The following is cross-posted from the Telegraph’s new Olympics data blog:
How many stories can a set of data hold? When it comes to Olympic torchbearer data, after three weeks I’m still counting. From company bosses exchanging ‘torch kisses’ and mapping Nottinghamshire torchbearers to chief executives ignoring official advice not to take Olympic torchbearer places, the dataset is a data journalist’s dream.
There are over 6,000 torchbearers listed on the London 2012 website, with 5,500 nomination stories. This makes it one of the best places to compare the claims of the organisers with the reality on the ground. So, with the help of the rather wonderful website Scraperwiki, I grabbed data from thousands of pages on Olympic torchbearers.
There was a pretty good chance that there would be something interesting buried among those thousands of nominations. Certainly, there would be good news stories there, many of which newspapers will have already spotted or, equally likely, been given. And there would be quirky ones: for example, it turned out that the oldest torchbearer was not the 99-year-old woman previously featured across the media, but a 101-year-old Sikh marathon runner.
But there would also be the stories that people were trying to hide. And indeed, these turned out to be the most interesting stories of all.
For example, from the early days of planning for the torch relay, organisers LOCOG had said that there would be 8,000 torchbearers all with “inspirational” stories. 90% of those 8,000 places would be open to the general public. The rest would be allocated by the IOC, British Olympics Authority, and ‘core partners’ – sponsors who had not paid to be able to publicly award nominations.
LOCOG advised these organisations to nominate individuals who fit the criteria of “youth, personal best and/or contribution to the community”. But I wanted to know the reality of how Olympic sponsors had used their own allocation of torchbearer spaces – and whether the recipients lived up to the billing.
In many cases, organisations did follow the guidelines. The torchbearers mentioning their nomination by British Airways mostly shared stories of volunteering, sporting achievement and fundraising. The same was largely true of BT and BMW.
Those nominated by adidas, however, were characterised by nomination stories focusing on their sales ability and “money in the till attitude”. And many organisations decided to ignore LOCOG’s guidance not to nominate senior executives: ArcelorMittal nomiated its chief executive and his son, the head of mergers and acquisitions. Samsung’s nominees included a raft of CEOs.
In Coca Cola’s case, the organisation nominated executives outside of the company: the head of a food and drinks corporation in Brazil; a Russian deputy editor. And then there was the curious nomination – we don’t yet know who by – of the former British ambassador to Korea and the Korean ambassador to the UK – a diplomatic Olympic torch relay exchange program, of sorts.
The data alone wasn’t always enough to tell these stories: in many cases, the work moved into identifying individuals and verifying their identity. We received anonymous tip-offs through the Help Me Investigate Olympics site which led to further stories. In one case, a photographer who was curious about one torchbearer found himself on the site and sent in his images. This sent me off to find photographs of other corporate torchbearers – and this wonderful image of two executives exchanging a ‘torch kiss’ on a part of the route where a local boy had recently been told his torchbearer place was being withdrawn. The local newspaper and BBC radio station had failed to pick up on who they were.
As I found more stories in the data I started to get a feel for the clues that often led to stories: silence speaks volumes, for example; it was unusual for people to nominate themselves; while age and location were useful indicators. I looked for data that had disappeared since I first looked – and indeed, one company’s executives had been removed since their stories had been published in the media. A local torchbearer would now have no idea who they were passing the torch on to.
Still, beyond the individual stories two key questions remain unanswered: when the torch relay was announced the public was promised 8,000 “inspirational stories”, but only three quarters of torchbearers have been named on the official site, and hundreds of those are missing stories. Some torchbearers have dropped out, and there are celebrity torchbearers who cannot be named in advance for obvious reasons, but that alone cannot account for over 2,000 missing stories.
Most importantly, the promise that 90% of places would be made available to the public appears to have shifted. Now officials say that 84% of places have been allocated through the public nomination campaigns organised by LOCOG, Samsung, Coca Cola and Lloyds TSB. A spokesperson for LOCOG assures me that they are “wholly confident” that the other 6% went to the “general public” through sponsors and other bodies, although they cannot provide any evidence of how they can be so confident.
There certainly isn’t any data to suggest that, and until we see all the nomination stories, you can excuse journalists and the public of being sceptical…