With the Tokyo Olympics just days away, athletes and coaches are trying to find whatever way possible to gain that extra 1 per cent to beat the competition.
A new report prepared for Swimming Australia and the Queensland Academy of Sport by data scientists could be that difference between gold and silver, shedding light on what makes a team more likely to win a swimming relay.
The findings revealed the lowest-ranked swimmer on the team was more likely to post the fastest time and swimmers typically posted a faster time in a relay leg than they would over the same distance during an individual race.
But, more worryingly for those in the green and gold, you're more likely to stand atop the podium if you're an American.
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The research was based on data from more than 700 relay finals in the 4x200-metre freestyle at 14 international meets held between 2010 and 2018.
Among those analysing the data were researchers from the University of Canberra, the University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers.
The study's author Paul Pao-Yen Wu said with many medal chances up for grabs at the upcoming Olympics, any statistical edge was valuable.
"The stronger the team, the better the chances, there is no substitute for that, but if you're within striking range, then the order of the team can potentially increase the chances of getting a medal," he said.
"This research comes from a long history in sports data science, and the relay event has a lot of medal opportunities and there are lots of dynamics that come into play.
"We focused on the 4x200 because it's the longest relay event and there's more variations for how people perform and more complexity."
Data from the research showed that the slowest swimmer on the team, or those with the lowest ranking, tend to swim faster than expected during the relay event.
"These swimmers can step up and perform above expectations in relay events relative to their season's best individual event performance," the report said.
Mr Pao-Yen Wu said while the faster times could come from performing on a bigger stage in competition, there were other factors at play.
"There's a significant effect in having the slowest swimmer post faster times, and it could be attributed to the team environment and learning with the team and the tendency to step up on big occasions," he said.
"There's a team element in there as well and a psychological element at play."
Findings showed American teams were more likely during the eight-year data period to touch the wall first during major international meets.
Mr Pao-Yen Wu said part of it could be to do with the US training schedules ahead of competitions like the Olympics.
"Americans normally do their trials for major meets as close as possible to the Games, while Australia used to hold theirs longer out from the event," he said.
"Now for Tokyo, Australia does it similar to the US in having trials closer so that people are in better form nearer to the date."
Since Sydney 2000, eight of Australia's gold medals have come from swimming relay events, and the study's author said the findings would go a long way to increase that count when the Tokyo Olympics get under way. "Data has definitely become a big part of high-performance sport. This data can be used to help inform what can be improved to help performance," he said.
The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.
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