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The data of sport

vlcsnap-2022-04-15-13h01m46s668.pngIn 1989, at 5-6 in the third and final set of the French Open women's singles final, 20-year-old Steffi Graf abruptly ran off-court. Soon afterwards, her opponent, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, completed one of the biggest upsets in the history of women's tennis.

Why did Graf do it? the press demanded to know in the post-march interview. When Graf finally (and slightly crankily) explained that she had her period. some journalists - Michael Mewshaw cites Italian Hall of Fame journalist Gianni Clerici for one - followed up by printing her (presumably imagined) menstrual cycle in the newspapers.

Mewshaw recounted this incident in June 2021 to illustrate the unpleasantness that can attend sports press conferences, in sympathy with Naomi Osaka. However, he could as easily have been writing about the commodification of athletes and their personal information. Graf got no benefit from journalists' prurient curiosity. But bettors, obsessive fans, and commentators could imagine they were being sold insight into her on-court performance. Ick.

This week, the Australian Science Academy launched a discussion paper on the use of athlete data in professional sport, chaired by Julia Powles and Toby Walsh. Powles and Walsh have also provided a summary at The Conversation.

The gist: the amount and variety of data collected about athletes has exploded using the justification of improving athletic performance and reducing injury risk. It's being collected and saved with little oversight and no clarity about how it's being used or who gets access to it; the overriding approach is to collect everything possible and save it in case a use is found. "It's rare for sports scientists and support staff to be able to account for it, and rarer still for sports governing bodies and athletes themselves," they write.

In the ASA's launch panel, Powles commented that athletes are "at the forefront of data gathering and monitoring", adding that such monitoring will eventually be extended to the rest of us as it filters from professional sports to junior sports, and onward from there.

Like Britain's intensively monitored children, athletes have little power to object: they have already poured years of their own and their family's resources into their obsession. Who would risk the chance of big wins to argue when their coach or team manager fits them with sensors tracking their sleep, heart rate, blood oxygenation, temperature, and muscle twitches and says it will help them? The field, Kathryn Henne observed is just an athlete's workplace.

In at least one case - the concussion in American football - data analysis has proved the risk to athletes. But, Powles noted, the report finds that it's really the aggregate counts that matter: how many meters you ran, not what your muscles were doing while you ran them. Much of the data being collected lies fallow, and no theory exists for testing its value.

Powles' particular concern is twofold. First, the report finds that the data is not flowing to sports scientists and others who really understand athletes (and therefore does not actually further the goal of helping them) but toward data scientists and other dedicated data-crunchers who have no expertise in sports science. Second, she deplores the resulting opportunity costs.

"What else aren't we spending money on?" she asked. Healthier environments and providing support are things we know work; why not pursue them instead of "technology dreams"? Her biggest surprise, she said, was discovering how cash-strapped most sports are. Even tennis: the stars make millions, but the lower ranks starve.

Professional athletes have always had to surrender aspects of their privacy in order to play their sport, beginning with the long, unpleasant history of gender testing, which began with men-only games in which competitors appeared nude, and continued in 1968 with requiring athletes wishing to compete in women's sports to prove they qualify. Then came anti-doping, which presumes everyone is guilty except when testing finds them innocent: urine tests under observation and blood tests for more sophisticated doping agents like EPO. In 2004, the anti-doping authorities initiated the "Whereabouts rule", which requires athletes to provide their location every day to facilitate no-notice out-of-competition testing. More recently, sporting authorities have begun collecting and storing blood and other parameters to populate the "athlete biological passport" with the idea that longitudinal profiling will highlight changes indicative of doping. An athlete who objects to any of this is likely to be publicly accused of cheating; sympathy is in short supply.

The report adds to those obvious invasions the ongoing blurring of the line between health data - which apparently is determined by the involvement of a doctor - and what the authors call "performance data". This was raised as an issue at the Privacy Health Summit back in 2014, where panelists noted that the range of sensitive data being collected by then-new Fitbits, sleep apps, and period trackers wasn't covered by the US health information law, HIPAA.

Athletes are the commodities in all this. It's not a big stretch to imagine the use of this data turning hostile, particularly as it extends to junior sports, where it can be notoriously difficult to pic future winners. Sports hold our interest because they provide the unexpected. Data-crunching by its nature tries to eliminate it. As Powles put it, "The story of sport is not just the runs and the goals." But that's what data can count.

Illustrations: Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario holding the 1989 French Open women's singles trophy.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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