Let's celebrate the Games Makers on the fourth plinth

The anti-Paxmans in purple deserve public recognition.

The purple people. They were quite simply one of the big sensations of this London 2012 extravaganza.

Games Makers came in all shapes and sizes, and looked like us; just normal people, but with an extra dash of cheeriness harking back to the days of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but without his insane accent.

So let’s do something to honour their contribution by placing a statue on that fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square where so many thousands of them gathered this week for the London 2012 parade.

We really should remember those purple volunteers. What they brought with them was a sense of fun, and a rather unbritish ability to talk to strangers and bounce throughout the day.

These were the anti-Paxmans. They didn’t have an ounce of British irony, they weren’t the masters of sarcasm we have come to believe we are and they really, really wanted us all to have a great day.

So all hail the purple people. They have shown us it can be British to be friendly in a public place, and to show a touch of enthusiasm. And it doesn’t have to come with a spoonful of Disneyified slush.

In fact the volunteers have a whole bunch of lessons for us. They have taught us (in case we had forgotten/or never known) that it can be fun to do something for someone else. They have shown us we can enjoy being part of something rather than sniping from the sidelines.

They helped transform London into a place where people do speak to each other on trains and buses. And, yes, there was always a purple person on hand to chat to about the day’s highlights, and share some excitement about the events of the night before.

During London’s summer of loving itself a little bit more than it did before, the purple people were there to help.

And the mayor of London and the city’s burghers should do something to recognize that contribution, by creating a statue to stand on that plinth.

Out on Fleet Street yesterday filming interviews with the public about wanted they wanted to see as a legacy to this heady period, people just wanted to talk about keeping the friendliness and spirit alive.  One interviewee wanted less negative stories in the media, another wanted to encourage more volunteering but said: “It’s about us, not the government, making it happen.”

The volunteers we spoke to for the film for the thinktank British Future wanted to keep on volunteering, and were enthusing about their experiences, the people they had worked with and what they might do next. One Games Maker told us at great length about the human resources manager at Stratford who had co-ordinated  the volunteers, and told us she would definitely make a great legacy leader.

Then when the floats went by, the athletes were as enthusiastic about waving to their volunteers as the crowds were at waving back, a sign of their recognition for all the efforts of those who wore the purple uniforms.

The volunteers may not have got any jazzy medals to show for it; and I doubt they will be receiving anything in the New Year’s list, so let’s do something creative to show our appreciation.

Boris should unveil a statue of the Games Makers on the fourth plinth before Christmas and invite all of them along to help celebrate; give them a proper party that’s just for them as recognition of just how much they have done to help cheer up this country.

Rachael Jolley is editorial director at thinktank British Future.

Games Makers waiting for Team GB on the Mall. Photograph: Getty Images
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