Russian Seeks Order in Games' 100 Years
by Kimberley A. Strassel and A. Craig Copetas (Staff Reporters)
Yevgeny Potemkin has done it all: table tennis, kayaking, baseball and judo. Yachting and handball, too. Indeed, after years of long days and nights honing his skills, when the centennial Games arrived he was here along with the Olympians of years past - all of them. Ready to make his mark.
Mr. Potemkin hasn't won any medals. That's because Mr. Potemkin is a statistician. Well, a nuclear physicist turned taxi driver turned statistician. But in Russia, that's not a bad career path, the 50-year-old Mr. Potemkin says of his home country. "I'm lucky," he expains. "Most of my colleagues ended up at Chernobyl."
These days, Mr. Potemkin has set himself a mission that he sees as far more difficult than splitting atoms or navigating Moscow's busy streets. Mr. Potemkin is determined to unify the universe of sports rankings, starting with the Olympics, which he sees as the most confused realm of all.
THE WAY MR. POTEMKIN sees it, the world of Olympic stats needs some harmony. Americans gauge their prowess by how many total medals they win. Russians calculate theirs by the number of gold medals they haul home. Little countries only tally up certain sports. Big counties discount others.
No good, the mathematical Mr. Potemkin decided long ago. When the 1980 Olympics came rolling through Moscow, he sat down to devise his own formula. The result? A mind-boggling complexity of numbers that even IBM's Olympic supercomputers might find difficult to handle. In Mr. Potemkin's mind, however, order had been restored. "There is only one God and only one logical way to decide which nation is the best in Olympic sports at any moment in time," the crusading scientist says with an air of finality.
So started Mr. Potemkin's 15-year-plus effort to convince the rest of the world that his statistical method is the best. His labors landed him 16 days ago at the Atlanta Olympics, where he has been sleeping under a table and showering in a sink in the bathroom of the main press center. From there he churns out the reams of statistics that make up the World Wide Web page of all his results.
THE PAGE, UNDRAMATICALLY christened World Wide Ratings and Rankings, is mind-boggling. Mr. Potemkin is applying his method to every sport - for every country - in the Games, as well as compiling an overall ranking for all the countries. Not a small undertaking, you may think, but it's nothing in Mr. Potemkin's bigger scheme of things. He has done the same for every Olympics back to Athens in 1896, even calculating the rankings for sports that have been discontinued like golf, polo, and rugby.
His Web page is a goldmine of information. A treasure trove of trivia. But for whom? On that point, even Mr. Potemkin isn't scientifically sure. The International Olympic Committee doesn't use it. Neither do any national Olympic teams. It could be used for betting purposes, a tool for the gambling industry that always pops up around the Olympics, he surmises, but he's not earning any money on it. For the most part, he says, he does it for the love of science. And maybe one day sports authorities will pick up on its worth, too.
"I know the sporting world needs my statistics," he says. "But I just don't know why."
Afficionados of Numbers
NETHERLESS, HIS HARD work isn't entirely in vain. An entire global community of math wizards and sports buffs waits expectantly for every fresh number. Kenneth Massey, a mathematics major at Bluefield College in Bluefield, Virginia, thought it would be interesting to compare various computer-modeling techniques that give objective estimates of sports teams' strengths. He got the idea from Jeff Sagarin, a writer at USA Today newspaper who publishes his own rankings. Then Mr. Massey got help from Dave Wilson, who runs a U.S. college football page on the Web with team rankings. Ranking gurus Darryl Marseed and Mike Zenor also contributed.
From all this came the first edition of the World Wide Ratings and Rankings Web page, which Mr. Massey originally indended primarily to be an outlet for college sports rankings. But soon after, he was contacted by Mr. Potemkin and they teamed up to add Olympic and soccer ratings. Hundreds of people now visit the site, making comparasions, jotting down numbers and placing bets. *
"For the mathematically inclined, it presents a fun application of mathematics and statistics. For the sports fan, it is a topic of discussion and/or argument," says Mr. Massey. "Sports thrive on controversy. Notice this the next time you hear a group of people debating whose favorite team is better."
And to what extremes these die-hard statisticians will go. Upon arriving in Atlanta without much money, Mr. Potemkin moved into the main press center behind the Centennial Olympic Park. He wore the same clothes every day: a pair of white jogging shorts and a white T-shirt. Nearly every waking moment of his time is spent glued to the Information 96 system provided by International Business Machines Corp., a network of hundreds of computers located at various press sites on which journalists can download Game statistics.
Mr. Potemkin has been finding some takers for his information. At the Olympics he is accredited by the IOC through OCR Sports Life of Russia, a Russian weekly sports magazine where his Olympic stats are being published, the only place they'll be appearing outside his Internet page. He also has been preparing reports for Russian radio, but admits he is having a problem locating the Russian radio guys in Atlanta.
And, Mr. Potemkin points out, both the French and German national Olympic committees have tapped into his site to review their respective power in the Olympic world. Last year, he sent one long letter to the IOC extolling the virtues of his system and its uses, but he says he never heard back from them.
"I'm not surprised," says Mr. Potemkin. "There are too many people who want to improve the world of sports for the IOC to take me seriously." But he's not crushed by the rejection. "The IOC," he adds, "deals with philosophy, I deal with mathematics."
INDEED, ACCOMPANYING Mr. Potemkin's pages of numbers is a long and detailed description of the history of Olympic rankings and, of course, details as to why his are better. According to the Web site, prior to Mr. Potemkin's statistical revolution there were three main ways of ranking the Olympics. The Gold Ranking method involves ranking countries based solely on the number of gold medals they win. A second procedure, Total Ranking, involves rating countries based on the total number of medals gained. The most sophisticated formula to date, Point Ranking, allocates points for different medals - three points for gold, two for silver and one for bronze.
Mr. Potemkin's approach, which he calls the Elecs method, involves ranking countries using a recipe that takes into account the relative probability (and all the permutations that accompany that term) that a country in the Olympics will win a particular medal. It is computed using elements of Point Ranking. And Mr. Potemkin was lucky in that getting previous ranking results using Point Ranking wasn't hard. Stephen Darmoni, another stats buff, had compiled rankings for every country in every Olympics using the Point Ranking method on a separate World Wide Web page.
But whether or not Mr. Potemkin makes his Olympic breakthrough at these Games, things have been looking better and better since he arrived in Atlanta. Just a few days ago, he trawled the Internet for an Atlanta hotel that might cost him less than $10 a day, as his magazine didn't provide him with an expense account. His search yielded the name of a local Methodist church that could help.
Upon arriving at the chapel, he ran into a minister there who recognized the statistician from the imagesure of Mr. Potemkin on his Web page. The minister gave him some clean T-shirts and a cup of coffee. Arriving back at the press center with a much improved appearance, several journalists are now allowing Mr. Potemkin to sleep on the floor of their room at the Scottish Inn in Atlanta.
The offer was much appreciated, but Mr. Potemkin still faces a long road ahead. As soon as the Olympics end, the sturdy scientist still has to sort out dozens of world championships and hundreds of national championships in myriad sports. So many numbers, so little time.
The World Wide Ratings and Rankings page can be accessed on the Web at: http://www.digiserve.com/wwrr/wwrr.htm
* - On the contrary, WWRR in no way promotes gambling. The information provided is for entertainment purposes only.Return to World Wide Ratings and Rankings
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