The Olympics Deconstructed


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.


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.


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:

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.