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Can Big Data Trump Doping In Sports?

Massive amounts of data, along with Hadoop and visualization tools, helped the U.S. women's cycling team earn silver at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

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Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong made headlines last week when he told French newspaper Le Monde that he couldn't have won the Tour de France without doping. But velodrome cyclist and entrepreneur Sky Christopherson, speaking Thursday at the Hadoop Summit in San Jose, Calif., offered a more hopeful perspective: Racers can win with big data analysis instead of performance-enhancing drugs.

Christopherson was a member of the U.S. Cycling Team and alternate on the 1996 and 2000 U.S. Olympic teams. In 2011, using a data-intensive "digital health" program designed to help competitive athletes achieve drug-free performance breakthroughs, Christopherson broke a world record in the 200-meter velodrome sprint.

"Doping is a huge issue right now in sports," Christopherson told Hadoop Summit attendees in his June 27 keynote. "And the reason it's been abused by athletes is that it accelerates recovery. At this level of athletics, everyone is training hard enough. The key is: How do you recover faster?"

[ The more data the bigger the blunders? Read Big Data's Human Error Problem. ]

Optimized Athlete, a company that Christopherson co-founded with his wife Tamara in early 2012, helped the U.S. women's cycling team shave several seconds off their racing times, an improvement that earned the team a silver medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Data analysis, including machine sensors and mobile devices, played a major role in this effort.

"I think the biggest difference most recently is you have this flood of sensors hitting the market, wireless sensors that connect with a smartphone. And we're able to quantify parts of our physiology and our psychology that we never could before," said Christopherson in a promotional video proceeding his keynote.

"The U.S. Women's Cycling Team was in a tough position because going into the London Olympics in 2012 they were five seconds away from even being considered for the medals. And a lot of people thought that a near-impossible task, you know, to improve this huge margin of time and be competitive in the games," he said.

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