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.