Two brothers set out on quest for adventure, excitement, and (vicarious) Olympic glory.

Thanks for coming to our blog. On July 12th, Andrew and I set out for Europe where we plan to travel the continent (and beyond) before settling in to watch the Olympics in London. This blog will serve as a journal of our experiences, a link to content developed for Stats Driven (Andrew’s “sabermetrics” blog),  and a venue for commentary on our experience.

We would love for this to be as interactive as possible, so please feel free to leave your comments on the site or contact us by email. We will try to have at least one of us post once every few days to keep you interested.

Cheers, and Go USA!

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Living Our Olympic Moment

The solitary and thoughtful stroller finds a singular intoxication in this universal communion. The man who loves to lose himself in a crowd enjoys feverish delights that the egoist locked up in himself as in a box, and the slothful man like a mollusk in his shell, will be eternally deprived of. He adopts as his own all the occupations, all the joys and all the sorrows that chance offers.

–Charles Baudelaire

We feel the Olympics more than any other sporting event. We cry with Jess Ennis, with Ali Raisman and Jordyn Wieber. We roar with the weightlifters, shotputters, and hammerthrowers. We clap for achievement, redemption, and sportsmanship and send our hearts out to the bitterly disappointed. We watch as the hairs on our arms stand at attention as we wait for the gun in the 100 meters.

It is at these moments of common feeling – of compassion – that we feel our common humanity, the spirit that the Olympic Games exist to celebrates. The members of the crowd are witnesses and the swell and ebb of their emotion are as central to the games as the athletic contests themselves. The Olympics is a time to remind us of those human feelings that we share and a time to share them together in a celebration of human achievement and feeling.

Words have always done an inadequate job capturing that swell of emotion that sweeps through an athlete, a crowd, an audience, a country at these seminal moments. But still we must try. For even if we cannot bottle this strong draught of feeling, we can bear witness and try to use what poor tools we have at our disposal to say how it felt to be here and to try to evoke for posterity a shadow of that feeling we had in London.

The Thrill of Victory

We’ve often heard that the winners write history. In the Olympics, at least, this is true. For all the montages, sob stories, and puff pieces the Olympics churns out every year, the Olympic heroes of yesteryear who still stand out today are the ones with a gold medal to their name. “Higher Faster Stronger” is a comparative motto, not an objective one. The medal table doesn’t measure feel good stories or moral victories. No, much of the thrill of the Olympic games is the chance for gold and to stand for one second at the top of the podium.

But what does it take to get to the apex? For some (the Bolts or Phelpses) we can only be witness to the winners of nature’s lottery, the outliers in physique, speed, and natural ability. For others (the Blakes or Hoys), we see the product of years of unrelenting training and the result of the never-ending quest to draw more out the self.  Most (even those named above) are some mixture of the two.

But in victory, at least, the athletes are the same. The feelings of release, of exceptionalism, of superiority are there on the faces. And as we watch, we too are swept up in it, too – we feel the sense that we have seen something, felt something that will not again be repeated.

London, like all the Olympics was full of these moments. Here were a few that resonated with me, and the feelings that went with them:

Joy

Andrew and I snagged tickets for the US Women’s Soccer Final. With the entire US boxing team already eliminated, this was our only chance to hear the sonorous strains of the Star-Spangled Banner. But to even make the final, the US first had to get through Canada, who seemed to forget they had beaten the US exactly zero times in the two teams’ previous 27 meetings. The inspired play from Canadian Christine Sinclair provided our northern neighbors with 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 leads, all on goals from Sinclair. But the US team just wouldn’t die. And when Alex Morgan’s flying header in the final minute of overtime found the back of the net we fell into paroxysms of joy.

Awe

Perhaps the most awesome moment we witnessed wasn’t Andy Murray defeating Roger Federer, wasn’t Usain Bolt flying away from the field in the 100 or 200 meter dashes, wasn’t Gabby Douglas on the parallel bars. Instead, it was Russian weightlifter Tatiana Kashirina in the snatch portion of the competition. After watching Chinese lifter Zhou Lulu, who is herself about as big as a mountain, hoist 146 kg (over 300 lbs), the more slight (and I use the term loosely) Kashirina put up 148, 150, and 151 kg in awesome succession.

This last lift, which broke a world record set seconds before, involved Kashirina lifting the massive bar into a squatting position in a seeming stalemate before unleashing a huge bellow and hoisting the bar to a standing position. The Hyde Park crowd was delirious, simply for the sheer absurdity of it.

Apprehension

Do you ever feel nervous for somebody else? Gymnastics always brings out that feeling for me, as the slightest stumble, slip, or wobble is punished by the unyielding apparatus and even less forgiving judges. In the women’s gymnastics team competition, the US performed brilliantly, building a seemingly insurmountable lead. But as the Russian team crashed and burned (how awful must it be to give a performance that immediately leaves all of your teammates in tears), I was still on pins watching Ali Raisman do the final US floor exercise.

I needn’t have been, as Raisman jumped, tumbled, and pranced her way to a sterling routine, one which would eventually win her the US’s only individual event gymnastics gold. Determination gave way to tears (of joy this time) as she finished with a final flourish.

Thrill

Don’t drop the baton… It is amazing that after running 90 meters at the limits of human speed, track athletes can possibly pass a foot-long stick of metal to another sprinting human being, all while staying within the 20-meter exchange zone. But somehow they do it. After watching the individual 100-meter final, which included both 3 Americans and 3 Jamaicans, Andrew and I decided that the 100-meter relay might be the best track race ever. And with the confluence of good individual performances from Americans Tyson Gay, Ryan Bailey, and Justin Gatlin and the injury to Jamaican sprinting legend Asafa Powell, it seemed like it might actually be a competitive race. Then Yohan Blake got the baton. Then Usain Bolt got the baton. End of story.

The US tied the previous world record time and still was not even close. Yet next to the sheer excellence of the Jamaican team, defeat didn’t matter. It would have been amazing to watch with no competition at all.

The Agony of Defeat

Years of watching the Olympics have made the tears of joy and the exhilaration of sharing a victory with our favorite athletes seem almost routine. But this presentation of the games (let’s call it the NBC version) misses out on almost the entire spectrum of emotions present at the games. The chagrin of being bested. The satisfaction of performing one’s best, even in defeat. The bitterness of feeling that something has been left on the table.

In the US we are often overwhelmed with victory, simply because there is a lot of it. The US has been at the top or near the top of the medal table for almost every summer Olympics of my lifetime. It can seem unfair to not cover the tale of someone’s victory to highlight an occasion where another came up short. But to miss out on the sorrier side of the games cheapens the emotional experience of observing them. In the US, our experience of the games is often a victim of our own success.

For every tale of David Boudia, there is Tom Dailey, the young UK diver came in third in the men’s diving, and couldn’t have been more excited about it, leaping joyfully into the pool with his coaches and fellow teammates. And for every Jess Ennis heptathaloning to victory and bringing her audience to tears, there was the bitter words of Andy Turner captured for live TV. “It was rubbish, that. The start was absolutely shocking. I don’t know what happened. I’ve let myself down and let my coach down. I’m gutted. I didn’t feel as nervous today. I really believed that I could make the final. I’ve had a rubbish season from start to finish. I feel like I’ve let people down.”

It’s not often you see the normally savage dogs of the British media stop to comfort their interviewee, but when they do, it makes you take notice.

Watching the BBC cover the Olympics was an amazing experience. First – almost everything was covered live, and the BBC often had the first position in line to speak with the athletes, catching them when the emotions were the most raw.

Second – they were unstinting in their questions. They didn’t sugarcoat failure or avoid talking to athlete’s whose performances had gone awry. It was almost uncomfortable for someone used to NBC’s saccharine coverage to see athletes put on the spot and asked to discuss their emotions. But it was also amazing to see how each athlete responded to disappointment or failure.

And finally – the British athletes were more interesting. In the US, our athletic culture is almost purely professional. Even our Olympic athletes have the adapted the high-gloss coat of American professional sports that often reduces their interviews to the most tired sports clichés (“I’m looking to go out there and execute my gameplan,” “We just gotta give it 110%,” “It’s going to be about who wants it more.”). This may maintain the inoffensive veneer needed to be in the next Subway commercial, but it will never move the audience like listening to Mo Farah, Lizzie Armitstead, or even Andy Murray (himself a full-blooded professional) talking about what the experience of the Olympics meant to them.

And moved we were. Watching the Olympics one gets a sense for just how well these athletic competitions fit with the ethos of the Ancient Greeks. The quest for glory. The moments of comedy and tragedy. The unbridled emotion. The humanity of feeling it all together.

Reflecting on the games’ ancient roots, I was reminded of the end of the Iliad. Here, after discovering that neither rage nor the total victory over Hektor and Troy can quench his sorrow over the death of his friend Patroklos, Akhilleus spends a moment of common sorrow with Prium, the enemy king whose son he has just killed and mutilated. In this unlikely moment of common sorrow, he finally finds some peace.

When we see the stories of the athletes in defeat, we are reminded that these god-like figures are still human, and still feel the same pain the rest of us do. Like our own lives, the games feature a full range of emotions. The real secret of the Olympics is that it is just as much about the losing as the winning.

Moving On

Now with the Olympics behind us, it is tempting to speculate about what their legacy may be. But if the experience of London has taught me anything, it is that for all the emphasis on glory and making a name for the history books, the Olympics are a moment captured, the thrill of the present, the feeling of being there.

Some of the moments we witnessed may live on for posterity in our common memory. Some may not. But at least for myself, these memories will be markers for a specific feeling, archetypes of emotions that I can identify in my own personal life.

Whether you love sports for the gladiatorial combat, the definitive result, or the quest for glory, you love it for the drama. You love it because somewhere in these athletic gods you see the same feelings you feel every day. You feel that in some way, we are all Olympians.

Thanks London for a epic for the ages.

The bodies of champion gymnasts

By Andrew Mooney

This post can be found on boston.com here.

Four feet, eleven inches, and 90 pounds is hardly the prototypical physique of a world-class athlete, but as American gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas proved yesterday, it’s more than enough to perform extraordinary feats on one of sport’s biggest stages: the women’s gymnastics individual all-around. Of course, the sight of pixie-sized girls tumbling and flying through the air is the norm for Olympic gymnastics; while a 4’8” girl might draw a few sidelong glances at the mall, there’s nothing peculiar about her when she’s on the mat.

Today, atypical body types are expected of female gymnasts, but that wasn’t always the case—in fact, no competitor under five feet medaled in the women’s individual all-around until Maxi Gnauck in 1980. How have the best gymnasts’ bodies evolved through the years? I examined the heights, weights, and ages of all medal winners in the individual all-around since 1956 to find if any notable changes have occurred in the last half-century.

(Note: I was unable to find height and weight figures for three gymnasts over this time period: 1992 gold medalist Tatiana Gutsu, 1992 and 1996 bronze medalist Lavinia Miloşovici, and 1956 silver medalist Ágnes Keleti).

gymnasts2.png

The chart illustrates that champion gymnasts’ heights have remained relatively constant over the last sixty years—78 percent are within three inches of five feet tall. Their weights have been subject to a little more fluctuation as time has advanced, however. The data suggests a downward trend from an average of about 120 pounds in the 1950’s and 1960’s to well under 100 pounds in the modern gymnastics world.

The age of world-class gymnasts is often as mind-boggling as the twists and turns they execute on the floor. One can only marvel at the mental fortitude of a 16-year-old, most of whose peers would fold under the pressure of a speech class performance, exhibiting their talents in her sport’s most intense microscope, before an audience of millions.

Though controversy has surrounded the participation of early teen performers in the Olympics, most recently with the Chinese team in 2008, they are not a new phenomenon. Nadia Comeneci, the first champion gymnast under 100 pounds, is most well-known for her series of perfect 10.00 scores in the 1976 Montreal Games, but under today’s rules, she wouldn’t even have been allowed to compete, as her gold in the all-around came at the age of 14.

Older gymnasts are relics of the past. Only four gymnasts over the age of 19 have won medals in the individual all-around since 1976, and stardom in the sport is becoming increasingly fleeting. Shawn Johnson, the silver medalist in Beijing, chose to retire at 20 years old rather than attempt to compete in London, and Nastia Liukin, who won the gold in ’08, failed to even qualify for the Olympic team.

According to this analysis, the average medal-winning gymnast in the all-around is 19.6 years old, measures 5’1” and weighs 103 pounds. This puts them in about the tenth percentile for height and fifth percentile for weight among girls, based on statistics from the CDC. But as anyone who has watched these girls perform can attest, there are multiple connotations of the word “exception.”

Slowly but surely, international basketball catching up to U.S.

By Andrew Mooney

This post can be found on boston.com here.

One of the biggest yawn-fests of a story in the buildup to this year’s Olympic basketball tournament was the idle bantering between this year’s US team and the original Dream Team from 1992. It seemed fitting that the playground-style argument (“We would win!” “No, we would!”) must inevitably have no definitive answer; the point has no bearing on the current Games and serves only to ruffle a few pages in reporters’ notebooks.

The fact is that the NBA will always have the best of the best basketball players in the world, the vast majority of which come from the United States. The more interesting question, in my view, is how the rest of the world has improved since its nuclear destruction at the hands of the ’92 squad, which stomped through Olympic play with an average margin of victory of 43.75 points. As the years have advanced, it’s clear that American teams have faced much sterner tests than their predecessors—USA’s shocking sixth-place finish in the 2002 FIBA World Championships and its bronze medal in Athens attest to that fact.

Of course, the relative quality of some of these teams certainly isn’t constant—no one would confuse Raef Lafrentz with a Dream Team member (except perhaps Christian Laettner), so it’s somewhat difficult to evaluate just how much the rest of the world has improved in relation to the US.

Thankfully, we have numbers to take care of that problem. Using data available at basketball-reference.com, I added up the Win Shares per 48 minutes for every member of each United States team that competed at a major tournament (Olympics or FIBA World Championships), with the exception of the 1998 World Championships, from which NBA players were excluded due to a work stoppage. In order to assure that I fairly evaluated each team, I used the players’ Win Shares per 48 minutes in the NBA season immediately preceding the major tournament in which they competed. For instance, Larry Bird’s game, while transcendent in 1986, had lost much of its luster by the Olympic year of 1991-92, a difference that should be acknowledged when assessing his team’s talent level.

Next, I looked at how each US team actually performed on the court, recording their average margin of victory at each of the major tournaments. This is the number I used to represent the quality of their competition, the rest of the world; the closer USA’s opponents kept games, the better basketball I assumed they were playing.

But to discern anything about the change in the standard of international basketball, I needed a constant baseline with which to compare it. This is where the Win Shares data comes in; using the measures of quality for each US. team as weights, I adjusted the US margin of victory numbers to produce a single number that represented how tough of a fight the Americans’ competition put up in each event.

ushoops.png

By this measure, the 1994 US team actually put on a more impressive on-court display than the original Dream Team. The ’94 team was far from the most talented America would assemble in the coming decade and a half, but they won games by nearly as much as the ’92 team, defeating opponents by an average of 37.75 points.

Surprisingly, this analysis suggests that international basketball has actually regressed at every tournament since Yugoslavia’s breakthrough victory at the 2002 World Championships. I think, however, that the better conclusion to draw is not from the single year-to-year changes, which are subject to quite a bit of variation in the teams’ performances, but from the general downward trend in the magnitude of USA’s dominance, represented on the chart by the dashed trendline. Slowly, the rest of the world is closing the gap.

This is not a perfect proxy for international quality, of course. The US doesn’t play the same teams at every tournament, and the numbers are based on a very small sample of games per tournament, certainly not large enough to give us a totally accurate picture of the various international teams’ talent levels. But it does shed a little light on a question that has typically been reduced to hand-waving generalizations: how far is the rest of the world from catching up? I don’t think there’s any doubt they are moving in the right direction; if you need more evidence, note that the number of non-American players in the NBA has increased from 21 to 89 since 1992.

If this trend continues at the constant rate implied by the trendline, the rest of the world would finally catch up to the US in time for the 2042 World Championships, which assumes quite a bit about the increasing popularity and participation in the sport around the world. And even so, that suggests a lot of American gold in the interim 30 years.

Journey to the Center of the Earth: The Middle East

One of my favorite paintings is Paul Gauguin’s enigmatic “Where Do We Come From / What Are We / Where Are We Going,” housed in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The very large canvas is done in a heavy blue palette and, like many of Gauguin’s paintings, depicts scenes from his time spent in Tahiti, where he spent most of the last decade of his life in search of a simpler and more elemental life.

The painting, which includes the eponymous line in the upper left of the canvas, shows a series of human groups that, when read from right to left, show the various stages of life – infancy and youth, adulthood, and old age and death, all watched over by a blue figure which Gauguin described as “The Beyond.”

I thought of this painting as I have contemplated the experiences of our short time in the Middle East. It was a place that was at once far more ancient and elemental than our modern society, but also more affected by its own cultural, historical, and political significance. And while it felt foreign to be in a place that largely lacked the veneer of our modern, secular, corporate society, it was at the same time rife with the more elemental tensions that result from its significance as the crucible and nursery of that very same society. Experiencing this place, with its ancient history, religious significance, and cultural influence, left me pondering the same question noted in Gauguin’s painting – “what is this human existence?”

Where Do We Come From

When we think about where we come from, we start with history – that which has been passed down to us, our starting point.

Grand Rapids, Michigan, was founded in 1826. It is a haven for strip malls and big car dealerships. Too much of what little history it had was destroyed in the urban renewal atrocities of the 1960’s. It is hard to feel any ancient history here.

Boston is older and better preserved. The city was founded in 1630 and is one of the oldest English settlements in New World. A trip downtown invariably intersects the “freedom trail” and passes the houses, churches, graves, and monuments of the great figures of its storied history. Still, to a European, it is a young city.

The Leffe monastery began brewing beer in 1240. Notre Dame was begun in 1163 and completed in 1345. Windsor Castle was built by William the Conquerer in the 1070’s. The Book of Kells was written sometime around 800 AD.

None of it compares to just how ancient Jerusalem is.

Evidence indicates that Jerusalem was settled as early as 4000 BC. Jewish tradition suggests Noah’s son Shem was its founding father. Since then, it has played host to such a host of historical events, legends, and myths that it would be impossible to detail them all, but here is a brief sampling: the capture of the city by King David, the construction of Solomon’s temple, the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar, the construction of the temple of Herod the Great, the passion and death of Jesus, the destruction of the second temple by the Romans, Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem and journey into heaven, multiple crusades, and the Six-Day War. The city has been captured or re-captured 44 times. Three religions that today count nearly 4 billion adherents consider Jerusalem one of their holiest places.

Walking the narrow streets, one feels the history, not just because of the random scattering of Stations of the Cross and other sacred religious sites, but also because of the mood. Jerusalem is filled with pilgrims of all sorts – Russians with their crazy hats, Orthodox Jews with their forelocks, Muslims with prayer mats. All come to this one place to experience the tradition and history of the Old City.

It is stirring to think that, regardless of what Western tradition we hail from, chances are that its spiritual home is in Jerusalem.

What Are We

In such a religious place, we stand face to face with Gauguin’s blue idol. Here are physical manifestations of the religious traditions that are the source of meaning for so much of humanity. For Christians, we see the Stations of the Cross, the rock of the Crucifixion, and the tomb of Christ. For Jews, we have the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and the proximity to the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant once rested. For Muslims, we have the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, which mark the locations of the Isra and Mi’raj, Muhammad’s landing point in Jerusalem on his Night Journey and the site from which he was taken by Gabriel on a tour of heaven and hell.

Having grown up in a religious tradition that, for the first 25 years of my life, only existed in the 8.5 x 11 inch geography of my Bible, to see the tomb of Aaron (as in Moses’s brother) marked on my map of Petra, to see the wall of the Jewish temple, and to walk the streets that Jesus walked was a surreal experience.

Yet the parts of this experience that felt most spiritual weren’t at the foot of the rock of the Crucifixion or facing the tomb of Christ. Rather, they were quieter moments when one didn’t have to focus on the historical significance of a thing and could get lost in the simple enjoyment of the place: facing the beautifully carved stations of the cross in the Franciscan chapel, a bottle of wine on the roof of the Lutheran Guest House overlooking the city, trying to sort through puzzles in a game store in West Jerusalem, or enjoying hookah on the steps of the Jaffa Gate amidst the Ramadan celebrations of the Arab quarter.

These were little moments, absorbed in life, exploring this ancient place with my best friends.

Where Are We Going

If there was any theme for our trip through the Middle East, it was “Where are we going.” From the moment we arrived in Jordan, our inability to say anything other than “La” (no) and “Shukran” (thank you) – which we sometimes combined into the (highly necessary) polite denial “La, shukran” – posed a challenge to our ability to do anything on our own. Eager to see as much as possible, we set an aggressive schedule for ourselves that included the Jordanian Dead Sea Resorts, Jerusalem, and Petra on consecutive days. Unfortunately, in the Middle East, logistics can be a challenge, even with our incomparable guide, Amy Kyleen Lute.

Indeed, in addition to the language barrier, our Middle Eastern obstacle course included the following hurdles:

  • Incorrect border hours online
  • A four-hour detour to the Sheik Hussein Bridge (hello, Syria!)
  • Unmarked customs
  • No buses on Shabbat
  • A sleazy Israeli taxi driver (700 shekels, are you out of your meckles?!)
  • Tractors driving through the crowds in the Old City
  • Muslim-only time on the Temple Mount
  • A single-entry visa
  • A four-hour bus through the Negev Desert
  • Broken air conditioning
  • Capitalist ponies
  • An 8-hour hike over the red rocks of Petra
  • No afternoon buses during Ramadan
  • Long arguments about how much a 3-hour taxi should cost (~$70)
  • Solidarity Ramadan fasting with our taxi driver

Yet without these obstacles, we would have missed out on much of our most memorable Middle Eastern experiences – stopping for food at a market in a small Jordanian town (free pancakes for the newcomers!), contrasting the northern towns of Israel to those of Palestine, driving through the moonscape and canyons of the Israeli desert, the Wadi Rum at twilight, tea with a Bedouin woman who might have been as old as Petra, and last of all, the shower at the end of it all.

This last was perhaps the most glorious of all. And as I contemplated how to answer Gauguin’s last question – the unanswerable question – I could only hope that at the end of all the stress and obstacles we face in life, we can finally wash the red dust and sweat from our bodies and fall into a heavenly (Sheraton) bed, tired and full.

COSTAS: the weighted Olympic medal count

By Andrew Mooney

This post can be found on boston.com here.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a different way to think about the traditional Olympic medal standings, which reflected the unevenness of the playing field from which athletes from all over the world come to the Games. But there’s another distortion to the medal count that is never accounted for in the usual tally and has a similarly large effect on the final standings: the differences in medals available in each sport.

In the spirit of PECOTAKUBIAKVUKOTA, and all other gratuitous acronyms by which sports analysts refer to their pet models, I now bring you COSTAS: the Congruent Olympic System for the Tabulation of Accolade Statistics.

First developed by Harvard student David Roher for the 2010 Winter Olympics, I adapted his model for the Summer Games to get a clearer view of the spectrum of international sporting supremacy. In the words of its founder:

“I wanted to develop a weighted medal count that not only adjusted for the importance of gold over silver over bronze, but also for the relative importance of one event over another. I also wanted its abbreviation to be COSTAS. I admit that the latter was the first requirement I thought of.”

As alluded to by Roher, the model is based on a couple of assumptions. The first is that, for the purposes of the medal standings, gold, silver, and bronze should not possess equal weights. Traditionally, every medal counts for one point for its winner’s home country, regardless of its hue, confusing the performances by which those medals were awarded in the first place.

For the debut of COSTAS at the Vancouver Olympics, Roher chose a 4-2-1 scoring system for gold, silver, and bronze, which I extended to the Summer Games. Admittedly, these weights are arbitrarily chosen—it could be argued that a 5-3-1 or a 3-2-1 system are just as valid—but they do successfully get across the main point, that medals should be treated as having different values in the medal standings, as they do on the playing fields.

The second assumption is that all sports should be treated as having equal importance. Swimming has a total of 34 events for its male and female participants, while basketball has only two. It doesn’t seem fair to conclude from this that swimming, as an Olympic sport, is 17 times more important than basketball, and yet, for the purposes of the medal count, that’s exactly how the two are treated. It’s simply the respective natures of the sports that cause the difference in each is organized; swimming wouldn’t make as much sense with the athletes of just two countries playing against each other, and basketball doesn’t have a series of disciplines in which its athletes can compete for multiple medals.

Under COSTAS, every sport is valued equally, so the total medals for swimming are worth the same amount as the total medals for basketball. By applying weights for the number of events in each individual sport, we get a clearer picture of the relative worth of each medal.

I recognize that the lines between different “sports” are sometimes hazy—for instance, trampolining doesn’t seem much different from gymnastics—so I used the official distinctions laid out by the IOC, which can be found here. I did make one exception to this: the IOC includes all track and field events under the umbrella of “Athletics,” so I separated the track events (those that consist in exclusively running) from the field events (all other events, including the decathlon and heptathlon) for the purposes of the weights. The final step in the process was to scale the COSTAS numbers into a format that looks more like the traditional medal count, so I made the total number of COSTAS points add up to the total number of medals available at the Summer Olympics (958).

So without further ado, here are the standings for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, as measured by traditional medal count:

costas2.png

Now here are the COSTAS standings for those same Olympics:

costas1.png

The country that receives the biggest boost from COSTAS is China, due to its impressive haul of gold medals and its dominance of whole events like table tennis, diving, and badminton. Under this system, the Chinese ascend firmly into first place, outpacing the second place Americans by about 28 “medals”—a humbling revelation for the red, white, and blue. Many of the Americans’ medals came from events with an enormous number of medals available, like swimming and track and field, providing them with a much smaller increase in points.

I’ll be updating the COSTAS standings for the London Olympics at various times during the Games, so stay tuned to see if the USA can wrest the mantle of supreme Olympic champions from the Chinese.

A trip to the bottom of the glass

It is one of the oldest forms of sustenance, a staple credited with warding off disease, supplying needed carbohydrates, and providing a reason for the cultivation of grain. Bread? No, what we are talking about here is beer.

Indeed, if Andrew and I would had looked more closely at the Code of Hammurabi while at the Louvre in Paris, we might have noticed that this “document” (it is a giant rock) which dates from around 1772 BC, includes provisions for what to do with unscrupulous merchants who water down their beer and sell short portions in return for cash: forcibly drown them (watch out Coors Light).

So it was with a sense of history, a need for sustenance, and in hopes of warding off disease that Andrew and I set out to sample some of Ireland’s finest alcohol at their sources – the Guinness Factory at St. James Gate and the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin. After this education, the rest of the experiences of Ireland that followed can be best seen through the rich ruby-red color of a pint of Guinness.

Water is the soul of beer, making up more than 90% of the volume of the finished product. It is a local ingredient, and is responsible for the fact that some regions produce certain types of beer better than others (Dublin’s hard water, sourced from the Wicklow Mountains, is good for making stouts like Guinness). Brewers are particular about their water.

“Are you F*****D?!” roared a craggy-faced Irishman as he swept up to the bar at O’Donoghue’s, where Andrew and I had just taken our seats. Taken aback by this frontal assault of friendliness (especially after a steady diet of Parisian disregard), we mumbled an inadequate reply about having just arrived. This man, who we later found out hailed from Cork (“Bastard needs a f*****g passport just to get to DUH-blun,” according to the bartender), was a perfect example of what Ireland is all about – pubs, friends, beer, stories – an open culture that shares its successes and burdens together over a pint.

Barley is malted by soaking it in water, allowing it to germinate, and then roasting it dry. This malt is ground into grist, added to the water, and warmed to release the fermentable sugars that are the basic fuel for the fermentation process.

There is a sickly-sweet atmosphere that comes from staying in a hostel. The sickly mostly goes without saying (consider this math: 10 twenty-somethings living in one room with one bathroom). As for the sweet, these modern-day tenements are a haven for like-minded (beer-minded) young people to meet, make friends, and explore a new place together. Like anything else, if you compress enough of some element together in a closed environment, you can’t be surprised when it goes nuclear.

Andrew and I stayed at the Times Hostel, right next to Trinity College, and while we didn’t have much privacy, we did have a great time, meeting some new friends and sharing (a few too) many pints together in the bars in Dublin.

Our big night out consisted of the all-too-typical trashy pub crawl that seemed to transform each bar it touched (even the one billed as famous for “traditional Irish music”) into one of Faneuil Hall’s finest bro-festivals. But with each bar and each new infusion of Guinness it mattered less and less, as the colored lights, the sounds of the streets, and the voices of our new friends mashed together into the “significant, elemental, and profound” experience that leaves only its most visceral elements on our consciousness the next day.

And yet, when that next day dawned, all we could say was – “that was worth it, hangover and all.”

Hops are not an essential element of the fermentation process. Instead, they contribute a bitter flavor that balances out the sweetness of the malt. Hops are typically added during the boiling process before the almost-beer is chilled and sent to the fermentation tanks.

To provide some contrast to our boozy hostel experience, Andrew and I set out to test ourselves against the local links, a short tight course in Donabate. The golf course was gorgeous, set right along the Irish Sea, and within sight of Lambay Island and the cliffs of Howth.

The course was like a good old Irish face – shaped and pitted by the sun, wind, rain, and tides into a craggy landscape that spoke volumes without the need for words. The narrow fairways were flanked by acres of utterly impenetrable thatch, littered with pot bunkers. It was truly man versus nature – the typical golfing battle of the thinking mind against the wind, rain, and self, mirrored in the scenery as the manicured fairways clashed with the unruly abundance of the deep rough.

By the time it was over, we had learned the truth of Lee Trevino’s summation of the difficulties of links golf. “At 15, we put down the bag to hunt for the ball, found the ball, but lost the bag.” And while we were able to return our rental bags, we left a few dozen out there for the golf gods.

Yeast is the soul of a beer. It is the most proprietary part of the process, imparting key flavor notes as it consumes the sugar and transforms it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Each brewery guards its strain of yeast as its most treasured trade secret. A culture of the Guinness yeast is stored in a vault in the office of the master brewer in case anything happens to production yeasts.

As we listened to the story of the great brands of Irish drink culture, I was surprised by both how similar and how different they were from the stories that I had heard in America.

A half dozen visits to the Harpoon and Sam Adams breweries have left the basic beer story a rote script (“the malt is ground and headed to release the fermentable sugars…”). The story here was still the same – water plus malt plus hops plus yeast equals beer. Even making whiskey follows a surprisingly similar narrative (with Jameson, we still see water plus barley; the only real difference is in the concentration of the alcohol through distillation).

Yet there was something different in these two temples to Bacchus – scale and history. Both brands date to the late 1700s. And even at their outset, their founders had a sense of purpose that transcended simply filling a market niche. They were out to master a craft, and the scope of their ambitions knew no bounds. Arthur Guinness had the gall to sign a 9,000-year lease for his property at St. James Gate. John Jameson built the largest whiskey distillery in the world in Dublin. The footprints of these two men still loom large over the Irish industry even 250 hundred years later – a fact evidenced in Guinness’s seven-story temple to the creation of the perfect pint and Jameson’s stylized video of the whiskey-making process.

Yet the proof, as always, is in the pudding. And with this pudding, we could only echo Guinness’s current master brewer – “What a rich flavor!”

Truly Olympians of their craft.

-Tim

A couple of hacks, choppin’ away

We hopped out of bed, shook our bleary-eyed hangovers away as best we could, and threw on the nicest clothes we had packed—perhaps not behavior typical of a pair of 20-somethings at 9 in the morning following a marathon pub crawl, but we had a big day ahead of us. A very important date waited for us at 1:20 that day: a tee time at Corballis Golf Links in Donabate, Ireland.

When we examined the course online, we hesitated when we saw the scorecard: the whole 18 was barely 5,000 yards long and played to a par of 66. An “executive nine” style of round wasn’t exactly what we had in mind for our Irish golfing experience. However, the course was nearby, accessible, cheap (only 30 euro, including club rental), and on the ocean, so off to Donabate we went.

A 20-minute train ride to Donabate Station and a three-kilometer walk through the Irish countryside, complete with curious horses and sporadic rainfall, brought us to Corballis, situated directly on the Irish Sea. I’m quite certain Corballis doesn’t get many customers showing up to the course with literally no golf equipment on their person, but they still allowed a couple of scrubby golf pilgrims to put their skills to the test in an entirely new sort of challenge.

When I’ve watched the British Open on television, I’m always stunned that golf professionals can’t bring the courses to their knees; many of the par-4s are within driving distance from the tee, and the distances on par-5s should offer no challenge to the booming swings of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, and the rest of golf’s best.

As I discovered, distance is just one way to measure difficulty because this course was really freaking hard. The fairways, in many cases no more than 30 yards wide, might as well have been flanked by rivers of magma on both sides; if your ball entered the heather that pervaded the course, it was lost forever. I lost nine (!) balls on the first nine holes, the exact landing points of which I could often see perfectly from where I struck them. There was no hope; they had been claimed by the impenetrable bush as offerings to the golf demons.

It took us about four holes (and a combined six or seven lost balls) for the wisdom of Chi Chi Rodriguez’s famous quote to hit home: “Golf is a thinking man’s game.” The blunt style of golf familiar to us—driver off the tee, choice of iron dictated exclusively by distance—simply wasn’t suited to the links game. The absurdity of our initial strategy was best exemplified by exchanges like this one, on the fourth or fifth tee:

(As I address my ball with a driver):“How many balls do we have left?”

“Three…well, technically four, but…”

(Grimly):“Yeah.”

(Drive soars hopelessly into the abyss)

We also had to contend with a typically British weather pattern, as a rumbling bank of dark clouds slowly approached from the horizon. Though we were subject to a few sprinkles, the worst of the rain somehow managed to pound every point around us except the golf course, sparing us from a truly Irish round of golf. What little precipitation we dealt with couldn’t dampen our spirits, just like the Irish beachgoers we saw enjoying walks down the wet sand with umbrellas in hand, their prospects of a pleasant outdoor day unmarred by a short spell of showers.

I’d like to tell you that our heroes made a storybook comeback, seamlessly adjusting to the unfamiliar conditions and recording a legendary score on the back nine; but that would be a disservice to the truth. Another way, we found out, to enhance the difficulty of a golf experience is the time-honored excuse of the semi-serious golfer: blame it on the equipment. Our rentals were decidedly well below par, though unfortunately not in the golfing sense. Tim’s three-ball putter may actually have improved his wayward putting stroke, but my ladies’ graphite irons (Mitsushiba brand, with Empress grips) required some adjustment. Ultimately, though, they served our purposes, which was to hack, slash, and chop away at the Irish hills like the shepherds of old, our sticks slapping that little white ball of sheep dung at long last into the rabbit hole.

-Andrew