingintelligence, and as part of an ongoing evaluation of rates of success, Roger Pielke Jr sorts the best from the rest. 

Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

Roger PielkeBy Roger Pielke Jr.

16 June 2014

Prognosticators have been hard at work generating pre-tournament predictions of who will advance and who will win. But which prediction is the best? Is it the one who picks the winner? Or is it the one which best anticipates the knock-out round seedings? How can we tell?

I will be evaluating 11 predictions over the course of the World Cup, starting with a league table after 12 games, in a moment. But suffice to say that after a dozen games, Fifa’s ranking system is proving as good as any other indicator of success, while some eminent thinkers are faring less well.

The 11 under consideration are:

To evaluate the different predictions, I am going to quantify the “skill” of each forecast. It is important to understand that forecast evaluation can be done, literally, in an infinite number of ways. Methodological choices must be made and different approaches may lead to different results. Below I’ll spell out the choices that I’ve made and provide links to all the data.

A first thing to understand is that “skill” is a technical term which refers to how much a forecast improves upon what is called a “naive baseline,” another technical term. (I went into more detail on this at FiveThirtyEight earlier this spring). A naive baseline is essentially a simple prediction. For example, in forecast evaluation meteorologists use climatology as a naive baseline and mutual fund managers use the S&P 500 Index. The choice of which naive baseline to use can be the subject of debate, not least because it can set a low or a high bar for showing skill.

The naive baseline I have chosen to use in this exercise is the transfer market value of the 23-man World Cup teams from Transfermarkt.com. In an ideal world I would use the current club team salaries of each player in the tournament, but these just aren’t publicly available. So I’m using the next best thing.

So for example, Lionel Messi, who plays his club team football at Barcelona and his international football for Argentina, is the world’s most valuable player. His rights have never been sold, as he has been with Barcelona since he was a child, yet he’s estimated to have a transfer market value of more than $200 million. By contrast all 23 men on the USA World Cup squad have a combined estimated value of $100 million. (I have all these data by player and team if you have any questions about them — they are pretty interesting on their own.)

Here then are the estimated transfer values of each World Cup team:

SqV for RP predictions analysis

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In using these numbers, my naive assumption is that the higher valued team will beat a lower valued team. As a method of forecasting that leaves a lot to be desired, obviously, as fans of Moneyball will no doubt understand. There is some evidence to suggest that across sports leagues, football has the greatest chance for an underdog to win a match. So in principle, a forecaster using more sophisticated method should be able to beat this naive baseline.

Here is what the naive baseline (based on the team rosters as of June 5) predicts for the Group Stages of the tournament: The final four will see Brazil vs Germany and Spain vs Argentina. Spain wins the tournament, beating most everyone’s favorite Brazil. The USA does not get out of the group stage, but England does. All eight of the top valued teams make it into the final eight.

While this naive baseline is just logic and assumptions, work done by “Soccernomics” authors Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper indicates that a football team’s payroll tends to predict where it winds up every year in the league table. Payrolls aren’t the same thing as transfer fees, of course, but they are related. Unfortunately, as mentioned above individual player salaries are not available for most soccer leagues around the world (MLS is a notable exception).

The predictions are not all expressed apples to apples. So to place them on a comparable basis I have made the following choices:

  • A team with a higher probability of advancing from the group is assumed to beat a team with lower probability.
  • If no group stage advancement probability is given I use the probability of winning the overall tournament in the same manner.
  • This means that I have converted probabilities into deterministic forecasts. (There are of course far more sophisticated approaches to probabilistic forecast evaluation.)
  • No draws are predicted, as no teams in the group stages have identical probabilities.
  • The units here, in the group stage at least, will simply be games predicted correctly. No weightings.

Other choices could of course be made. These are designed to balance simplicity and transparency with a level playing field for the evaluation. Just as is the case with respect to the value of having a diversity of predictions, having a diversity of approaches to forecast evaluation would be instructive. No claim is made here that this is the only or best approach (laying the groundwork here for identifying eventual winners and losers).

With all that as background, below then are the predictions in one table (click on it for a bigger view). The yellow cells indicate the teams that the naive baseline sees advancing to the knockout stages, and the green shows the same for each of the 11 predictions. The numbers show the team rankings according to each prediction.

(Click to enlarge, article continues below)

Pielke 10 - start-out predictions

I will be tracking the performance of the 11 predictions against the naive baseline as the tournament unfolds, scoring them in a league table.

After 12 matches, the first league table is below. It is early still in the tournament, but there already is a bit of spread developing among the predictions. Five of the 11 are running ahead of the naive baseline, and four are trailing. But it is only one game in either direction, so I’d hesitate in saying anything much at this point. As the tournament progresses I expect we will see greater divergence. Stay tuned.

Accuracy after 12 games

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Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, where he also directs its Center for Science and technology Policy Research. He studies, teaches and writes about science, innovation, politics and sports. He has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, FiveThirtyEight, and The Wall Street Journal among many other places. He is thrilled to join Sportingintelligence as a regular contributor. Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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And the World Cup winners will be … Brazil. Or Argentina. Or Spain. Or Germany

Monday, June 9th, 2014

By Nick Harris

9 June 2014

With the World Cup in Brazil just a few days from kicking-off, five-times winners Brazil are the bookmakers’ favourites on home turf, with twice-winners Argentina second favourites, followed by holders Spain and three-times winners Germany. Then the chasing pack comprises Belgium, France, Italy, Uruguay, Portugal, England, the Netherlands, Colombia and Chile. And the rest, in betting terms, can pretty much forget it.

Anyone who follows football will have views on their own favourites, for their own reasons. A purely personal and non-objective view is that Argentina will win in a final against Germany, after that pair have defeated Spain and Brazil respectively in the semi-finals.

But what about objectivity, where attempts are made to predict the outcome of the World Cup based on nothing but pure numbers? A whole range of models are out there from Goldman Sachs, to Nate Silver at 538, to this simulator, to the Bloomberg analytical tool to a complex set of criteria used by Rachel Riley from Countdown.

Will any of them be completely right? Of course not. But it’s a game of opinions and models are a debate-provoking distraction. So in an attempt to look at different objective reasons why certain nations might do well this summer, Sportingintelligence has considered how the World Cup would pan out if all the games went according to A: Fifa rankings; B: player wages; C: the value of squads; D: The Wisdom of Crowds (ie: an opinion poll); E: Pedigree at prior tournaments staged in the Americas; and F: a total of these totals.

Methodology

For all the models, the criteria have been applied on a match-by-match basis, starting in the group stages and ending with the knockout stages detailed below. So, for example, when using Fifa’s rankings, Brazil (ranked 3) win the opening game against Croatia (No18), Mexico (No20) will beat lower-ranked Cameroon on Friday, and so on.

But using the players’ wages as guide, as derived from the data that underpins the GSSS 2014 and similar work from partner researchers, while Brazil will still win against Croatia because their players earn more, Cameroon will beat Mexico using the same metric, and not vice versa as when using rankings.

Every match in the group stage is predicted on the relevant criteria to produce latter stages that look like this first graphic, using the first two methods. In both these cases, Spain beat Germany in the final, with those teams having beaten Argentina and Brazil respectively.

Article continues below.

WC predictions, rank & pay

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Next we considered the values of the squads. How do you get an accurate idea of what each squad of players is worth? We took data from two sources to get a neutral aggregate view on this. The first was the Football Observatory’s new annual review, which attempts to make objective player valuations on a wide variety of criteria. Using their data we came up with an average player value per World Cup team, with Argentina being the most valuable team, then France, Brazil, Spain and so on down to Iran in 32nd place.

The second was a piece of research by The Score, who in turn used data derived from www.valor.com.br and www.transfermarkt.com. They had Brazil as the most valuable team, then Spain, Argentina, Germany and so on down to Honduras in 32nd place. We took both sets of data from the Observatory and the Score and created a combined index that ranked the value of the squads from Brazil, Argentina and Spain as the three most valuable down to Costa Rica, Iran and Honduras as the least valuable.

Again, each game was played out with the best team (most valuable in this case) winning. The results are in the graphic below, followed by the results based on the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’, ie an opinion poll. This was a simple, one-question poll here, conducted last night and this morning, and we took into consideration the first 500 responses. Again, each game was ‘played’ based on the Wisdom of Crowds, and the results of that are below too.

Article continues below

WC predictions SqV and wisdom.

The fifth model took into account performances at the seven previous World Cup tournaments staged in the Americas. The World Cups of 1930, staged and won by Uruguay, of 1950, staged by Brazil and won by Uruguay, of 1962, staged by Chile and won by Brazil, of 1970, staged by Mexico and won by Brazil, of 1978, staged and won by Argentina, of 1986, staged by Mexico and won by Argentina, and of 1994, staged by the USA and won by Brazil, have all been won by South American teams.

Whether that is down to chance, culture, home advantage, grass, climate or any mixture of multiple elements is beside the point. What’s certain is the statistical phenomenon of South American teams always winning World Cups in the Americas, seven from seven so far.

So we looked at the results of those seven tournaments and ranked this summer’s nations based on how they (or their respective forebears) had performed in previous tournaments in the Americas, and using those rankings, ‘played’ each game of this summer to take on board this historical ‘home’ and ‘regional’ bias.

This is how a summer World Cup based on previous World Cups in the Americas would play out.

Article continues below.

WC in Americas

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So who will win the World Cup?

Nobody knows, which is the beauty of it. But if you made a composite metric of all the above, then it’s Brazil to beat Argentina in the final, with Spain and Germany reaching the semi-finals, and Uruguay, France, England and Belgium making the quarters.

Vamos!

WC total of totals

 

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Amnesty International report: Fifa must not tolerate human rights abuses in Qatar

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

Amnesty on Qatar Nov 2013By Nick Harris

17 November 2013

A new report published this evening by Amnesty International and based on interviews with workers, employers and government officials, says that Qatar’s construction sector is “rife with abuse, with workers employed on multi-million dollar projects suffering serious exploitation.”

Amnesty say that the full 166-page report - The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup - reveals widespread and routine abuse of migrant workers – in some cases amounting to forced labour.

Allegations in the report, available via Amnesty’s website (or PDF download report here), include:

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  • Migrant workers are ‘treated like cattle’ by subcontractors for Qatar Petroleum, Hyundai E&C and OHL Construction.
  • Workers are living in squalid, overcrowded accommodation with no air conditioning, and exposed to overflowing sewage or uncovered septic tanks.
  •  Workers are left unpaid for months and prevented from leaving the country by employers – faced with mounting debts many workers suffering severe psychological distress with some driven to the brink of suicide.

Amnesty say: “The report documents a range of abuses against migrant workers. These include non-payment of wages, harsh and dangerous working conditions, and shocking standards of accommodation.

“Researchers also met dozens of construction workers who were prevented from leaving the country for many months by their employers – leaving them trapped in Qatar. Amnesty’s findings give rise to fears that during the construction of high-profile projects in Qatar, including those which may be of integral importance to the staging of the 2022 World Cup, workers may be subjected to exploitation.”

Amnesty International’s secretary General Salil Shetty says: “Our findings indicate an alarming level of exploitation in the construction sector in Qatar.

“Fifa has a duty to send a strong public message that it will not tolerate human rights abuses on construction projects related to the World Cup.

“Qatar is recruiting migrant workers at a remarkable rate to support its construction boom, with the population increasing at 20 people an hour. Many migrants arrive in Qatar full of hopes, only to have these crushed soon after they arrive. There’s no time to delay – the government must act now to end this abuse.

“Construction companies and the Qatari authorities alike are failing migrant workers. Employers in Qatar have displayed an appalling disregard for the basic human rights of migrant workers. Many are taking advantage of a permissive environment and lax enforcement of labour protections to exploit construction workers.

“The world’s spotlight will continue to shine on Qatar in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, offering the government a unique chance to demonstrate on a global stage that they are serious about their commitment to human rights and can act as a role model to the rest of the region.”

In one case, the employees of a company delivering critical supplies to a construction project associated with the planned FIFA headquarters during the 2022 World Cup were subjected to serious labour abuses.

Nepalese workers employed by the supplier said they were “treated like cattle”. Employees were working up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, including during Qatar’s searingly hot summer months. Amnesty is calling on FIFA to work with the Qatari authorities and World Cup organisers as a matter of priority to prevent abuses.

The treatment of Nepali workers in Qatar were the subject of a Guardian investigation earlier this year.

Qatar’s attitude to immigrant labour, including footballers, has also been highlighted by the case of Zahir Belounis (more here); and the response of the Qatari authorities in the past 24 has already caused added controversy.

Qatar won the right to stage the 2022 World Cup after a vote by Fifa’s Executive Committee (ExCo) in December 2010. The losing bidders for 2022 were the US, Australia, Japan and Korea.

The 22 ExCo members who voted had been reduced after two others had been suspended amid corruption allegations. Several other ExCo members have since left after being implicated in corruption.

The Qatar 2022 World Cup organisers insist they won the right to stage fairly; that they were picked as the best venue for a World Cup on their own merits; that they can safely stage a summer tournament in the desert heat with no health implications for players and fans; that there was no bribery and no collusion in the 2022 process; and that criticism of Qatar is based on ignorance and anti-Arab sentiment.

Others argue that Qatar are not the only Middle East nation with appalling working conditions for some migrant workers, or indeed the only nation with human rights issues. Russia, hosts for the 2018 World Cup, have long been criticised for human rights abuses.

Amnesty say their report identifies cases that constitute forced labour in Qatar. “Some workers interviewed by Amnesty were living in fear of losing everything, threatened with penalty fines, deportation or loss of income if they did not show up to work even though they were not being paid,” the report says.

“Faced with mounting debts and unable to support their families back at home, many migrant workers have suffered severe psychological distress with some even driven to the brink of suicide.’

One Nepalese construction worker, unpaid for seven months and prevented from leaving Qatar for three months, told Amnesty: “Please tell me – is there any way to get out of here? … We are going totally mad.”

Amnesty has documented cases where workers desperate to get out of the country were effectively blackmailed to give up money owed to them by their employers. Researchers witnessed 11 men signing papers in front of government officials falsely confirming that they had received their wages so as to get their passports back to leave Qatar.

Meanwhile, many workers reported poor health and safety standards at work sites, including some who said they were not issued with helmets on sites. A representative of Doha’s main hospital said earlier this year that more than 1,000 people were admitted to the trauma unit in 2012 having fallen from heights at work: 10% were disabled as a result and the mortality rate was “significant”.

Amnesty shared their findings with Fifa prior to publication of the report, and Fifa replied (letter below).

That letter says: “It is Fifa’s aim that the host countries of our flagship event ensure healthy, safe and dignified working conditions for all – nationals and foreigners, including construction workers – involved in the preparation of the event.”

The sincerity of such a claim remains unclear because Fifa president Sepp Blatter has already declared, more than once, that Qatar will certainly now host the 2022 World Cup. Such a stance appears to rule out any possibility that continued human rights abuse would have any effect on that whatsoever.

(Click to enlarge letter; article continues below)

Fifa letter to AI

Background

Amnesty carried out interviews with approximately 210 migrant workers in the construction sector, including 101 individual interviews, during two visits to Qatar in October 2012 and March 2013. Amnesty also contacted 22 companies involved in construction projects in Qatar, including meetings, telephone calls and written correspondence. Researchers held at least 14 meetings with Qatari government representatives, including from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior and Labour.

The report forms part of Amnesty’s wider work on labour exploitation of migrant workers. In 2011 Amnesty documented abusive practices by Nepalese recruitment agencies, with agencies were using deceptive practices to traffic migrant workers for exploitation and forced labour in the Gulf States and Malaysia. Amnesty called on the Nepalese government to improve protection of its migrant workers.

 

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UPDATE 11 Feb 2014: The Qatar organisers released a detailed workers’ charter on 11 Feb 2014, a version of which they say was adopted in March 2013. A PDF of that charter is here as a PDF download: SC WORKERS’ WELFARE STANDARDS (EDITION 1) (2)

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Garcia offers whistleblower anonymity during Qatar 2022 World Cup investigation

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

By Nick Harris

SJA Internet Sports Writer of the Year

12 March 2013

The American lawyer investigating the circumstances in which the 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar has urged anyone with information that could prove wrongdoing in the bidding process to share that information as soon as possible.

Michael Garcia is a former US attorney for the Southern District of New York and a partner with the New York-based law firm, Kirkland and Ellis LLP. As a Fifa-appointed investigator into corruption in football, he has faced accusations that he is not independent and therefore cannot be expected to work effectively in a role that might find Fifa executives guilty of corruption.

But in a wide-ranging interview with the current issue of France Football (left, or visit their website), undertaken face to face over several hours with two respected FF reporters, Philippe Auclair and Eric Champel, Garcia insists he will go where the evidence takes him – and present his findings in full.

“There is no supervision of what I do [by Fifa],” he tells FF. “I am really independent of this organisation.”

Persistent rumours dogged the 2018 and 2022 bidding processes in which Russia and Qatar respectively won the rights to stage the World Cup in those years.

Deal-making, vote-swapping and active corruption have been alleged, and always strenuously denied by Qatar, even though, at the very least, some form of collusion between Spain and Qatar has been publicly acknowledged even by Fifa’s president, Sepp Blatter. Blatter acknowledged collusion in the process both before the vote in December 2010, and after that vote.

Sportingintelligence understands that Garcia has continued to receive new information about the bidding process, and is aware of whistleblowers and insiders who can give him details about the bidding campaigns.

Garcia urges anyone wanting to share information to do so now. “If you truly believe it, the moment has come to show yourself,” he tells FF. “There are things that we can do, under the parameters of the code, that will protect your anonymity.”

 

Extracts from interview with Michael J Garcia, reproduced with permission of France Football

Michael Garcia: There are many other matters under investigation, the one on [vote for the 2018 and 2022] World Cup, which has been referred to me formally.

France Football: Formally’, so you’re confirming that?

MG: Yes, and it’s all open. That’s the message I’m trying to get across, and I believe that it’s very important. The time has come for people who have information to come to me, I haven’t got any preconceived ideas on what’s happened or what’s not happened. Well [I’m saying to them], ‘if you truly believe it, the moment has come to show yourself. There are things that we can do, under the parameters of the code, that will protect your anonymity’. I will work with them under this report. What wouldn’t be … useful would be that under this wide-ranging inquiry that I’m leading, later, there are people in it who say, ‘well, they got the facts wrong’, when they knew that beforehand. You know something? Tell me! I’m working, working hard to uncover what’s there or isn’t there. [We’ve got] the framework, the channels through which people have got to come if they really think they have something to say. On whatever it might be! On whichever aspect of whichever question related to the World Cup. It is a message that has got to be heard. People have talked, written articles but what you have no is an official body which is in charge of this matter and it’s important that people go see me to tell me what they’ve got [at their disposal].

 

FF: [With reference to the 2022 World Cup bidding process] have you gathered information, and how much time will that investigation take?

MG: Very good question… It’s a drawn out process, and that’s in part to do with what we were talking about earlier. How much information is still out there? How many people will be proactive and come to me? On the other side, have I got to decide to take the time to travel and convince people they’ve got to talk? The subject itself is complex. I believe that it’s a good opportunity for everyone, everyone will do well out of it. I honestly haven’t got any preconceived ideas. As you know when you talk to the people from the [2022] World Cup, they have very firm opinions… or big interests at stake. One or the other. Not me. I haven’t got a single opinion on subjects such as the date when it has got to take place, etc. But I will pay attention to everything, to whatever current opinion might be, and I will examine all the information with the same impartiality, whether it comes from the US, from Qatar, from Russia, from Australia.

 

FF: What are your angles of inquiry?

MG: My view remains the same. ‘What happened? Where have there been problems, if any? Have there been Code violations?’ And then also to examine certain subjects that you’ve mentioned in your [France Football] investigation … Were they close [to a breach of the Code]? And is that a problem related to the structure that existed at the time? I think that all these questions are very interesting but the first of my priorities is obviously to determine if there have been, or not, breaches of the Ethics Code by football officials.

 

FF: Could the FIFA Congress which opens on 31 May  be an opportunity to give an extra boost [in your inquiry] on the World Cup dossiers? Or is that too early?

MG: That’s too early to say. It would be good if we can make it, but it’s too early for me to say that I’m fixing myself a date like that. I hope that significant progress will have been made, of one kind or another. But I haven’t got any idea today where we will be. Or not. But I hope that we will at least have made significant progress on the direction [we’re taking], that there will be a crystallisation of specific issues, on which we will be able to concentrate; because we could sit here talking about issues… until the end of the weekend. One part of the work of a good investigative journalist, or of an investigator is, yes, to have all the facts in mind, but also to know where you would like to go. To know what you’ve got to do to get there. Whatever the date. When I have encountered problems of this kind before, it’s because of [the impossibility of] doing that. Because then, you’re constantly looking at the terrain without breaking it down, and that’s terribly ineffective. I hope that with this ‘funnel’ for [new] information [Garcia is referring to the whistleblower line] I truly hope that we can do this work on the mapping.

 

FF: There are people who have called into question your independence at Fifa. Are you truly independent?

MG: Yes. And that’s very interesting. I hear the criticism: ‘How can you be independent when you are paid by Fifa?’ Well, that’s not such an unusual thing as all that in the US. In the US, when a business has problems, we call for an external audit, generally under an agreement passed by the government. This auditor will be completely independent and, generally will submit his report to the government — but he’ll be paid by the business! My connection with Fifa is the same as an [external] administrator’s would be. I use them from time to time to get messages out, or when I can have access to the original [documents] in an investigation, or when I need to reimburse the expenses of an investigator or a lawyer. But there is no supervision of what I do. I am really independent of this organisation. I think that it’s not such a strange relationship as all that, because there are a bunch of cases of this type [in the US].

 

FF: But where’s Sepp Blatter in all this? Does he want to hear what you have to say on Qatar, on Russia?

MG: I don’t deal directly with Mr Blatter. I do not submit him my reports. He doesn’t speak to me about my work. I couldn’t tell you anything, in one sense or another, on these subjects because we haven’t got this kind of interaction. He’s kept himself outside of my ‘sphere’. He is the president of Fifa, he does what he does. I have met him perhaps… once in the three months of my mission.

 

FF: And if you have concrete information to communicate on the award of the 2006, 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Germany, Russia or Qatar, you will put that on the table?

MG: Absolutely.

FF: Without the slightest hesitation?

MG: Absolutely. I will put what I have, or what I don’t have , on the table, all right? It’s not like I’ve had this idea, ‘’that’s what happened’. Whatever I find, I will put it all on the table , all that what we find, and what we haven’t found. And I believe that it’s in everyone’s interest. A fair look. Hard, but fair. By listening to everyone, and by making a fair evaluation.

 

FF: Is it possible to imagine that with the information you have uncovered, the 2022 World Cup won’t take place in Qatar?

MG: I know everyone is interested in that. But I believe, and I believe that Judge Eckert would say the same thing, that our jurisdiction is limited to people. The only thing that we can do is to say, ‘You, football official, have violated this clause of the Ethics Code and you, football official, are going to be punished by this sanction’. It is only about people. That what we can do, OK? Decisions, on the site of the World Cup, you know, that’s beyond the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission. That’s a completely different process.

 

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‘To look into Amy Williams’ Arctic-blue eyes was to ridicule the notion that winter sports athletes are less deserving of the title ‘Olympian’ than their summer counterparts’

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

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Still pining for a festival of sport after the London Olympics and Paralympics lit up the summer? Pine no more. The next Olympics begin in 500 days – in Sochi, Russia, from 7 February 2014. MARK STANIFORTH, left, ardent admirer of all things Winter Games, explains why it’s a big deal, and why there are just as many reasons to care. Read Mark Staniforth’s blog here

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“I didn’t go looking for fame, but these days people who’ve never met me know who I am. My life is radically different from the way it was before February 16, 2002, the night I became an Olympic gold medallist at the Salt Lake City Winter Games.

“The planets came into alignment for me as a tangle of bodies cascaded to the ice in front of me, sweeping me to an unthinkable, unimaginably crazy gold medal. I wasn’t the strongest or the best skater in that race, and I knew I was lucky – maybe the luckiest athlete to ever win gold.”

Steven Bradbury, Last Man Standing (GEP Books)

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By Mark Staniforth

25 September 2012

If there is one athlete who best embodies the uniquely unpredictable and irresistibly anarchic spirit of the Winter Olympic Games, it has to be Steven Bradbury.

The Australian short-track speed-skater embraced outrageous fortune to win gold in Salt Lake City, coming from a good half-lap behind to cross the line first when all four of his rivals crashed on the final bend.

The Delta Center was in uproar: 15,000 Americans, there to witness the crowning of their golden boy Apolo Anton Ohno (who, from a sitting position, thrust a foot over the line to win silver) booed and jeered. The judges conferred. Bradbury mocked the derision by sailing round a victory lap with his tongue stuck out. Finally, the judges confirmed the result would stand.

In a press conference, Bradbury unfurled his extraordinary story: how he almost died on the track at the 1994 World Championships in Montreal, when he fell and impaled himself on an opponent’s skate, losing four litres of blood and requiring 111 stitches.

How he broke his neck in a fall in 2000, and had to wear a halo brace for more than a month. Nobody, not even the most jingoistic of Ohno fans up the bleachers, was going to deny Steven Bradbury the right to wear an Olympic gold medal around his neck.

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Article continues below

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Nodar Kumaritashvili was not so lucky. The 21-year-old Kumaritashvili lost his life on the luge track at the Vancouver Games in 2008 after being catapulted from his sled, which had been travelling at 89.2mph, and out of the chute, where he collided head-first with a steel support.

The Games had not yet started, and here was a tragic reminder that for all the tumult that makes the Winter Olympic Games so alluring, its risks, which inspire that allure, on the bobsleigh track, the ski slope or the short-track rink, bring its competitors closer to death than most.

To look into Amy Williams’ Arctic-blue eyes later that same day was to ridicule the notion that winter sports athletes are in any way less deserving of the title ‘Olympian’ than their summer counterparts. To dispense with the myth that the (relatively paltry) sums pumped into winter sports simply serve to facilitate the raucous apres-skis of directionless trust-fund twits.

Speak to Bradbury’s doctor. Speak to Kumaritashvili’s parents. Speak to Williams, a bright 29-year-old from Bath, who was preparing to become one of the first athletes to slide down the track – dubbed, predictably, the ‘death track’ by British tabloids – since Kumaritashvili’s accident.

‘As far as the risks are concerned, you are aware of them and you accept them,’ Williams said. ‘Of course the tragedy is on everyone’s mind, but it is a fact that I just seem to do better on faster tracks.’

Later that week, Williams hurtled to Olympic gold, breaking the track record twice in her four runs to beat her rivals by over half a second, a veritable marathon in skeleton terms, and win Great Britain’s first Winter Olympic title in 26 years, since Torvill and Dean Bolero’d their way to a string of perfect sixes.

Williams retired in 2012, deciding against a third operation on ruptured knee ligaments. Others persist, like the Isle of Man snowboarder Zoe Gillings, who suffered a freak training accident in 2005 in which she shattered all the bones in her left foot, and had doctors debating whether she would ever walk again, let alone snowboard. Eight months later she went to the Turin Winter Games, and finished 15th.

Gillings will go to Sochi well versed in the vagaries of the winter sports roulette which afforded her a second chance: which lifted Bradbury off the bloody ice to Olympic gold, yet which did not spare the tragic Kumaritashvili.

Such tales of sporting heroism ridicule the notion still propagated by many that the Winter Games do not have a place: that they are somehow silly or, for nations without snow, irrelevant.

The former International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage was the Winter Games’ biggest detractor, devoting much of his 20-year presidential tenure to its banishment. ‘The creation of the Olympic Winter Games was a deplorable mistake which has done much to tarnish the Olympic image,’ said Brundage, who is more notoriously known for his zealous attempts to prevent a boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics despite the rise to power of Germany’s Nazi government. ‘We should never have created the Olympic Winter Games, but how can we stop them now?’

Brundage believed the Winter Games to be ‘parochial’ and ‘far from universal’; accusations which have been challenged in recent years by the participation of athletes from nations whose winter climates are rare to non-existent: the Vancouver Games welcomed skiiers from Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and even Ethiopia, whose sole representative, Robel Teklemariam (right), was born in its capital Addis Ababa, just 500km away from Dallol, which is recognised as the hottest place on earth.

But with this new came a risk of ridicule which has hampered the Winter Games since 1998 in Calgary, when relaxed qualification rules ensured the headlines were made by the relatively hopeless British ski-jumper Eddie Edwards, and the Jamaican bobsleigh team immortalised in ‘Cool Runnings’: no doubt a great film, but nonetheless pandering to the perception of the Winter Games as more a raucous get-together than an elite sports gathering, and one that could be joined by just about anyone eager enough to pick up a pair of skis.

The reintroduction of curling after a 74-year absence for the Nagano Games in 1998 did not, on the face of it, improve the Winter Games’ image: adding to the outclassed African skiers came the so-called ‘housewives with brooms’.

Yet many of those who mocked were among a peak British television audience of nearly six million who stayed up beyond midnight in 2002 to watch Rhona Martin’s team claim the nation’s first Winter Games gold for eighteen years with an enthralling last stone victory over Switzerland.

Perhaps it is the inherent glorious chaos of the Winter Olympics – its heady blend of sporting excellence and crazy good luck; its speed and danger and housewives with brooms and speed-skaters disappearing like dominos – which makes it so compelling. Its unpredictability gives hope to those so-called lesser nations, like Great Britain, whose short-track speed-skaters, as Bradbury proved, need not necessarily become too concerned about finding themselves half a lap off the pace.

That said, 12 years on from Martin’s moment, Great Britain will seek to join the winter party in unprecedented fashion. The British skeleton programme, which has yielded medals of every colour over the last three Olympics, as well as overall world champions in Kristan Bromley and his wife Shelley Rudman, is the envy of plenty of ice-bound nations: its champions have been moulded on nothing more than a push-track track at the University of Bath.

The curlers are in with a shout as ever, though the housewives are long gone and replaced by the likes of Eve Muirhead, a poster girl for the 2010 Vancouver Games, and a four-time world junior champion into the bargain. Plus, even before Great Britain’s extraordinary Olympic summer had drawn to a close, Sheffield’s James Woods had claimed victory in the first Slopestyle World Cup of the new season in Argentina.

It was Great Britain’s first snowsport World Cup win in eight years, and Woods’ timing could not have been better: Slopestyle will make its Winter Olympic debut in 2014.

With today marking 500 days until the flame is lit over Sochi to signal the start of the latest unpredictable and anarchic winter sports ride, the post-London hangover need not last long.

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‘She makes £2 a day from begging. She embodies why the Paralympics matter’

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

By Nick Harris

SJA Internet Sports Writer of the Year

9 September 2012

Isatou Nyang is a single mum of two from The Gambia, a small country in West Africa where the average income is around £1,200 per year, or £23 a week.

Nyang, 28, makes about half that much, or around £10 per week, or £2 per day. She earns her living by asking passers-by for donations, or in other words, begging.

She begs on the forecourt of a petrol station in The Gambia’s biggest city, Serekunda. She begs because, as a wheelchair-bound woman, job opportunities are scarce.

She is in a wheelchair because she was born with one short leg, the right one, which has a badly deformed foot, and a left stump.

Quite probably you have never heard of Nyang before, although twice in the past week she has appeared in front of 80,000 people at the Olympic Stadium. She is a Paralympian and she embodies why the Paralympics matter.

Of course those of us who have watched the Games will have been impressed and thrilled to see Oscar Pistorius and Ellie Simmonds, Jonnie Peacock and Sarah Storey, the wheelchair rugby players and their Murderball capers, David Weir and countless hundreds more.

They each have their own humbling stories. They have all overcome hurdles.

Yet for many others, it remains a struggle to be seen even as somebody who can play any useful role in society – let alone partake in international sport.

Nyang does not consider herself special, or feel she has faced any greater hardship. Indeed she is embarrassed by attention.

But the fact is that in many parts of the world – the poorest parts, where life can be short and brutal even for the able-bodied – to have a major physical disability is to become useless.

‘People in The Gambia don’t respect disabled people,’ Nyang told me when I met her and the other member of Gambia’s London 2012 team, Demba Jarju, in the Paralympics village on Friday. ‘They think we can do nothing.’

For Nyang and Jarju, 23, who both competed in the T54 100m and 800m events, being at these Games could quite feasibly damage them financially, actually reduce the couple of quid they make each day. (Jarju also begs, in different street markets).

‘The Games are a mixed blessing,’ Nyang says. ‘Our long-term goal is to help improve attitudes and therefore people’s lives. But when we go back, we expect the public to think “They’ve been to London. They must be rich and famous. Why should we give money to them any more?”

Like many Paralympians from the poorest countries, they get little or no state funding, little or no sponsorship, and rely on private donors supporting their Paralympic association.

The Gambia was only able to participate, for the first time, like 14 other debutant nations, because the Games organisers paid for their air fares, covered their village costs, and provided food.

But as the head of their delegation, Sulayman Colley, explained to me, the perception back home is that his two athletes must now be ‘rich, and big-time.’

The reality is a little bleaker. By Wednesday Nyang and Jarju will both be begging again in the morning, and then training in the afternoon.

Colley (pictured centre, with Jarju left and Nyang right) has been working to improve the lot of compatriot disabled people since the late 1980s. He considers himself fortunate because he went to school and became an electrician. Though crippled by polio, he can earn money, allowing him to work on a voluntary basis as the president of Gambia’s Paralympics association.

Jarju too lost the use of his legs through polio – a preventable illness in countries rich enough to afford vaccines costing a few pounds per head.

‘I was 10 years old when I got polio,’ Jarju tells me. ‘I woke up from sleeping and I wanted to walk but I couldn’t. I fell down. I was taken to the hospital. They couldn’t save me.’

He is entirely matter of fact. He seeks no pity, no sympathy. He begs because that’s what he needs to do.

‘It’s not easy to get a job when you are disabled in Gambia. There is a stigma.’

The Games, he says, have been an ‘eye-opener’. The biggest crowd he’s performed in front of at home ‘was maybe 15 or 20 people. So the full stadium here was extraordinary.’

He has viewed the hi-tech chairs of many of his rivals with amazement. ‘Our equipment isn’t great,’ he smiles. But he insists that being at the Games ‘is good because it shows that we are capable of doing things. In time, we hope attitudes change.’

Colley echoes that. ‘Many people in Britain and richer nations won’t realise the real power of sport and the Paralympics to disabled people in countries like mine,’ he says. ‘It’s not just about recognition as athletes but as people.’

I ask Nyang what she dreams of achieving. She says she wants to be able to keep sending her two boys, aged four and seven, to school.

I ask Jarju whether maybe he dreams of a job, of a more comfortable life for himself and his girlfriend, Fatou, 19, who works as a maid.

‘No,’ he says. ‘I just want a medal round my neck. Maybe in Rio?’

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The Gambia Paralympic Association website (via which Colley would be happy to hear from anyone with second-hand or unwanted wheelchairs or other equipment).

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