Winter Olympics Blues

Let it be known that I love the Olympics. I love the competition, the variety, and the effort. But it’s a complicated relationship.

Way back in 2002, before I had a real blog, I wrote about the Winter Olympics on my old web page :

Also, the events are so specialized and esoteric that I have absolutely no confidence that the athletes at the Games are really the best in the world, in terms of potential. Of course, this is true for any sport, but at least for the Summer Olympics, many more people have tried the events. Every kid growing up in this country (for example) knows approximately how good a runner he is, but no one I know — not a single person — even knows anyone who’s ever tried bobsledding. Heck, one of my co-workers could have world-champion skeleton potential, for all I know. These Games just seem to have a much greater emphasis on privilege and association than the Summer Games or (especially) the World Cup.

That said (and I really had to get it off my back :), drama and courage were on display to an enormous degree at Salt Lake. It takes guts to put years of your life at stake for a minute-long race. Just being able to compete under such pressure (never mind attaining the skill to do a given event) is an accomplishment. I mean, I got butterflies when I lined up in high school cross country races. I can’t imagine what Michelle Kwan felt when she stepped on the ice for the long program.

Unsurprisingly, I still feel this way about the Winter Olympics: they’re more about privilege than they are about talent. (I have similar concerns about some events in the Summer Olympics, but less often.) A recent controversy about ski jumping reinforced this belief for me. The IOC decided not to have a Women’s Ski Jump event in the 2010 Olympics.

The IOC voted in 2006 not to allow women’s ski jumping into the 2010 Games, saying the sport has not developed enough and that it didn’t meet basic criteria for inclusion.

Really? So what qualifies as “not developed enough”? From the article:

As many as 1,000 women compete in ski jumping in 17 countries around the world, and about 100 are licensed to compete internationally.

Whoa. That’s all? Is that a joke? Another article corroborates:

Rogge said there are 164 registered women jumpers in the world… about 15 “technically very able” jumpers but the rest are not up to world standards.

Okay, so there are hardly any women ski jumpers. A bit scary that it was being considered for an Olympic event. Well, at least there must be swarms of men, since that event qualifies, right? Not exactly: the same article states that there are 2,500 men ski jumpers. That’s it! Now, there might be 2,500 registered men, and maybe 10x that amount unregistered. But that’s still an insanely small number.

More interestingly, the women are arguing that it’s not fair that many other medal sports have even smaller participation.

Supporters of women’s ski jumpers argue there are 135 women ski jumpers in 16 countries. This compares to other sports already in the Olympics like snowboard cross, which has 34 women from 10 countries; skier cross, which has 30 women from 11 nations; and bobsled, which has 26 women from 13 nations.

You might want to read that again, to convince yourself that your eyes aren’t tricking you. Sure, give these sports 10x for unregistered people, or even 100x — I’m pretty sure there were more high school cross country runners in my small home state of Connecticut. I don’t think any of them are competing for medals.

To be clear, I have nothing against Women’s Ski Jump in particular, especially with respect to Men’s Ski Jump. (In fact, one article states that the best American female ski jumper, Lindsey Van, recently set a course record, besting all males.) I just think all of these sports are pretty bogus, at least from a competitive perspective. There’s no doubt that the athletes involved put in an incredible amount of time and dedication. I’m just not nearly convinced that they’re the best talent in the world at what they do.

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8 Responses to Winter Olympics Blues

  1. gdogg says:

    any events you think that should be included in winter olympics where talent at event is close to talent in world?

    • Cross-country skiing. You can’t reasonably argue that those guys aren’t among the best endurance athletes in the world in any sport. The physiological effects that you see in other endurance sports that are practiced by millions (like running and cycling) are even more pronounced in the best cross-country skiiers. Resting heart rates of 25 are not unheard of.

      The fact that doping scandals were so widespread in the sport in the 90s is pretty compelling evidence as well. If the people competing aren’t really the best of the best, then you can win just by hard work, so there’s little incentive to cheat.

    • aj says:

      Other sports

      Sure, how about squash and racquetball? Neither are currently Olympic sports, though both are being tentatively considered for the Summer Olympics. I think they’d fit just as well or better in the Winter Olympics.

      I wouldn’t say for either that talent is “close to talent in world”… but it’s definitely a lot closer, at least.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “You can’t touch your toes? May I remind you that you are an Olympic athlete?”

    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/258310/january-04-2010/skate-expectations—curling-team-tryouts

  3. aj says:

    Sports guy

    Bill Simmons just reposted an old column of his in which he makes the following genius suggestion:

    THUMBS DOWN … for all these insta-events that America created so we could win more medals. Don’t you get the feeling that they brought back “Skeleton” just to pad the medal total? And what about those X Games mogul events when skiiers do the flips and stuff? Come on … did we really need to win more medals that badly? Why didn’t we just make “Football” an Olympic event? Why not go the whole nine yards and create Olympic events called “Speaking Fluent English,” “Sitcom Trivia” and “The Rock-And-Jock Hockey Game”?

    Here’s my theory: If you’re having all these events, at least make the medals in different sizes. For instance, marquee events like skating and skiing should have the biggest medals — roughly the size of a salad plate — but then the medals should shrink in size according to the irrelevance and improbability of the event. By the time you get to events like “Skeleton,” they should be the size of a half-dollar or something.