2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #13: The Greatest Innovation at the Olympics

The greatest innovation in U.S. Olympic History (for Olympians): No, it is not the BMW designed USA bobsled, the Lockheed Martin designed Mach 39 speedskating suits, instantaneous video replays on iPads, or Shawn White’s new frontside double-cork 1440 in half pipe.

No, perhaps the single greatest innovation for the athletes heading to Sochi is “Crowdfunding”. In case you are not familiar with the concept, here’s a definition, “crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet.” There is now a suite of relatively new online social media tools that allow athletes, Olympians and potential Olympians to cash in on the largesse provided by the intersection of goodwill and need. By using the power of social media to gather a large number of small donations, athletes are able to find financial support to cover their expenses. Some examples of these sites include GoFundMe.com, IndieGoGo.com, Dreamfuel.com, Rallyme.com

Except for a small handful of  “A-list” athletes like Shawn White, Apolo Ohno or Bode Miller, most Olympic athletes toil in anonymity for more than a decade in order to make an Olympics and scrape by through a combination of parental support, off-season jobs, and small stipends from their sports federations.

For well-to-do athletes or those in high profile sports (snow-boarding, figure skating, skiing) where ample funding is available a single-minded focus on training and preparation is all that is required. This is also the case for many athletes from nations that fully fund their athletes, think Russia or South Korea.

For the rest, a constant ever-present worry is “how will I pay for this?” -be it new equipment, travel, lodging or even food. At its extreme it reaches the levels that Emily Scott, newly minted Olympian in short track speedskating, has faced. With a mother and a sister behind bars and raised by a single father with a blue collar income, Emily, at one point, was forced to rely on foodstamps to feed herself.

One might think that making the Olympic team would finally put these fears to rest, but in reality that success breeds a whole new brand of financial worry. Sure, now their travel and food and lodging are covered to travel to the games, but just as abruptly parents and others who have played significant support roles are faced with massive expenses to try and get to the games.

Olympic qualifying trials are often held close to the date of the Games themselves to ensure the very best team is selected, but this then creates the situation of the parents and supporters of the Olympian having only weeks to find flights and lodging in cities that have been booked solid for months and with flights subject to the supply and demand algorithms of Sabre (the airline yield management software) and hotel pricing often reaching $1000/day or more at the Olympic site.

Even a weeklong trip to a place like Sochi can involve multi-leg flights to save money and then incredibly steep prices to find a place to stay anywhere remotely close to the venues. Craig Scott, Emily’s father IS coming to the Olympics, thanks in large part to crowdfunding, but here’s his flight plan: Kansas City to Chicago, Chicago to Washington DC. Washington DC to Istanbul, Istanbul to Germany, Germany to Sochi. Here’s how Craig Scott will get to Sochi. He will board a plane in Kansas City and go to Chicago. From Chicago he will go to Washington. From Washington he flies to Turkey. From Turkey he flies to Germany.

For middle class parents there is always credit cards, but what about young spouses, fiancés or boyfriends/girlfriends? Often those that participated or sacrificed the most are forced to watch and cheer from afar.

Enter Crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding has existed for years in various forms – be it innovations looking for startup money, patients needing medical treatment seeking support, or artists with a new idea, but this emergent social media platform is potentially at its best in supporting potential Olympians. Finally there exists a way to tap into the general support of the USA! USA! Spirit and collect large numbers of small sums to support the real needs of an athlete and their family.

Emily Scott is perhaps the most direct example. After applying for foodstamps she decided to create a GoFundMe page and at the same time had the luck of a USA Today article to lend visibility to her plight. In particular, other than feeding herself, she was most anxious that her father Craig would join her in Sochi. 24 hours later she had $30,000 in donations – most of them small, but in quantity, and by late January she had $49,000 from more than 650 donors - more than enough to ensure that her father could join her at the games.

Emily's gofundme page

The list of athletes receiving significant support is substantial – from Emily Scott raising over $50K to fellow short track speedskater Kyle Carr raising $14,000 to bring his mother to the games. Lindsey Van, part of the new retinue of women’s ski jumpers, raised $20,000, Sugar Todd a long track speedskater raised almost $6000 to bring her parents to the games, while teen brothers and Danny and Drew Duffy raised over $50,000 on RallyMe to cover their expenses.

Others, though have struggled with getting visibility in order to generate support. Bobsledder Elana Meyers has only raised $738 to date proving that just having a campaign is no silver bullet.

Through Crowdfunding, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised to ensure that those that compete, and those that sacrificed for their success have the support required to share in the experience. This is particularly important given the relatively new tradition of the “Order of the Ikkos” award where each medaling Olympian gives a medal to the one person who supported them the most. Hard to give a medal to someone thousands of miles away because they couldn’t afford to come....

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Epilogue: The Post Olympic Hangover

I am particularly envious of this emergent source of funding. After graduating college I trained full time for eight years and made one Olympic team where I earned a silver medal. Along the way I used credit cards to fund my dream. As a recent college graduate I was able to apply for an receive over 50 credit cards which I used to pick up and rotate $87,000 in debt to by the time I retired from the sport. My parents also spent years paying off their visit to Lillehammer, Norway. Here's a REAL picture of the 50+ credit cards I used to fund my dream. I eventually paid them off...

50 credit cards - to a guy with no job

For olympian Alex Izykowski, the burden fell to his parents, who are still filling in the financial hole they dug to ensure his success and bronze medal in the 2006 Torino games. “My hometown community really pulled together to help fund my family’s expenses to travel to Torino, but the 10 years of debt we accrued leading up to my Olympics is an ever-present burden they are still paying off.” Alex’s dad agreed, saying, “Its like a post-olympic hangover you can’t shake.”

Sadly it is hard to ask for crowdfunding support in retrospect so Alex and his parents have little to no opportunity to tap into this emergent funding source. However, for new athletic hopefuls, crowdfunding fuels an olympic dream while reducing the post-apocolyptic olympic hangover.

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #3: Day Two of Olympic Trials and "How to Watch a Short Track Race"

Jessica Smith and JR Celski continued to dominate in the two rounds of 500m quarterfinals, semifinals and finals today - again winning every single race. The races were actually a bit predictable with the exception of Chris Creveling whose luck had turned yesterday with a penalty in the 1500m and today a fall in the first 500m and then a slip in his 500m quarterfinal leading to a 1/1000th of a second miss on making it into the A/B semi finals.

My stats spreadsheet for tracking points

For now Celski and Alvarez have locked up spots, and if the team were selected today, Malone, Creveling and Kyle Carr would join them based on overall standings. Tomorrow should have JR again winning, and if Creveling is back in place and wild cards like Jaynor or Kyle Uyehara don't break through, then that should still be the mens team. For the women, Emily Scott secured the second spot today, and unless a wildcard like Chen or Gehring were to win the 1000m overall tomorrow, Dudek will be the third spot.

 

our very tight broadcast booth

How to Watch a Short Track Race:

  1. Recognize that time doesn't matter - so in the longer races, the pace may be slow in the early goings
  2. Know that drafting is a factor and that taking the lead with more than 4 or 5 laps to go probably means you'll get passed by the skaters getting a 20% increase in efficiency by following in your wake
  3. Know that because of 1 & 2, the laps between 7 to go and 5 to go are where a great proportion of passing and maneuvering happen. Each skater HOPES that with 5 to go they find themselves in second or third place with a skater up front who has the pace high and will fade at the end.
  4. Know that passing on the outside is less likely to lead to a penalty for contact, but a LOT harder - only the best can do it at speed.
  5. Know that passing on the inside is easier, but runs the real risk of contact and if the skater doesn't get 1/2 body length lead will be called for a penalty and be given last place points
  6. Know that passing on the inside and having contact around block 3 in the corner often leads to falls and if so, runs the risk of also causing a yellow card to be issued which means that skater penalized will get no points.
  7. Lap times above 11 seconds are SLOW, lap times of 10 seconds or so are medium. Lap times of 9 seconds are fast, and lap times in the low 8's are ALL OUT - 35mph plus.

So, tomorrow, watch where the skaters line up - JR has been racing from the front because - HE CAN. He's strong enough to do so. That probably won't work in the Olympics, so we may see him sit farther back tomorrow to practice passing from the back. Same goes for Jessica. After the start you'll see the pace go at a medium clip for a couple laps and then watch for skaters swinging wide going into the corner and putting in extra strokes. Their angular velocity will remain the same, but when they come out of the corner their actual speed will be higher and then can then either dive inside for the easier but more dangerous inside pass, or put on the afterburners and try to make it around the outside. Several of these moves will happen from 7 to go until 5 laps to go and then a new paceline will usually emerge as the leader sets a fast enough pace for the following skaters to bide their time. Then with 3 or 2 or even one to go, additional moves will happen by the skaters strong enough to gather the speed necessary.

Inside the production truck where the producer and director and graphics and others sit

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #2: First Day of Short Track Olympic Trials

Today was the first day of the short track Olympic Trials - for most of the athletes the most stressful races of their lives. I joined a new broadcast team including Jim Carr (producer) and Terry Gannon (commentator) and Apolo Ohno (color commentator). My daughter Katelina demanded that Apolo meet her "Labbit" and he was happy to oblige. IMG_1952

The races were excellent and Terry and Apolo quickly found a rhythm. Jessica Smith and JR Celski dominated the 1500m races and earned the first two spots on the Olympic team in Sochi. I did my best to support the team by helping arrange interviews and answering question as simple as spelling and as complex as the temperature of the ice and humidity in the arena. In the photo below we are watching a replay of a questionable penalty of Chris Creveling in the second round 1500m final.

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My role was to be the subject matter expert for Apolo and Terry and the production crew and get them any information they needed. Below is an edited stream of my emails to the team about the races, participants, and rules that is probably more than anyone would want to know, but the first "soundbite" effectively describes a key moment in the sport and I was happy to hear Apolo using this language tonight.

--------------------- The "pivotal moment" (literally in this case) The pivotal moment in short track (also called a "pivot")is when a 175 short track skater hits the apex of the corner - at that moment thanks to 2G's of centripetal force they do the equivalent of a 350 lb one legged squat from a greater than 90 degree knee bend, while leaning over at 60 degrees, all the while balanced on a 1MM wide 17 inch blade traveling 35mph directly at a wall, on ice. This is where most falls and disqualifications happen as well, and where the ice gets very rutted and unstable.

Olympic Qualifying: Women Three women's Olympic team spots are available. At the games we will have 3 women in the 500m and 1500m and only two skate the 1000. Qualifying goes like this: whoever wins the final points for a distance at trials for each of the distance earns a guaranteed spot. If it is 3 different girls, then that is the team. If the same girl wins more than one event or all three, the additional spots will go by overall classification for the meet. This does create the possibility that "win at all costs - even if it means making a bad pass" may likely take place. In the case of the 1000m, where only two girls will skate, the two skaters selected will be a) the winner of that event and b) the woman ON THE TEAM who had the highest finish in the 1000.

Olympic Qualifying: Men Five Olympic team spots are available. At the games we will have 3 men in each of the 3 individual events, and then the relay team. Similar to the girls, the winner of each distance will have a guaranteed spot on the team. Additional spots will be based on the second place finishers in each event. If there is overlap (likely - JR will likely place in all 3 for instance) then the remaining spots will be drawn from the third place finishers and overall standings.

FYI Only - Olympic Qualifying - Relay, Men: The relay (men only) will also be pulled from these five skaters. It will be coaches decision based on schedule and who is skating the best. A 5th skater MIGHT be used in the heat - if so he will also stand on the podium / earn a medal if the men finish in the top 3. If the heat is easy or if the 4th and 5th skaters are very similar in ability/experience then this will almost certainly be the case.

Referees: Al Gresheim is the chief referee - he makes the final calls. Will likely use replay for anything questionable but the TV timetable will put pressure on him to keep things moving.

Coaches: Stephen Gough (Pronounced like “cough” - Canadian from ’94 short track Olympic team) is the head US coach, Alex Izykowski (Bronze medalist short track from Torino) will be the assistant coach. Jae Su Chun (former US National coach) will attend – not yet certain if he can go down by the ice for the trials – he will be at the Olympics but NOT allowed down by the ice. I'm friends w/ Gough and very close with Alex, so again if we need anything from these guys I can probably help. Of course even more true for Apolo in the case of Alex as they used to room together.

Venue/Ice: Todd Porter will be the facility manager for the rink and Mark Norman is the VP of the Utah sports facilities and his boss. I grew up with both these guys so if we need something from them let me know and I can probably arrange to get it. The ice was shaved down two weeks ago, the lines repainted, and the new water they put down is a mix of the ultra-purified water they use for long track and some city water. This results in ice that breaks less easily and is more “sticky” and faster for the short track skaters. Times should be fast due to that and the 4300 foot altitude.

New Starting Rules: Until recently, one jumpstart was allowed for each skater, with second jump by the same skater and then they are out. This resulted in the possibility of 4, 5, even six jumpstarts which hoses up TV coverage : ) (this happened a couple times in Vancouver) Now the rules are that the first jump by any skater results in the second jump by any skater to be applied to everyone, so on the third jump whoever jumps (even if they didn't jump the first two times) is out. However if the first skater who jumps, jumps again, they ARE out. Example: Lane 1 jumps – is called for it, has one jump, next jump and he/she is out. Restart and Lane 2 jumps – now EVERYONE has a jump, and next jump – no matter who – is out. Restart, Lane 3 jumps – he/she is out.

Judging calls, Penalties and Yellow Cards: Please eliminate the word disqualification from your lexicon – no longer applies to short track. Most judging calls in short track take place during passes that result in contact. This contact will result in a PENALTY for IMPEDING if the following is true: The overtaking skater does not get at least ½ body length ahead of the skater being passed. If they DO get ½ body length or more, then they can essentially cut in front of the skater being passed. Skaters can received a penalty for jumpstarts per the above or for throwing a skate at the line (lifting the skate off the ice to try and gain advantage). Penalties result in getting the last place finish and points for whatever round they are in.

If a skate throw or impeding call are particularly dangerous or rough, the referee will issue a yellow card. Yellow cards can be issued for other poor behavior as well. This is not a penalty – the skater in this case gains NO points for the round they are in – its as if they never skated and everyone below them moves up. Two yellow cards = a red card and the skater (or coach) must leave the competition and premises. If something is serious enough, the referee can issue a red card directly. No one has seen a red card being used (YET)

Controversy etc. You've probably read or heard but speedskating and short track have been plagued by some significant controversies in the last 2 years including the two head coaches being asked to resign last year with 19 skaters signing a petition suggesting verbal and physical abuse, skate tampering (allegedly at former coach Jae Su Chun's suggestion) by Simon Cho on a Canadian team member's skate and Simon's subsequent ban. Sadly this is nothing new to the sport with lawsuits and arbitrations featured many times over the years. I have served on the arbitration panel a couple of times so can provide more color as required.

Quick learnings from Torino / Vancouver: - Names are difficult to pronounce - need to get pronunciations from those who know - Because names are difficult, #'s are hard to see and "skaters all look alike" to the laymen, it is often best to refer to the skater by color / country when not famous/contenders, and name/#/color when they are a contender. Example, "and #14, Apolo Ohno sweeps into the lead over the chinese skater in red. The two Korean contenders, Lee and Lee follow in the medium blue and yellow." Of all these, color is the easiest way for the viewer to know who you are talking about. - I typically count laps over the radio for the producer / announcers - let me know if you want me to do so. - I typically track where falls and disqualifications happen during the race and indicate them by lap and "turn #" but instead of "2 turns" we pretend there are four - with the first half of the first corner from the main Start/Finish being turn 1, the second half of the first corner = Turn Two etc. Again let me know if this is usefull to you James and/or your camera people.

Confusing things we should explain (more on this to come) - Starting procedure - movement of the track (there are 5 "tracks" that help keep the ice fresh - implications of the moving track for the shortest race - the 500m (distance from the start line to the first block of the corner gets shorter or longer depending on which track which creates an advantage for the skater in lane one) - How lane positions are selected (based on seeding from the last heat or event) - the equipment (blade bend, cut proof clothing, neck guards, shin guards etc.) - disqualifications (these are common) and review (officials have the option to review video footage)

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