O Canada, We Hold Our Pee for Thee

A few days after the Canadian men’s hockey team won the gold medal at the Vancouver Olympic games, the city of Edmonton’s water utility published an incredible graph of water consumption. Since up to 80% of Canadians were watching the game, it stands to reason they would wait for a break in the action to use the bathroom.

Also, it being a gold medal game, there were no commercial. So how did that look? It looked like this:

Then the Globe and Mail took notice, and found out that “Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator reported a 300 megawatt increase in power use just before the game started as people fired up their TVs.”

That caused the City of Toronto to take a look at its own water usage during the game:

(The Torontoist blog has a post with a full-size graphic.)

They look about the same, don’t they? Seems like Canada is full of people with patriotic bladders. Which goes to show what a relief Sidney Crosby’s goal was, in more ways than one.

The Power of the Pants

In a post-Olympic praise-and-blame column for Yahoo sports, Dan Wetzel mostly got it right, calling curling a winner:

What other sport could offer this sentence: The Danish women’s skip, who is a part-time topless model, broke into tears because the Canadian crowd was too rowdy.

This isn’t your father’s curling anymore. The sport received wall-to-wall television coverage in Canada, the United States and China, the latter a rising power. Long mocked as shuffleboard on ice, curling suddenly was cool. It’s the unlikely breakout sport of the Olympics.

He also gave rightful props to Petra Majdic, the Slovenian cross-country skier who crashed during a training run, falling off an embankment and into a small creek. Despite being injured, she went on to compete and win a bronze medal–despite having four broken limbs, and a collapsed lung.

However, Wetzel said fashion was a loser:

The Norwegian men curled in checkered pants. The American snowboarders had baggy jeans — where is General Larry Platt when you need him? In men’s figure skating there was a skeleton costume, a sailor and a farmer. Johnny Weir ported “male cleavage.” The hot items on the street were silly red mittens with a white maple leaf on the palm. Somehow they tricked Wayne Gretzky into wearing them.

True enough I suppose, but Wetzel overlooks the fact that the Norwegians and their pants won silver medals in men’s curling. Of course, FPI was onto this story from the get-go, noting the intangible advantage such pantwear gave them, not to mention the Facebook fan page.

The trousers that swept all the way to the finals

True, they lost in the finals, but they lost to Kevin Martin’s Canadian team, the favorites (Martin: four-time Brier champion,  three Olympic games, former World Champion and has won eleven Grand Slam titles on the World Curling Tour).

Then other news comes out of Canada, that the silk necktie worn by coach Mike Babcock when the Canadian men’s hockey team defeated the U.S. in overtime is now sold out.

Mike Babcock, sporting his 'lucky' McGill tie. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Despite playing on home ice, the Canadians squeaked by Slovakia and the U.S. to win … clearly, his sartorial lucky charm was effective. (And yes, Virginia, it too has its own Facebook fan page. But with only 1,500 fans.)

So, I dunno. Maybe Wetzel’s right that Johnny Weir shouldn’t have sported pink fringe or cleavage…. but in my mind, there’s no denying the power of the McGill tie–or the Norwegian pants.

The Winter Olympics: A Border Skirmish

So Salon.com ran this column about the Winter Olympics by some random columnist/douche/shit-disturber the other day. A typical bit:

We go to Men’s 500 Meter Speed Skating, only we don’t, because the ice is all slushy. Why? Because the Zamboni machines used to groom the ice are either broken, or ineffectual. There is an hour delay, and Costas, now speaking from beneath a pompadour that appears varnished in shoe polish, declares the situation “strange, and not acceptable.”

Note to Canada: that was you getting fired.

Because, I mean, look at it: what’s the one thing you should know how to do at this point, in terms of athletic preparedness? We’re not asking you to produce a gripping television series, or a memorable historical figure. Just keep the ice smooth, Canada. That’s all you had to do. And you had, like, eight years to plan for this.

Here’s your box. Security will see you out.

Then, to its credit, Salon gave roughly equal real estate to the letters from Canadians that came in response.

“You suggest — without irony, as an American, in 2010 — that we, a nation with a population one tenth the size of yours, should have spent another $360 million on an opening ceremony because, I guess, it wasn’t good enough for you. Call us crazy (or boring), I know, but here we save up for our retirement, not our heart attacks.

We put the proudest, butchiest lesbian ever on an international stage to sing the living shit out of a song widely considered to be among the best ever written. Ever. We’re understandably proud of that. (Also, that lesbian? Totally allowed to get married here in our hopelessly-decade-behind-the-times little backwater. When, oh, when will we ever catch up to rest of the world?)

We put on an original experience designed to showcase our talents, history and contributions. It wasn’t a homogenized, sanitized Hollywood production, and I’m glad because that’s not who we are. You didn’t have to love it but it’s really amazing that you couldn’t even try to appreciate it and throw out a few kind words to your neighbour. Criticism is one thing. This was just flat-out arrogant, ignorant bitchiness.”

– Sweet Jane


So Ugly They’re Beautiful

I was having a discussion about curling with someone on Twitter a while back. She was saying she didn’t get it, was playing devil’s advocate, etc. Needless to say, I defended the game, despite mentioning that is is possible, if you wanted to, to wear a cardigan and smoke while playing.

I even found a vintage curling photo to bolster my case:

But no sooner had I leapt to the defense of rock on ice, than I run across a photo of the Norwegian curling team, and their pants (warning: graphic images):

Bill Graveland/Canadian Press

There must be something in the ice this week, because the best links floating my way on Twitter today were all about teh ugglez. Consider, if you will, this inspired photo essay from England’s Telegraph: “Psychedelic patterned carpets in Las Vegas casinos designed to keep gamblers awake.” A sample:

But then — but then! — a sport comes along that has worse clothes, and comes close to Las Vegas carpets in its sartorial ickitude. What sport? Why, figure skating. Who says? Why, Time Magazine, who trotted out “The Top 10 Worst Figure Skating Costumes

For example:

In light of these, I’m thinking the Norwegians don’t look all that bad.

Geor/Gia on My Mind

Yesterday in the Freakonomics blog, Ian Ayres argued that “Citizenship Flexibility at the Olympics Is a Good Thing,” because that’s the only way that all of the best athletes would compete at the Olympics. And there’s a certain logic behind the notion:

Ayres writes, “The country quota system keeps many of the best athletes home. If I were the fifth-best back-stroker in the world, I’d be upset that I couldn’t compete because of when I was born.” Now, before you start drafting that mock-touching epic about the sad life of the world’s fifth-best back-stroker (Possible titles: “On My Back and Screwed”? “I Stroked and Got the Shaft”?) , consider that in in the US Olympic trials, it’s often harder to make the team than it is to make it to the Olympic finals.

Ayres considers, then dismisses, team sports as a counterargument. What he wants to argue is this:

The beginnings of a new trend are indirectly pushing us toward more meritocratic and less nation-centric Olympics. Citizenship is becoming more fluid for Olympic athletes and it’s improving the quality of competition at the games in both individual and team events.

I agree — sort of. Definitely, you get a higher-caliber event if all the best athletes are in it. But it I kept thinking that in another way, the fans are getting cheated. See, the fans are going to root for someone, which is an emotional response. And if there’s “a free market for Olympic citizenship,” as Ayres would have it, we’d have every event be like table tennis, where most of the field are either Chinese citizens or Chinese emigres.

In fact, doing away with the notion of nations would also do away with the absurd notion of a medal count, too. And you wouldn’t have outrageous events like the controversy in the men’s basketball final at the 1972 Olympics, when the officials awarded the Soviets a second chance to score a winning basket, or the case of light middleweight boxer Roy Jones Jr., who outlanded his South Korean opponent, Park Si-Hun 86-32 in the finals at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, and still “lost” the fight in a split decision. (Korean officials wined and dined the three officials who awarded the bout to Park.)

But doing away with country identities would also do away with all those incredibly poignant stories about an athlete’s success at a country bringing joy to it. And it would do away with a huge motivation for the athletes and the fans.

Consider something like the PGA Tour, where international golfers (Ernie Els from South Africa, Vijay Singh from Fiji, Mike Weir from Canada, Padraig Harrington from Ireland) tee it up with a bunch of Americans. Rooting for the individuals is OK, and the level of competition is high.

Now consider the difference professional golfers feel between competing in the Ryder Cup and competing in the the Buick Open, or in the difference in fan enthusiasm.

But then then this morning I was watching the bronze-medal match in men’s beach volleyball, when the perfect counter-argument to Ayres appeared on my telly. One team was from Brazil. The other was also from Brazil, only they were competing for Georgia. Georgia offered them citizenship in 2006, with one stipulation: that they adopt noms de jeu.

What are the two names? Why, Geor and Gia, of course. Now put them together: Geor/Gia. Get it? Geor-Gia … “Georgia.”

No, I’m not making this up. I couldn’t; it’s too bizarre. If you don’t believe me, look at the photo at the top of the blog post. That’s Geor, puttin’ up a block, with his XFL-style stage name on his jersey.

So we’re left with a quandary: Either we have the absurdity of countries fielding crappy national teams in some events (the Onion story, “Netherlands Taught How To Play Softball Seconds Before Being Shoved Onto Field Against U.S. Team,” lands this one for a perfect 10), or we have ridiculous “national teams” like Geor/Gia.

Come to think of it, either way you can’t lose. God, I love the Olympics.

Measuring the Olympics

Since the Olympics started, I’ve been interested in all the meta-scoring: that is, the “alternative” looks at the results. For example, Braniac has a story today called “The Pyramid Theory of Sports,” which offers a new slant on whether Michael Phelps is the greatest athlete of all time. The blogger, Christopher Shea, argues for a pyramid theory:

The pyramid in question is demographic. The base represents the number of people who have ever tried the sport, usually as children, while at the peak, naturally, stand the top achievers. The broader the pyramid base, the greater the athletes at the top, all other things being equal. The vetting process is simply far more severe.

Thus, Phelps is overrated “because, as a result of geography, the scarcity of pools, and cultural preference, relatively few children worldwide get a taste of serious swimming, let alone competitive swimming.”

On the other hand, a basketball or soccer star is at the top of a very big heap. Another interesting application of this (which Shea didn’t delve into) would be using the relative size of “pyramids” to compare athletes across time. For example, how good was Jim Thorpe, relative to the pyramid size of people in those sports as the same time as him?

Slate magazine is interested in the sappiness of NBC’s Olympics coverage, which is why they’re running The Olympics Sap-o-Meter.

After slogging through Olympic broadcasts of yore, we drew up a list of 33 syrupy words that NBC has chronically overused: adversity, battled, cancer, challenges, courage, cry, death, dedication, determination, dream, emotion, glory, golden, hardship, heart, hero, inspiration, inspire, journey, magic, memory, miracle, mom, mother, Olympic-sized, overcome, passion, proud, sacrifice, spirit, tears, tragedy, triumph. While these 33 words are by no means an unabridged collection of schmaltzy nouns, adjectives, and verbs, they’re a good sampling of NBC’s bathos. Think of them as the Dow Jones of sap.

Good idea! Comes with a handy bar graph (see the sappiest day), the sappiest line of the day, and even a Sapo-Meter Tag Cloud. I especially like this, because NBC’s prime-time coverage is syrup-coated. But if you wander over to MSNBC or USA, you get event coverage.

Imagine, events where the US is not a medal contender! Or even — the horror! — not in the event at all! I know I lack patriotism for saying it, but I find unsyruped event coverage (you know? just of some interesting sport people are quite good at?) quite refreshing.

In a blog called Fourth Place Medal, Yahoo blogger Chris Chase takes issue with events that are judged. Having seen the bizarre way the gynmastics judges broke a tie to give a medal to the Chinese gynmast last night, I have to say it’s worth taking a look at. Chase re-tallies the Olympics medal count by tossing out some of the judged events, an attempt to “tally medals won in sports decided on the field of play, not by a judge in a teal blazer.”

An interesting idea, but it would have been better if s/he ran the before and after medal counts (only the after is on the blog). And I’m not just saying that because I’m envious of the 6394 comments on the post!

An LA Times Olympics blog is also recounting the hardware, arguing that the “true” Olympic gauge is medals per capita, which is just dividing the national population by the number of total medals. By that token, the MPC table comes out like this:

1. Australia (5 medals) – 4,120,171
2. Croatia (1 medal) – 4,491,543
3. Georgia (1 medal) – 4,630,841
4. Czech Republic (2 medals) – 5,110,456
5. The Netherlands (3 medals) – 5,548,438
6. Cuba (2 medals) – 5,711,976
7. North Korea (4 medals) – 5,869,772
8. South Korea (8 medals) – 6,154,106
9. Italy (8 medals) – 7,268,165
10. Azerbaijan (1 medal) – 8,177,717

That’s an interesting approach, but it ignores a huge factor in Olympic success: wealth. The New York Times ran a really interesting op-ed piece titled “Our Idea of Gold,” which made an argument I agree with:

But with the federal budget deep in the red, the economy in the doldrums, a broken military in need of repair, and enormous unmet domestic needs, we can think of a lot better places to invest federal resources than in building a sports machine. Let some rich benefactors augment the $130-million-a-year budget of the United States Olympic Committee. … If we are looking to invest in sports, we would be wiser to spend money on daily gym classes and after-school athletic programs.

After the Athens games in 2004, Conde Nast Portfolio picked up the wealth baton and did a little math with it. By dividing a country’s medal tally by its gross domestic product, they argue that “the numbers rearrange themselves dramatically.”

The graphic on their site has a cool mouse-over feature, showing that some countries with small GDPs do quite well (the new top five: Ethiopia, Georgia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Ukraine).

I’ve never liked the medal count. I think it diminishes the Olympics by skewing it towards winning and national supremacy. The Wall St. Journal ran an interesting piece yesterday, “The Glory of Just Showing Up,” which points out that “among the 222 countries that have sent athletes to the modern Games since 1896, only 130 have brought a medal home.” The rest are there just for the games. While the Journal is a bit dismissive of these other competitors (“What’s billed as a meet for the fittest in truth has a second division of schlumps”), they also mention the medals per capita and medals/GDP figures.

But it also dipped its toe into another interesting issue. When describing the issues in his country (the Maldives), Adam Mohamed noted that swimmers in his country have nowhere to train but the sea, and “there has been land allocated for a pool since 1988. It’s drawings, drawings, drawings.”

In other words, many countries just aren’t rich enough for their own facilities. So they export their athletes. That’s why, if you were watching the swimming coverage, you would have seen Kristy Coventry competing for Zimbabwe, despite swimming collegiately for Auburn, or Oussama Mellouli winning Tunisia’s first swimming gold medal, despite swimming for USC, or dozens of track athletes this week who had scholarships at US schools.

I haven’t seen a metric to account for that one, though.

The Problem with Indoor Volleyball

I’ve been somewhat quiet lately, because I’ve been gorging on the Olympics. But the coverage of indoor volleyball continues to bug me.

For some reason, TV coverage consistently shoots volleyball action this way:

True, the horizontal court is visible on your horizontal TV screen, but if you want to see the interesting stuff, you’re out of luck. From this shot all we can see who’s hitting, and how far the ball is away from the net.

Now check two views from different angles:

An end or angle view let’s you see where the hitter is relative to the block, what the block looks like, how high the hitter is hitting, and where the hitter is hitting (around the block? over it? through it?).

The most interesting part of indoor volleyball is what’s happening at the net, not the back court. But it’s shot at the worst possible angle to see it!

When you shoot video from either angle, the set moves laterally, the block moves laterally, and the defense re-forms behind the block. You get to see the block form, the hitter hitting around the block … it’s much, much better.

Maybe after the Olympics I’ll apply to be a director for NBC Sports. Anyone have a contact there?