Ennis, the ‘face of the Olympics’, is mixed race. Britain’s posh athletes did well too, winningtwo golds in dressage (two more than they had ever won before); the queen’s granddaughter won a silver as part of Britain’s eventing team. Britain excelled in some of its traditionalstrengths, like rowing, although the gold the British women won in London 2012 was theirfirst in the sport.[*] Britain’s success was greeted with surprise, but it was not an aberration.Something has changed.The best book I know on the relationship between sporting culture and success is
,Michael Lewis’s account of the 2002 Oakland A’s baseball team.[†] The argument iscompellingly simple: sports teams are run like gentlemen’s clubs rather than businesses, andclubs don’t base their business decisions on facts but on codes and intuitions. A club’s firstpriority is to maintain the distinction between those inside and those outside the club. Thetrouble with inside knowledge is that it is supposed to be inscrutable, to resist outsiders’attempts at rational analysis. It is cultural rather than statistical, and Lewis demonstratespersuasively how often cultural knowledge is wrong.
presents expertise – the seasoned intuition which comes from years of first-handexperience and the attempts of scouts, coaches, managers, ex-players and commentators tomake sense of it – as a kind of bias, an obstacle to be overcome. Lewis writes about Oakland’sgeneral manager, Billy Beane, and his Yale-educated sidekick, a numbers guy called PaulDePodesta, who attempted to apply Wall Street style derivatives analysis to the problem of how to win baseball games. What’s attractive about sport from this point of view is that itgives you a yes or no answer, a win or a loss. Beane and DePodesta were putting a theory tothe test: that maths gets you closer to that answer than seasoned intuition.The reason baseball yields so well to this kind of analysis – called sabermetrics, after theSociety for American Baseball Research – is that it offers so many statistics. But the idea hasobvious applications outside baseball. We can get stats on anything – happiness, education,health, earning potential, marriage – and, properly analysed, they give us probabilisticknowledge we can use to help make choices. But what most of us want from knowledge isnot just the truth, but an intimacy with the truth. We want, in other words, something muchcloser to seasoned intuition. Beane and DePodesta wanted to think they had insulatedthemselves from such feelings, like private equity guys who break up companies because theparts are worth more. It’s just business.‘Anyone who wanders into Major League Baseball,’ Lewis writes,can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the field of play and the uneasy space just off it, where the executives and the scouts make their livings. Thegame itself is a ruthless competition. Unless you’re very good, you don’t survivein it. But in the space just off the field of play there really is no level of incompetence that won’t be tolerated … There are many ways to embarrass theclub, but being bad at your job isn’t one of them … That’s not to say that there arenot good baseball executives and bad baseball executives, or good baseball scouts