Stray Thoughts: Olympic Edition

• Why are there so many medals awarded in weightlifting? A competitor’s weight is a major factor in many sports, but you don’t see a heavyweight division for springboard diving or a lightweight basketball tournament. Whoever can lift the heaviest weight should win, period.

• Al Trautwig and Tim Daggett are two of the worst sports broadcasters in history. Doc Emrick and Ato Bolden rank among the best.

• Individual sports are more entertaining than team sports in the Olympics, probably because I’m so used to high-stakes team sports that they just don’t seem special enough, whereas I only watch swimming and track every four years.

• It’s remarkable how many nations remain almost completely racially homogeneous.

• Rhythmic gymnasts and synchronized swimmers are athletes but rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming are not sports. When “artistic impression” is part of your official scoring system then any claim to the title of “sport” is forfeit. These activities belong on So You Think You Can Dance, not the Olympics.

• Instead of noting that the 100-meter sprinters were running into a headwind, why not just have them run in the other direction? It’s a straightaway, so what’s the difference? Would it really be that difficult to have two sets of starting blocks on hand, one at each end of the track?

• What’s best about the Olympics is not the competition or the athletic achievements or the heartwarming back stories; it’s the fact that when the starter’s pistol goes off everyone, everywhere sees the same race (albeit some of us on a 5-hour delay). The world needs more non-violent shared experiences.

Got any stray thoughts you’d like to add?

20 thoughts on “Stray Thoughts: Olympic Edition

  1. I’m OK with weight classes in weightlifting. As any celebrator of Festivus knows, the strength to weight ratio is important and admirable.

    Completely with you on rhythmic gymnastics and synchro swimming. I’m not even on board with synchro diving: yes it requires athleticism, but I’m not sure it’s a sport.

    For some of the track & field events, if the tailwind exceeds a certain threshold, the results cannot be used to determine world/Olympic records, so that may be one reason not to switch directions.

    For team sports, I enjoyed watching the volleyball (indoor and beach), water polo, and handball events. I’d probably not want to see them frequently, but I think seeing them every 4 years in the Olympics rates as a special experience.

    • The wind threshold issue could be minimized, if not eliminated, if all races were run with a tailwind rather than a headwind in the future. Times get faster over the years anyway, so while it would put past runners at a historical disadvantage it probably wouldn’t have much effect on determining the rightful owners of the records.

  2. Other stray thoughts…

    1) I could really do without the equestrian events

    2) What in hell is up with those weird indoor cycling events where they start off super-duper slow, and then sprint like hell?

    3) Bring back women’s softball. But please, please don’t bring back baseball

    4) Golf in 2016? Really?

  3. I totally agree with the “artistic impression” stuff. I recall being disgusted when Midori Ito skated a wonderfully athletic routine (many years ago) and Katarina Witt won by being artsy, dancy, and unathletic. Yawn.

    I understand that some sports need judging, but let’s judge on the basis of strength, speed, and agility. In fact the best sports need no judging. Throw something farther, cross a line sooner, score more goals, or beat someone up. No room or need for artistic interpretation.

  4. In addition to the sports you mentioned, I’m skeptical about gymnastics and diving (not just rhythmic and synchronized) being sports, following from what Jon said about judging. Judging in sports should be used to enforce rules, not to decide scores or results.

    Also, I think the horses should get medals in equestrian events.

    • The difference is that the judges in diving and the poorly-named artistic gymnastics are functioning as measuring equipment. There are clear, well-defined standards for what constitutes a deduction in those sports; the problem is that humans are more prone to error than are other measuring devices. Think of every decision a gymnastics judge makes as being a ball/strike call.

      • Except of course that hundreds of ball/strike calls go into a ball game, and even taken together their contribution is minor compared to the indisputable plays. In a gymnastics routine, even with well-defined rules for deductions, it’s all judgmental.

        • Again, though, the standard is objective. The problem is the gap between the theoretical and the practical – in theory, there is one correct score for any given routine, while in practice humans just can’t reliably measure that result accurately. We’re inclined to dismiss things we can’t detect or don’t fully understand, but just because I as a layperson can’t easily see who wins a gymnastics meet doesn’t mean someone doesn’t rightly, objectively win it.

          • The problem is not just that we as laypeople can’t see who wins the competition. The problem is that the trained professionals disagree about this also. In swimming, although times can be measured to the thousandth of a second, they are rounded to the hundredth of a second because officials realize that the margin of error in pool lane measurement makes such a precise time calculation absurd. In gymnastics, though, where judges can have discrepancies of a tenth of a point or more, scores are calculated to the thousandth of a point, and medals are often determined within the margin of error.

            • Hundredths in swimming bear no relation to hundredths in gymnastics. The point scale in gymnastics is an arbitrary size – they could just as easily call it a perfect 1000 as a perfect 10, and the meaning wouldn’t change.

              • My point was not to compare hundredths to hundredths across sports, but that swimming does not differentiate between finishes within its margin of error, while gymnastics does.

                • But you’re fabricating gymnastics’ margin of error. There are ties in gymnastics (leading to tiebreakers), so thousandths is the finest point at which gymnastics is deemed score-able, and ten-thousandths is where the margin of error line lies. Same as in swimming, just at a different decimal place.

                  • Gymnastics is not scoreable to thousandths. Deductions and points for routines are measured in tenths. It’s the disagreement among judges that moves the computation to thousandths. It’s as if, upon further review by football officials, three out of five agreed that a ball crossed the goal line and the resulting touchdown was worth 3.6 points. Similarly, a gymnast either should or should not have points deducted for an error. A routine’s “one correct score” can only be measured in tenths, just as a football score can only be composed of sixes, threes, twos, and ones attached to sixes.

                    • Do you have a citation for that?

                      Assuming it’s true, though, that system would just be an effort to minimize human error by not allowing any one person’s visual perception to have too much sway.

                      Again, I’m not a big fan of judges or governing bodies in general, but their inability to get things right doesn’t mean gymnastics isn’t a sport, it just means it isn’t a very well run sport. I still maintain that this is a matter of degrees. Human officials are involved in literally every sport there is, and they will never be as reliable as stopwatches or tape measures. Since science has better things to do than to develop a gymnastics-judging robot, the sport has to live with the flawed, unreliable measuring device it’s got.

                    • The rules of artistic gymnastics can be found here:,10853,5187-188050-205272-nav-list,00.html. All deductions are measured in tenths of points.

                      I suppose I can see gymnastics as a “not very well run sport” rather than not a sport at all. Swimming would not be less of a sport if it declared winners based on measurements smaller than the margin of error. However, if it did so regularly, it would certainly decrease its credibility. Of all the sports scored by judges, it seems that gymnastics does this the most.

                    • Heh – I’ll assume the tenths of a point thing is accurate, since that site is somewhat less than user-friendly.

                      Judged sports have to try to normalize their scores somehow. Diving throws out more scores than it keeps, and Olympic boxing is trying to move back to a judging system that resembles the one used in professional boxing where majority rules and the standards are murky. But I think we’ve found common ground on the main issue.

      • This difficulty the layman has to understand the intricacies of judging makes it harder to appreciate the sport, compared to contests with more obvious measures. We can see who won the relay, even if we don’t get all the subtleties of the transfer etc.

      • I agree, the need for a contest to be judged does not render it ‘not a sport’. The need for a score for artistic interpretation has that distinction. But both make the contest more obscure.

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