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The Olympics of Statistics

Watching sports provides a lot of great entertainment. The thrill of victory, agony of defeat and all that. It also provides many great opportunities for never ending arguments about just how great various sports achievements are. Often these arguments are bolstered by the misuse of statistics. One such example was the constant references to Michael Phelps as “the Greatest Olympian Ever” which was based on the fact that he’d won more medals than any other athlete in history.  

To be clear, I’m sure an argument can be made that he is the greatest ever, but the use of one number, medal count, to determine that really bothers me. As often happens in the media, the number is looked at in only one context (compared to the number of medals other athletes have won) rather than considering a great number of other factors:

  • Swimming is one of those sports that allows a lot of medals to be won. A marathon runner would need 9 Olympics (which would take 33 years) to even have enough chances to win as many metals as Mr. Phelps won in just one (2008).
  • Olympic athletes today are allowed to take endorsement money and still compete. This allows them to continue to train and compete for years. In the past it was not unusual for athletes to retire after one or two Olympic Games. Mr. Phelps has been in four Olympics, thus giving him two to four times as many opportunities as many past greats.
  • We don’t know how well he’d stack up against past greats if they’d trained using modern methods.

So call him the greatest ever if you want, but back it up with more than just medal counts.

Of course, you might be asking what any of this has to do with market research. Well, it is of course another example of people not looking at numbers in the full context, but that is a stretch even for me. Perhaps someone is open to commissioning a survey of Olympic historians which uses a max-diff or given the number of athletes they’d need to compare, our own product Bracket™ , to rank order athletes. At least then it would be based on knowledgeable opinion.

President, TRC


Rich brings a passion for quantitative data and the use of choice to understand consumer behavior to his blog entries. His unique perspective has allowed him to muse on subjects as far afield as Dinosaurs and advanced technology with insight into what each can teach us about doing better research.  

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