How One Olympic Historian Is Going for Data Gold in Sochi

Think the biggest challenge at the Sochi Winter Olympics will be the snowboad stunts or death-defying ski jumps? Try doing the work of an Olympic historian whose hobby is to collect and store the loads of data that Olympic athletes generate.  

During the 2012 Summer Olympics alone, more than 200 hundred nations competed in 300 events. And since the beginning of the modern Olympics in 1896, there have been 20 Winter Games and 26 Summer Games. Needless to say, that's a lot of names, distances and world records to track. From the stone tablets used to immortalize winners during the ancient times, to the newsprint and hard drives of the modern games, the Olympics might be the biggest data storage challenge in sporting history. 

Stone Tablets to Bits & Bytes 

Bill Mallon would know. He's the author of more than 20 books about the Olympic Games, former president of the International Society of Olympic Historians and the founder of OlyMADMen, a society of Olympic historians and statisticians. Mallon has compiled Olympic data from local archives and other sources since the early 1980s and served as a consultant statistician to the International Olympic Committee, which earned him the Silver Olympic Order in 2001. 

Stone tablets might be good for posterity, but they're not easily searchable by journalists or enthusiasts interested in Olympic data. Before the Internet, people would have to either visit local archives in host cities where games were held, or browse sports magazines and newspapers in libraries to access data. Mallon has travelled as far as Switzerland and France to scour local archives by, literally, sifting through boxes of documents. 

That began to change following the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif., when Olympic results were computerized for the first time. 

“That was the beginning of the modern era,” says Mallon. “It was also the first time that the Olympics began to publish official results books that included lists of all of the competitors.”

Olympic Data Goes Digital 

In the 1980s, Mallon began digitizing the Olympic data he'd collected with dBASE II, an early database management system. But as Mallon's data storage needs grew, he quickly grew out of dBASE and eventually moved to online databases that the OlyMADMen manage, such as Sports-Reference.com and Olympedia.org, a private research site. 

“I started providing data to the IOC in 1998,” says Mallon. “Since then, I would estimate that the amount of data we had has grown ten times in terms of depth and detail. Since I began compiling data in the early '80s, it has probably grown a hundred to a thousand times the size just in the amount of information we are able to collect now,” he says. 

The exponential increase in the amount of data that Mallon and the OlyMADMen store and make searchable, however, doesn't mean that the records are complete. Official results for individual events, such as the 1992 fencing competition, are missing data — and the results from entire games have been lost to history. 

“We don’t have access to the records of 1932 in Los Angeles, which may not even exist for as much as historians know.”

The efforts of hobbyists such as OlyMADMen are filling in the gaps, but data can still be lost in the digital era. 

Protecting Olympic Data 

To protect against his own data loss, Mallon backs up his data to an external hard drive, two separate laptops and a cloud backup service. 

“My data is backed up about fifty different ways,” Mallon says. “In the mid-'90s, I got a computer virus and lost some data. I was backed up then, but now I’m a fanatic about it."

And that's good news for the history books. It's no small task to be the bearers of Olympic history, but Mallon and his OlyMADMen colleagues are eager to build their data stockpile during the Sochi Games. 

“It is far from finished, and probably never will be, but perhaps that is better," he says. "For the OlyMADMen, the dream will never die.”

Image via Metro West Daily News