The brain behind the Dutch medals  

The Dutch Olympic team returned from South Korea on Monday night with no fewer than twenty medals. This was due in part to RUG statistician Gerard Sierksma, who designed the skating selection procedure using mathematics.
By Koen Marée / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

So you’re the genius brain behind the large amount of Dutch medals.

‘That’s a bit of an exaggeration. I like to think that we contributed in a small way.’

Nevertheless, it’s a known fact that since your selection matrix was introduced during the 2014 Sochi Games the number of medals has considerably gone up. In Russia we got 24, and this year we won twenty. How did this project come to be?

‘Up until eight years ago, the selection process the skating association used often led to disagreements or even legal action. That’s because commercial teams wanted to see their skaters in the competition, but actual competitive skaters were also qualifying. I realised that mathematics could help us calculate which races would give us the best chance of winning.’

That’s when you contacted the Dutch Royal Skating Association?

‘Indeed I did. Arie Koops, their technical director, loved the idea. It didn’t take him long to convince the rest of the association. The matrix is based on past performances of the Dutch team. We also incorporate the data from different ice rinks with different air pressure. The results closest to the Olympic qualification tournament are counted the most. We then make a selection sequence with the race we stand the biggest chance of winning at the top.’

What do you think is mainly responsible for the amount of medals: the statistics, or this fantastic generation of skaters?

‘This is just a selection method, I have nothing to do with the performance level of the skaters themselves. But this selection method does ensure that we send the best people who stand the best chance of winning. And that is particularly difficult in the Netherlands, because we have so many good people that qualify.’

Do you think the selection process could be improved upon?

‘That is a good question, and something we take very seriously. I know there are people working on perfecting the method, and we’re always open to suggestions.’

Have other countries started applying the method yet?

‘We’ve never been approached by anyone, although I sort of heard something about China using the same selection method. For the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro we helped put together the tennis and badminton teams and we’re currently working on the track cycling and judo teams.’

Do you consider the Dutch team’s performance to be a reflection of your personal success?

‘I think ascribing that to us is taking it a little far. We mainly made sure the process went smoothly. I truly love sports, and it’s amazing to see what great athletes such as Sven Kramer (gold in the 5k race, bronze in the team pursuit) and Ireen Wüst (gold in the 1,500 metre race, silver in the 3k and team pursuit races) have done.’



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