Like Bobsleigh Better Than Basketball? Fantasy Olympian Is Right For You

Carrie Reid fell in love with the Olympics in 1992, watching from her childhood home in Kansas City, Missouri as Kristi Yamaguchi skated her way to a gold medal. At nine years old, Reid had already discovered she lacked any skill on the ice; six months of gymnastics lessons hadn’t unearthed any hidden talent; neither swimming nor basketball had really stuck. But when the 2012 London Olympics came around 20 years later, Reid was a champion, racing past 250 fellow competitors to secure the gold. In 2014, Reid was victorious once more, beating 1,500 people to the top of the podium. She missed first place in 2016 by a mere nine points—a crushing defeat—but as the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics approach, the prosecuting attorney is gathering intel on the athletes she hopes to draft to reclaim her championship, for a team tentatively dubbed “Snow Diggity, Snow Doubt.”

She’s one of thousands. For over a decade, a small but growing community of diehard Olympics fans has gathered virtually every two years to squabble over athletes, draft patchwork teams of Olympians from across the globe, and chart their picks’ medal counts as the games progress. Dubbed “Fantasy Olympian”—they’re trying to steer clear of the International Olympic Committee’s notoriously hawkish licensing machine—the homebrewed operation is peak fandom. While fantasy football and baseball have ballooned in popularity, with tens of millions of players trading $26 billion a year on fantasy sports sites like FanDuel and DraftKings, those powerhouses have largely ignored the Olympics (aside from DraftKings’ brief experiment offering fantasy basketball and golf during the Rio games). Understandably so: It’d be incredibly complicated to legally adapt the games to the knotty world of daily fantasy sports, and for an event with thousands of athletes that only crops up every two years, it’s too heavy a lift to be much of a priority. That’s left room for passion projects like Fantasy Olympian to actually gain a foothold, creating a community reminiscent of the earliest days of fantasy sports, when groups of friends would gather over grub to bet on baseball.

Dreaming Up a Different Fantasy League

Fantasy Olympian started as exactly that. In January 2006, Bryan Clark attended a gymnastics meet at the University of Missouri, from which he’d recently graduated, and began to wonder: With all the growing hype over fantasy football and baseball, why wasn’t there fantasy gymnastics? Come to think of it, why hadn’t anyone created a fantasy league for the games? Like so many twentysomethings in the early 2000s, Clark had a blog, and he began envisioning a fantasy Olympics draft hosted on Blogspot. By the end of the night, he’d called his high school buddy Jeremy Bridgman, and along with two other childhood friends, they began building what would become Fantasy Olympian.

That year’s games had just the four participants; it was mostly a way for the friends to stay in touch as they were thrust into the post-college world and began pursuing careers and graduate programs across the country. They had all attended Lakota East High School in West Chester, Ohio, and as Clark puts it, they’d “done wacky things before” (they once entered a broadcast journalism competition with no prior experience, for example). A fantasy Olympics draft was small-ball compared to some of their previous schemes. But they each talked it up to their family, friends, and coworkers, and by the time the 2008 Beijing Olympics rolled around, they had 80 people clamoring to participate.

That complicated things. Clark and Bridgman wound up spending hours each day during the games checking athletes’ medal counts on NBC’s site and manually updating the scores for each of the 80 players. As the fantasy games grew in 2010 and 2012, the situation became untenable. Clark and Bridgman had intended Fantasy Olympian to be a fun side project—but it was turning into a serious time suck on top of their day jobs in law and public relations.

Then in 2013, they were contacted by Steve Hammond and Nat Budin, two software engineers who had been participating in the fantasy games for years. They loved being a part of it, but couldn’t stand the clunky interface, and they thought they might be able to improve things during the annual Rails Rumble hackathon. “[The site] was lacking literally everything,” Hammond says. “They had a blog which listed the rules, but there was no registration, no online draft, nothing. We built everything up from scratch.”

Fitter, Happier, More Productive

It worked. Fantasy Olympian kicked off its 2014 cycle liberated from Blogspot, with a new site and 1,500 participants to match. The revamped website featured a drafting interface and a basic administrative tool that would allow Clark and Bridgman to do a single, daily update of medal counts, rather than grading hundreds upon hundreds of Excel sheets. They got nearly 2,000 players during the Rio Olympics, and are expecting as many as 3,000 this year. Players form leagues of up to 10 teams (choice names include “Lochte and Loaded,” “Sore Lugers,” and “Zika Is Just Olympic Fever”) and compete within their leagues; at the end of an Olympic cycle, Clark and Bridgman award site-wide medals to top three players.

Despite ditching Blogspot and receiving a second design overhaul last fall, Fantasy Olympian is still a far cry from its counterparts in fantasy football or baseball. Clark and Bridgman still update medal counts themselves, so there’s sometimes a several-hour lag between when an athlete wins silver and when that’s reflected in players’ scores. The fantasy games’ founders also don’t have the bandwidth to add profiles for the thousands of athletes that compete in the Olympics, so for the Winter Games, they select several hundred of the most promising athletes (and will add in any request from players), and for the Summer Games, they allow only Americans to be drafted. Hammond has looked into getting access to an API that would automate some of those more tedious elements, but the options available (Sportradar and Press Association, among others) have so far been way out of budget, considering that the team is already losing several hundred dollars a year on domain and server costs. So for now—and for the foreseeable future—the games remain fairly low-tech.

Fantasy Olympian

That ragtag nature is also due to the fact that the games are totally unmonetized. There’s no cost to play, and though Bridgman suspects some players make informal bets among their leagues, there’s no financial element built in, unlike on sites like FanDuel and DraftKings. “It’s really about getting into that obscurity of the games and celebrating the athletes,” says Bridgman. “If you’ve got a fantasy team, you’re going to wake up and watch that biathlon event. You may have no interest in ice dancing, but if you draft an ice dancer suddenly you're going to get really into it.”

Pro Tips

Ask anyone who’s a part of the ever-growing Fantasy Olympian fanbase, and you’ll find a wealth of tips and tricks. There are the obvious picks—the Michael Phelpses and Ryan Lochtes, guaranteed to bring in plenty of medals—but there are also the less obvious strategies that can catapult a fantasy Olympian to gold. Gymnasts, who compete both individually and as a team, can bring in more medals than athletes who compete solely on an individual level. Shooting sports, like skeet shooting and biathlon, also tend to fly under the radar. “I don’t think a lot of people even know that those sports exist,” says Carrie Reid, who’s noticed that the American team is usually made up of marines and army rangers. “These are the best soldiers in the world who are sort of just taking three months off their life to go be an Olympian. If you’re looking for a safe bet, American shooters are really good to have on your team.”

As the 2018 games approach, the Fantasy Olympians are deep in prep mode. Clark and Bridgman have spent the past several weeks obsessively tracking Olympic trials and teams as they’re announced; they’ve also released a podcast previewing the most promising athletes. They’re also busy planning their opening ceremony watch parties and plotting out which events they’ll catch when—complicated by this year’s massive time difference between the US and PyeongChang.

Even the most elaborate watch party can’t compare to witnessing the games in person, but Clark and Bridgman do their best to bring a bit of that live spirit to their fantasy rendition. After all, experiencing the games live was a formative experience in their own Olympic journey: In 2010, they flew to Vancouver for the Winter Games, and found themselves watching as the American skiier Hannah Kearney beat out Jennifer Heil, the Canadian who had been favored to win the women’s mogul event. Clark had drafted Heil, while Bridgman’s in-law had drafted Kearney, but in the moment that the American skiier won, the entire group was united in awe. “To be there and see that was absolutely phenomenal,” says Bridgman. “After having that experience, there was no way we were ever going to give up doing this. If we can bring even a small amount of that to someone that could experience a sport in a new way, I think we’ve done our job.”

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