Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Olympics: Revisiting a Popular Article

With the 2012 Olympics set to start in London (and today being July 4th), we thought we would revisit one of our more popular articles -- on the 1980 Miracle on Ice.  In that article, we looked at concepts of sports psychology and did an interesting and fun analysis (including Monte Carlo simulations) to study the odds of the U.S. ice hockey team winning the gold medal.

Herb Brooks was a true master of sports psychology, graduating from college with a degree in psychology.  Brooks knew he had a chance to make some noise at the Olympics - especially with the US hosting the Winter Olympics.  Brooks worked at gathering players who could lift their games to special levels -- and could also play as part of a team where the sum of the parts were greater than the individual pieces.  

On goaltender Jim Craig and other players, Brooks said, "I don't want the best players, I want the right players."  Brooks knew what he was doing when he put his 1980 team together, piece by piece.  He also knew how to "push the players' buttons" and was tough on many members of that Miracle on Ice -- but eventually created one of the most beloved U.S. sports stories of the twentieth century.

Based on key hockey statistics and expectations, we performed a Monte Carlo simulation to study the odds of the United States hockey team winning the gold medal. Monte Carlo methods use a random process to solve complicated problems...
In a similar manner, hockey games can be modeled based on certain random variables and key statistics, including shots on goal, save percentage and shot efficiency. If we model the United States team as a seventh seed, the probability of the United States winning the gold medal approaches odds as high as 1 in 1,000. 
But the United States turned out to be a stronger team than expected. Entering the medal round of the Olympics, the United States and Soviet teams were undefeated. The United States was 4-0-1, outscoring their opponents by 25-10, while the Russians were 5-0, outscoring their opponents by 51-11. The Soviet goaltenders, Vladislav Tretiak and Vladimir Myshkin, averaged a solid 88.2 save percentage, and the American goalie Jim Craig had a 91.7 save percentage.

If we base our simulations on the team’s performance in the tournament, the odds could have been as low as 17-to-1 for the United States win the gold medal.

The entire article was originally published in the NY Times in 2010, on the 30th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice.  Read more here: