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).

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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.

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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:

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Now here are the COSTAS standings for those same Olympics:

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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.

Whither the Olympics and Why We Watch

Despite a clan of over 30 grandchildren, my grandmother has managed to collect a few apocryphal tales about each of us to spin for newcomers to show them what we were like in our formative days. When she comes to my brother Andrew, she likes to tell how, as a child of no more than 3, he astounded her with both his understanding of sports and command of the subtlety of competition. The subject was an unremarkable regular season game between the Portland Trail Blazers and the woeful Toronto Raptors. After watching highlights of a lopsided Raptors win, my brother turned to her and said, “Wow, the Raptors won by 36.” Somewhat taken aback by the precocious youngster’s ability to subtract large two digit numbers, my grandmother responded, “I thought you said the Raptors weren’t any good.” To which he responded, like any good 3-year-old, with earnest aplomb, “That’s why it’s amazing.”

Now almost two decades later sports still holds our collective attention, keeps us holding our breath, keeps us saying “that’s amazing!” By now, we’ve grown out of learning basic arithmetic and strategy from the sports highlights  (Sesame Street and Blues Clues may have used repetitive lessons to hammer home lessons, but nothing quite matched the consistent reemphasis of the tape delayed SportsCenter of the Stuart Scott era from 6 am to noon for “drill and kill” rote memorization). And yet, even now, we still can’t turn away. Why? To answer that, I turn to the Olympics – a tradition of sport and sport spectacle that between ancient and modern times includes over a millennium of accumulated competition.

This ancient rite, which has also become the preeminent sports festival of modern times, helps us gain some insight over why human beings lust after competition and why the rest of us watch precisely because of its long history. For all the academic nostalgia for the traditions and “purity” of the ancient Games, the fact is that the competition is largely the same as it was 3,000 years ago. The Olympics have always been a commercial carnival overcrowded with tourists, a political football while claiming to be “above politics,” a place for athletes to seek renown and, yes, fortune, but most and best of all a place for individuals to test themselves against all comers, as well as the legends of old, and to seek their place among the glorified elite. These traits have survived 3,000 years of vast changes in culture, politics, demographics, and sports, and yet remain recognizable to the present day, suggesting certain truths about the human need for competition and the allure of that competitive spectacle for the general public.

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Why do we compete? Psychologists and sociologists have offered theories that suggest sublimated violence, an outlet for our animal instincts, or a proxy for the man as wolf to man to explain the desire for human beings to strive against each other in sports or contests. And indeed, the connection between war and games can be traced back to the earliest records of Greek games. In one instance, Homer reports in Book 23 of the Iliad that the Greek warriors, in mourning over the death of Akhilleus’ beloved friend Patroklos, compete in a series of contests, which include many of the events covered in the ancient Olympic program (chariot racing, boxing, wresting, foot racing, etc.). These games serve as an extension of the warrior ethos of the battle that raged at Troy. They were dangerous and often brutal competitions that, like achieving distinction in battle, required manfulness (courage) to achieve distinction and glory. In these games, Antilokus’ shrewd and reckless driving earns him a second place finish in the chariot race over Menelaos, while Epieus KO’s his opponent in the boxing match, leaving him to be dragged off by his close comrades, “spitting gobs of blood, with his head down on one side.” These attributes of courage, daring, and physical strength, when demonstrated on the sporting field, suggested a readiness for success and glory on the fields of battle, which emphasized the same skills of horsemanship and hand-to-hand combat, and required the same virtues of courage and physical strength as those present in the games.

Yet even as the notion of the citizen soldier passed away in antiquity and the armies of Greece and Rome turned to a more professionalized military service and combat, still the Olympic competitions drew both a wide set of competitors and a broad audience. Spectators and participants poured into Olympus every four years even as the games evolved and no longer included military warriors testing their strength in (mostly) non-fatal contests against other military warriors. This suggests that the desire to compete in the Games is about more than simply staying in practice for the important war battles between the Greek states. Rather, the deeper impetus was in the glory – in finding something to brag about and look back upon for all time. This motive is also present in the Iliad’s funeral games as Nestor, like so many athletes before him, reflects on the now-past glory of his youth as a source of personal pride and entitlement for honors. “Would that I was young and my strength firm [as in my youth], for no man could match me,” he says. “What a man I was, back then. It delights my heart that you do not forget the honors due to me among the Greeks.”

This quest for glory and the recognition as “the best” has carried through to the modern Games. In today’s world of drone strikes and cyber-warfare, the connection between the  Games and actual military combat is even more tenuous. Yet still athletes strive for success in fencing, javelin, archery, wresting, boxing, and a host of other events rooted in ancient combat. And while these sports may no longer identify their victors as future soldier-heroes, they still convey a hero’s mantle of glory in vanquishing all comers.

At an individual level, the modern Olympic motto, “Faster, higher, stronger,” has served as a personal exhortation for athletes. In these contests, athletes test the limits of what their bodies are capable of and seek always for that extra effort over and above what they have achieved before. But this is also a highly relative motto. Not just faster, higher, stronger than one’s past accomplishments, but faster, higher, and stronger than one’s competition. For all that is made of the dignity of trying one’s best and competing honestly, the purpose of these competitions is to win and to be recognized as the best.

For the ancients, the 4-year Olympiad was a measure of chronology, a way of understanding the passage of time. These 4-year periods were marked by the register of Olympic champions and named for the winner of the most ancient foot race in each Olympics (the stade). For these winners, their names were literally written into history. Losers could expect to be forgotten by the next Olympiad. And while this tradition may not be kept explicitly with the modern Games, an informal recollection of the great sporting achievements mirrors this ancient tradition. Indeed, we all think of the same things when we think of 1936 (Jesse Owens’s 4 track and field gold medals at the Nazi Olympics in Berlin), 1980 (the Miracle on Ice), 1996 (the Kerri Strug vault and Michael Johnson matching his two gold shoes with two gold medals), and 2008 (Michael Phelps’s 8 gold medal haul). For us, these years and these Games have become inextricably linked to the people whose glorious accomplishments made them so memorable.

Some may challenge that the prizes of sponsorship and professional athletics have skewed the motives of today’s athletes. Yet, contrary to the myth of amateurism that still surrounds the Olympics to a certain degree, cash and gifts have always been by-products of the victories won at Olympus. Many ancient Greek champions became instantly wealthy men, taking gifts of houses, goods, and cash from their home cities. And while the tangible benefits for high-profile victories can be substantial, for every Michael Phelps and Nastia Liukin Subway ad, there are stories like that of Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner in 2000, as well as those of thousands of other athletes that toil in relative obscurity in “non high-profile” Olympic Sports. For them, the pride of competing against the best, vanquishing them, and standing alone atop their sport, is often the only realistic reward for their effort. And yet still they come by the thousands, training for months and years to hone their craft before finally marching into the Olympic stadium with the hope of victory.

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So what? Even if the above points are true, it only accounts for the desire of a select group of athletes to meet on the (athletic) fields of battle. It doesn’t explain Bob Costas, Morgan Freeman’s Visa ads, or £1700 tickets to live Track and Field events. Why do we care? Why do we watch?The Olympics has always been a must-see event, a carnival that draws all manner of spectators, hucksters, and criminals. What is the allure?

Certainly part of it can be found in the residual glory that athletes bring to their countries. Nothing gets jingoism going quite like the Olympics. Turn on those national anthems and watch for waterworks, not just in on the podium, but in the stands as well.

But still there is something more. If we turn back to the “Faster, higher, stronger” mantra, but bring it into the larger world context, the Games become not just a celebration of individual accomplishment, but also a celebration of human accomplishment. In the ancient Games, the heroes became demigods, carrying around whole oxen, or knocking out opponents in the boxing ring without landing a single punch. They were legends whose stories grew into myths that suggested key virtues and accomplishments of the Greek nations and humanity as a whole. And while the “recorded” nature of modern history allows for less “mythology” around epic athletic accomplishments, this preference for the exceptional achievement still reigns. There is a reason the public today cares so much about world records. With each record that falls, humanity marks a new peak to which it had not ascended before. This obsession isn’t just about novelty; it serves as a omen of human progress, an example of how our species has continued to expand what we consider within the realm of the possible. In a world stung by issues like the current financial malaise, global warming, and a shrinking pool of resources for a growing population, these occurrences, which exist in our shared popular consciousness, serve as shots of self- and species-confidence, as indisputable evidence that human beings can and will continue to exceed what the previous generation achieved.

Indeed, the achievements of the athletes at the Olympic Games are not just for themselves or for their country. They are for all humanity. That is why we remember their names – they show us something we haven’t ever seen before; something about which to say, “that’s amazing!”

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!