The Olympics Deconstructed

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It’s the last day of the Olympics and as usual I have opinions.

Save Baseball
I just finished watching the sweaty-palmed 9th inning of the baseball game between Korea and Cuba for the gold. Korea was leading 3-2, but the Cubans had the bases loaded with only one out. The Korean catcher had just gotten thrown out of the game for arguing a pitch. And the starting pitcher was sent to the dugout after pitching a superb game.

Then the Cuban batter hit a grounder into a double play. Korea won, and that was another huge upset in an Olympics full of them. The Cubans had won gold four out of the five times that baseball has been an Olympic sport. That was a fun exciting game.

Sadly, that was the last Olympic baseball game since the sport was voted out of the next Olympics. There were a variety of reasons that the Olympic committee decided to boot baseball and softball out of the games. All of them are ridiculous.

One of the reasons cited was that the stadiums were costly to build and then never used again by the host countries. But it’s easy to turn it into another kind of playing field. And what about all the kayak slalom courses, the BMX bicycle piles of dirt, the equestrian fields? I doubt these facilities are used much too.

Baseball is one of the few sports played avidly in and dominated by Latin American countries. It’s played in sandlots by poor kids. It’s a democratic game, with many participants, drawing from many kinds of athletic skills. Baseball should be allowed to stay. But it won’t because the Europeans have never been able to dominate it.

Ditch the Boats and Horses

I began to think about the games that are less democratic, more difficult to participate in.
I think there should be limits on how expensive the equipment used in the sport is, and how difficult it is to acquire the equipment.

Take for instance equestrian events. First of all, it’s the horse that’s doing all the work. We might as well put in car racing into the Olympics. Second, who can afford to participate in this sport? A horse costs more than a luxury car. And did I mention it’s the horse that’s actually doing the jumping and running? If we’re going to do horses, why don’t we just do horse racing, cock fighting, and competitive bird calling?

Another expensive sport is sailing. Sailing? Really? How many countries can afford to send athletes, horses AND sailboats to the games? Perusing the participating countries, they are concentrated in Western Europe, North America and Australia. And how many people even in these countries can afford to ride horses or sail boats? I don’t know any one of my friends who can, and none of us are poor.

Equestrian and sailing. Get these sports out of the Olympics. Only the richest members of the richest countries can even think about joining in.

Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

There’s a second tier of sports requiring specialized, expensive equipment as well. I’m okay with rowing, cycling, and even kayaking. But I’m not okay with having 14, 18, and 16 events in each of these. I figure if you have a short, medium and long distance race, with variations of individual and team, men and women, then that adds up to 12. Anything more is excessive.

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The Rich and the Repressive
Track and field has the most events at 47. But I’m okay with these. They require almost no equipment (although I don’t know where I would get a javelin, a vaulting pole, or the thing they throw in the hammer), and they are quite varied.

At 34, I don’t quite get why there are so many events in swimming. What I do know is that a few years back Australia built hundreds of Olympic size swimming pools all around the country and now they’re a swimming powerhouse. Almost half of their 44 medals are in swimming.

So government commitment and good facilities is pretty important. And it’s only a country of about 23 million people. North Korea has the same number of people, but there’s no way they can even afford to build one swimming pool. Their swimming medal count is 0.

Basically, Australia decided there were a lot of medals to be had in swimming and went for it. That’s good strategy. China is also focusing on individual sports where there are many medals to be had and now they’ve won the most gold. But why do these countries need to be at the top of the medal count? Does it make their society better? Do other countries cooperate with them more if they sweep the fencing medals?

Rich countries definitely have an advantage in the Olympics. A rack of those new Speedo swimsuits costs more than the GDP of Haiti. The rich countries are also able to import the best athletes from poor countries. So it’s great to see a country like Jamaica do well. The Jamaicans send their athletes to train in the US but bring them back to compete for Jamaica. That’s a good strategy for poorer countries.

Nations with authoritative governments with highly organized sports infrastructures and the ability to abduct children at a young age to inhumanely train them into good comrade athletes do pretty well too. The former Eastern bloc countries are still reaping the rewards. Cuba is a milder example of this. China is perfecting this.

The rich and the repressive. They win all the medals. And they rank numbers 1 and 2 in the medal count.

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The Alternative Medal Count
I’ve often wondered what the true medal count would be based on the medals won in proportion to a country’s population, or how rich they are. That’s why I’m so excited about Bill Mitchell’s alternative medal count. Mitchell, an Australian economics professor has made such calculations. You have to check out his website: http://www.billmitchell.org/sport/medal_tally_2008.html

Based on how rich a country is, using its GDP, North Korea ranks number one, getting the most medals for the size of its terribly small economy. Zimbabwe and Jamaica follow. Most developed countries rank low.

If you compare the GDP per capita to the number of medals won, then North Korea still leads, but China is number two, and Ethiopia is next.

If you base the medal count on a nations overall population, then Jamaica heads the list, with Slovenia and Australia ranking behind.

Mitchell also makes rankings based on the team size and by gender. It’s a fabulous project and worth checking out how he made his calculations.

The Ridiculed Sports
There seem to be a handful of sports that are casually ridiculed in the American press. I decided to take a closer look at these sports and see for myself.

One of the most ridiculed is synchronized swimming. After watching the competition, I decided that it’s not ridiculous at all. It involves a lot of power, stamina and control, and yeah, synchronization. It also requires a good choreographer. The same with rhythmic gymnastics. That was just breathtaking and entertaining. It’s like competitive Cirque du Soleil.

And enough about making fun of table tennis and badminton. These are sports dealing with pure reflex, super speed and quickness. Best of all, these are sports that are easy to participate in, requiring only relatively cheap equipment.

The more democratic the Olympics is the more it will balance out the dominance of the few countries that pay its way or repress its citizens into nationalistic glory. More importantly, it would encourage more people to participate in sports, rather than be alienated by the odd spectacle of sailboats and horses winning medals for their masters.

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9 thoughts on “The Olympics Deconstructed”

  1. … talking about medals, Iceland has one three, ever. In per capita terms this means that Iceland has a quarter more medals than USA.

    .. and on the general topic , Iceland is the first small island nation to compete in the finals in a group sport in the olympics, ever. Handball it is. It will add the fourth medal to the count tonight, it might be the first gold ever, or just a silver.

  2. helgabara,

    i think that if there was an event for participating in international organizations dealing with making the world better, then iceland would be pretty high on the medal count.

    you probably would have won a few yourself.

  3. I feel you on the table tennis, babydoll. That game is way cool and truly does involve fine motor skills, but BADMINTON???? BADMINTON??? Really? You know who the last person is I saw play Badminton? Thurston Howell III. He used to play it holding a martini. How do you get martinis when you’re stranded on an island? But I digress….

    Love your views on equestrian and sailing. NOTHING says pampered caucasians like these two…Except maybe golf…despite Mr. Woods.

  4. i hope golf never makes it in. it’s certainly a sport, just not an olympic one. keep cricket and lawn bowling out too.

    the more i think of it, other sports that need to leave are bmx (how did this get in?), fewer cycling events in general, fewer shooting events, and trampoline (really?).

    if badminton left i wouldn’t shed any tears. but that’s definitely a democratic sport. everyone plays it. and i don’t get why beach volleyball is getting so much flack. it’s only 2 events, and there should be a variety of surfaces represented in the olympics. in this case, sand.

    other than to bring baseball and softball back, the only other sports i’d okay are rugby, roller blading (we have speed skating in the winter), and parkour, which is kind of like an urban obstacle course.

  5. I don’t know about taking out Sailing…and I don’t really think it’s particular to the rich only…I think it has to do more with where you live, if you can practice the sport or not. Argentina is not a rich country, yet they do fairly well at that sport…

  6. Hernán,

    i decided to check out how much the boats that are used in the olympics cost, and i found that they’re not, relatively speaking, that expensive. most of the smaller class boats range from $300 to $600. and they seemed to top out at about $2,000. much cheaper than those new speedo swimsuits.

    so my apologies to the sailing community. maybe it’s not so expensive. however, these boats were mostly sold in the UK and the US. so buying them still requires living in a rich country.

    still, i think there should be fewer classes of boats to compete for in the olympics. and i’m still not convinced of it as a sport. there’s too much dependence on the weather conditions, and the boat itself.

  7. I don’t entirely agree with your assessment about baseball/softball. First off, I’d like to see the olympics dump most of the team sports. To me, the true olympic sports are the individual competitions that don’t require complicated judging (no gymnastics, no figure skating, no diving, etc.). They should be tests of strength and skill that can be objectively judged. But, we get crap like ’round the clock beach volleyball because it sells advertising.

    The quintessential olympic event is the marathon. And this year’s men’s marathon was fantastic. Incredible times given the temperature. Too bad the NBC folks thought it was okay to skip the first hour because it didn’t fit neatly into their prime time.

  8. felix,

    i’m all for making it simpler and more measurable. but there are even too many of those ‘objective’ events, like swimming. but i like some of those team sports. it’s just one set of medals. and team sports are fun!

    i also think the constestants should be naked like in the original olympics. but that’s just me.

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