Ball boys: players from the French and Irish rugby union teams chat in the locker room. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: If you want to be in a naked throng, the changing room still rules

Gay or straight, fat or thin, smooth or hairy, old or young: it seems entirely arbitrary as to whether a given man struts brazenly across the tiles, or cowers in the corners.

A fine smir of testosterone wavered about the bobbing heads of the jogging boys – or at least, that’s as I remember it. Oh! Where are the changing rooms of yesteryear? Where are the gracile bodies, the downy pelts, the helium squeaks of larynxes tossed hither and thither by the hormonal flux? We come to consciousness of our sexuality among the naked forms of our peers – and no doubt once this painful awareness has finally ebbed away we’ll find ourselves once more: bare, forked things, laid out in a row on the mortuary slab. I found the crowd in the boys’ changing room a torment: it didn’t help that, like so many pubescents, I yearned to excel at sports but was at best adequate. Nor was it helpful that I was a late developer – boys like Bullock and Gordon had a full pubis of hair while my assemblage still resembled an unfurling bracken frond; as for Nattawallah, at the age of 13 he had a handlebar moustache, the ends of which he could actually twirl.

The peculiar nature of our taboos is such that we seldom – if ever – get to experience the primal state of human being, which is surely to be one among a crowd of naked apes. True, there is that nominatively determined performance artist, Spencer Tunick, who assembles large nude groups in public places, but the very contrivance of these fleshy sculptures always makes their elements seem rather . . .  clothed.

Then there are occasional nude bicycle rides through large cities. I’ve no idea who organises these streaking streaks of streakers, but it’s certainly exhilarating to find yourself standing, say, in Shaftesbury Avenue, central London, watching as all those breasts and scrotums stream past. But I for one have never felt inclined to saddle up, any more than I’ve seriously considered visiting a nudist colony – what would be the point? As countless nudists have testified: the initial surrealism of queuing for sausage and two veg with your sausage and two veg on display is soon enough rendered quotidian: British nudists are heavily robed by their innate modesty – even when you can stare straight up their jacksies.

No, if you want to be in a naked throng the changing room remains the best bet; but what a change there’s been there since boyhood. There was no great nudity taboo in my family home – my father had no inhibitions at all, wandering about the house buck naked and gaily saluting anyone who happened to walk in on him while he was – in the Rabelaisian formulation – performing his necessary offices. My mother didn’t have quite the same abandon, confining herself to standing in her underwear in front of a mirror while chanting “fat and old”. No wonder while I was growing up I was preternaturally modest, a veritable Alyosha Karamazov, who couldn’t bear so much as the utterance of the word “bare”.

However, with age comes acceptance: nowadays I, too, stalk the house with my knackers clacking; I, too, leave the bathroom door unlocked (in fact, there is no lock anyway); I, too, meditate in front of the mirror upon the strange inscriptions that time has carved on my wanting flesh.

And in the changing room I delight in being a scrawny, piebald, moulting man among men. Ideally, I’d like to be such among women as well, but given the perverse endurance of our taboos, this isn’t a possibility. Now that I no longer have to teeter from one foot to the other while attempting to shield my groin area from the sportive Actaeons, what amazes me about the experience is that there’s no correlation between a man’s outward characteristics and his inner awareness. I swim thrice weekly at the Marshall Street Baths hard by Carnaby Street in London and I dare say a fair few of my fellow swimmers are familiar with what Father Ted described as “the rough and tumble of homosexual activity”. Be that as it may, gay or straight, fat or thin, smooth or hairy, old or young, fair or a veritable impasto of epidermal corruption – it makes no difference: it seems entirely arbitrary as to whether a given man struts brazenly across the tiles, or cowers in the corners. Some disport themselves in the showers as if they were walruses snorting on a wave-dashed ice floe, others ablute in their swimming costumes, pulling out the front so as to funnel a jet on to their nylon-coddled genitals. Weird.

My female informants tell me that on their side of the splash bath the same lack of a rubric applies: beautiful young women, who wouldn’t look out of place cruising through the chlorine in a giant seashell, with only chiffon wisps to mask breasts and mons veneris, are beset by shyness – yet great-aged wattled creatures stomp about carefree. I find this heartening: we may think we live in a society obsessed by body form, but perhaps the commodification only really gets put on along with the clothes that reduce us to a set of economic and cultural variables. It may be that if we want to lose our nagging sense of ugliness and inferiority the best course is to get naked in a crowd: dress to kill – strip to live.

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism