The end of Hollywood movie Moneyball is surreal. You don’t know whether Billy Beane, general manager of Oakland Athletics—an American professional baseball team—was right in rejecting the Boston offer and staying with the team. But you do realise that what he did achieve was no small feat. In going up against the management and people who believed that no one changes baseball, Beane changed the game. The story presented in the book Game Changers is much the same, but far less dramatic.
Instead of having one Beane, you have many trying to change sports, more importantly, trying to change the outlook towards the game. The book emphasises the tale of the UK’s success in sporting events following the country’s efforts in analytics and reviews. In emphasising on science and merging it with sport, the UK was able to devise a winning strategy, which catapulted them from the 10th position in the 2004 Olympics to fourth in 2008, third in 2012 and beating China for second spot in 2016. Joao Medeiros details the journey of the stars of the game and the teams working with them to make them what they are.
A features editor for Wired magazine, Medeiros keeps to his style of writing with each of the articles presented as a long-format feature. While the book is divided into 22 chapters, each has an essence of its own. Written as a story detailing the amalgamation of science and sports, Medeiros starts with the story of setting up of the country’s first institute of sports sciences in Liverpool and the man who made all this possible. Although the focus remains on Olympic events and analysts working on these, Medeiros does try to slip in the changes made to football and Formula One. But the author does not stay focused on the idea of science and goes beyond that to details on human capacity and willingness that helped achieve these goals. In presenting examples of Amy Williams and Peter Nicol, Medeiros is also able to show the impact of the human spirit, which, supplemented with science, led to the development of world-class professional athletes who could bring medals for their country. Even though the focus is entirely on science, the author also presents the pessimism of coaches and athletes who are unwilling to adapt to new processes. In detailing the conundrum of Formula One teams, Medeiros shows how difficult it can be at times to make the drivers listen to team managers or principals. Also, he focuses on the specifics of jobs that many of us consider irrelevant. In detailing the work of the pit crew of Formula One cars, he shows how even these need to be treated as athletes, and following this strategy, McLaren was able to cut the pit stop time by half from 4.5 seconds to 2.5 seconds. Similarly, it shows how video has changed the game for most sports. But above all, Medeiros highlights that there can be no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to athletics. And, each person requires a different level of training and approach. So directional and constrained training may have worked for one group, the other may require more of a free-hand approach when it comes to learning. With the general perception, of course, that science can help all.
Medeiros’ writing style does lend a humane element to science, but it also becomes boring for the reader. Like a fairytale, you know by the end of each chapter that science would come to the rescue and all will end well with a medal in each person’s hands. The exuberance is too much at times. Even though Medeiros does well to display raw emotions, sometimes the setting seems overdone. But what Medeiros is effectively able to capture is the impact of science on the lives of athletes and the analysts who invest their time in devising new strategies. What it also indicates is the willingness amongst countries to make that extra effort to go for one more gold. Around the time of the Rio Olympics, it was said that each gold medal cost 1.25 pounds per taxpayer. What it didn’t highlight was the advances in technology that the UK had made to become a world-leading sporting institution. Medeiros goes beyond the economics of the sport to highlight this achievement, making the book a must-read for those looking to find a solution to the curse of the Bambino.
-The writer is a former journalist