Winning golds without gold: an economic analysis of the medal standings

By Andrew Mooney

This post can also be found on boston.com here.

The Olympics are, to a large extent, rigged from the outset. The countries that have made regular appearances at the top of the medal standings at the last few Summer Olympics—the United States, Germany, France, and Great Britain—also happen to be among the world’s giants in economic power. It would seem that wealthy countries that have resources to spare toward the development of their athletes produce much greater hauls of gold, silver, and bronze than do nations that wield lesser economic clout.

However, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the “Goliath bludgeons David” narrative, so let’s focus on David’s more endearing characteristics: he doesn’t have much to work with, but he tries hard, and every so often, he enjoys a dramatic morsel of success.

So it is with many of the nations that compete in the Olympics. They send fewer athletes with less access to world-class training and facilities than the familiar characters at the top of the medal standings, but occasionally, they produce a transcendent talent, like Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, or establish long-term dominance in a particular discipline, like Kenya in long-distance running.

To find out who does the most with the least, I took the official medal count from the last three Summer Olympics—Beijing in 2008, Athens in 2004, and Sydney in 2000—and adjusted it for each country’s GDP per capita in each of the three Olympic years. The rankings, now measured in medals controlled for per capita GDP (in 2011 USD), look very different from the traditional standings.

(The weights for per capita GDP are in billions of dollars per million citizens, which amounts to thousands of dollars per person. I divided the countries’ total medal counts by this figure to get the weighted medal score.)

gdp2008.png

gdp2004.png

gdp2000.png

One might think that countries with large raw populations have an advantage simply by virtue of the law of large numbers: with more people living within a country’s borders comes a greater chance that one or two of them will possess unique athletic ability.

But population doesn’t mean nearly as much without the ability to finance and foster its latent talent. India, a nation of over a billion people, has enjoyed little Olympic glory, which may be because many of its people are entrenched in poverty (and cricket isn’t an Olympic sport).

The counterexamples to India, however, are the successes of China and Russia, countries that rank 88th and 52nd, respectively, in GDP per capita, yet regularly enjoy places at the top of the medal standings. For better or worse, both of these nations have made Olympic success a priority, perhaps at the expense of more pragmatic allocations of those resources. They use their capital to find the outliers within their vast populations and give them the chance to shine on the international stage alongside their more privileged peers.

Despite having relatively low GDP per capita figures, both nations have enormous productive capacity, ranking among the highest in the world in raw GDP. In fact, in correlating both raw GDP and population with total medal count in separate tests, I found that the relationship between GDP and medal count was consistently much stronger (for the last three Summer Olympics, average correlation coefficient: 0.71) than the relationship between population and medal count (average correlation coefficient: 0.37). Of course, to some extent, levels of GDP and population go hand in hand—large countries are likelier to produce more economic output by virtue of their larger labor supplies—but the preceding analysis does suggest that national output is a better predictor of Olympic success than the size of the pool of athletes from which a country can pick. Even with a population over one billion, India is only ninth in raw GDP.

A love of sport is not unique to places like the United States, China, and Germany, but as these nations begin their inevitable ascents of the medal podium over the next few weeks, consider that there are larger forces at play behind the athletes’ individual feats. Just like life, the Olympics are not particularly fair. National differences in economic output, culture, and even geography, greatly affect the ultimate results of the Games, something to keep in mind each of the many times we hear the strains of ol’ Francis Scott Key.

Swimming on steroids: the suits that brought down records

By Andrew Mooney

This post can also be found on boston.com here.

The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were remarkable for many reasons—the opening ceremonies, the human rights controversies, the Redeem Team—but the signature moments many Americans will remember came in the Water Cube, during the swimming events. Who could forget Michael Phelps out-touching Milorad Cavic by 0.01 seconds in the 100m butterfly, or Jason Lezak’s heroic charge in the 4x100m freestyle relay to overtake France’s Alain Bernard and keep Phelps’ pursuit of eight gold medals alive?

Of course, the asterisk with which those events will be tagged by history was the technology: the polyurethane Speedo LZR Racer suit. The space-age, NASA wind tunnel-tested garment increased buoyancy and allowed its wearer to glide through the water with significantly diminished drag. With a life span of only a dozen races and a small army of assistants needed to even put it on, the suit certainly didn’t seem like just a piece of clothing, and the performance it generated in the pool reinforced that impression. A combined 140 world records fell at the hands of swimmers wearing the new suits between February 2008 and July 2009. Finally, in January 2010, the international swimming federation FINA prohibited the wearing of non-textile suits like the LZR and its successor, the Arena X-Glide, in competition.

The results of the suits still stand, however, in the world records they produced. So just how much did they contribute to the swimmers’ successes over this two-year period? I set out to find the answer by isolating the effects of the suit and analyzing the distortions they created on record swimming times.

To start, I examined the progression of world record times in men’s swimming from the last 50 years—a more modern era of swimming, which includes the introduction of the flip turn and half body suits for men—and looked at how frequently, and by how much, world records fell over time. I focused on the freestyle, a stroke that has remained mostly consistent stylistically over this time span, in five different distances: the 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, and 800m. As an example, here’s the world record progression for the last 20 years of the 200m, which is pretty typical of the general trend.

swimgoo.png

The rate at which the world record times fell was remarkably consistent across the five events. Since 1962, all five world records dropped at between 0.26 and 0.36 percent per year, which I treated as the baseline rate at which all swimming times improve, due to average advances in technique, athletic development, pool design, etc. One way to separate the effects of the polyurethane suits, then, is to compare the rate at which world records fell in 2008-09 to the average up to that time for each event.

swim3.png

*WRs only kept since 1976

As shown by the table, world record times for most of the events fell at a rate about two to five times greater than the average, with the exception of the 400m, which was curiously immune to the effects of the polyurethane suits. This last example says less about the effects of the swimsuit than it does about the greatness of Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, the previous world record holder in the 400m. At this distance, the Thorpedo was a Speedo LZR unto himself, carving 3.7 seconds (1.7 percent) off the world record time between 1999 and 2002, during which he broke his own world record four separate times. It’s surprising that any equipment, outside of a speedboat, could allow someone to better Thorpe’s time.

Overall, the world records fell by, on average, 1.06 percent in excess of the average rate during the two-year polyurethane reign, which I believe to be mostly attributable to the change in equipment. This, then, is the magnitude of the swimsuits’ effects; a one percent drop in time may mean only one or two seconds, but that can be the difference between a very good race and a world record time. If the progression of records resumes its average rate after the ban on polyurethane suits, many of these won’t fall for another five or ten years. Only two world records have been set in men’s swimming since January 2010: the 1500m freestyle, a distance event in which the effects of the suit aren’t as pronounced, and the 200m individual medley, set by Ryan Lochte, perhaps the candidate most likely to produce a record-setting time. I limited my analysis to freestyle, but, as this summary of the 2009 world championships shows, the fact that so many records in other events were broken with the use of these suits suggests that the pattern is fairly uniform.

While the swimsuit may be the most obvious explanation for this spate of world records, a couple other factors might introduce error into my estimates. The first is the evolution of swimming pools over the last half-century, the designs of which have worked to reduce drag on swimmers, with changes in depth, width, and the effects of currents—certainly a contributing factor in the drop in times, though it’s difficult to say to what degree. However, I think the effect of pool improvements, which have come steadily over the past fifty years, would be mostly accounted for by the average rate of world record progression.

The other is that, by dealing with the progression of world record times rather than average times, I’ve allowed the possibility of the distorting influence of outliers to creep into the analysis. It could be that a few special athletes swam incredible times, independent of their equipment, and the presence of the suits merely disguised this fact. But the rise of relatively unheralded swimmers, like German Paul Biedermann, who bested Thorpe’s record in the 400m by 0.01 seconds in 2009, leads me to believe the suits deserve most of the credit for the flood of record times. As Biedermann himself admitted, the suit was “worth about two seconds” to his times.

In London, I anticipate that we’ll see swimming times more like those at the FINA World Championships in 2011 than at the Olympics in Beijing: impressive, but not record-breaking. Still, the accomplishment of a gold-medal winning race shouldn’t be reduced just because it isn’t done in a historic time. At least now we know that, equipment-wise, the playing field is a little more level, and the champions have achieved their status without rocket fuel in their suits.

Paris: Two Retrospectives

What the Dogs Saw

You feel a good day in your feet. If you have good shoes, it is a pleasant ache to match the rest of your lower body. Bad shoes leave behind blisters and their tattered remnants. Fortunately, the Sambas (and my feet) are holding up well.

This particular good day happened to coincide with Bastille Day, the celebration of the Parisian uprising against the monarchy in 1789 – an event which, according to my friend Etienne, who was kind enough to lend us the keys to his apartment, ushered in the first days of the 19th century, and the celebration of which proved good fodder for some more musings.

Morning – The Military in the Popular Consciousness

Our day began with an 8 am meeting with Andrew’s friend Shira Kogan, and a walk from the Luxembourg gardens to the Champs-Elysees for the Bastille Day military parade. For all the American stereotypes, France is a country very conscious of its military. Indeed, the very streets of Paris, the wide boulevards for which it is justly famous, reflect the fact that, after five revolutions between 1789 and 1870, the government got sick of storming brocades and built wide avenues leading to traffic circles and many spokes, so that, if necessary, they could set up a cannon in the middle and quickly clear any troublemakers. (Thanks again to Etienne for this historical tidbit). The military has also shaped its institutions, with a separate mausoleum (Les Invalides) dedicated to its military heroes, separate from those of the rest of French history (Pantheon).

Still, it is a bit shocking to be a part of a true military parade. As fighter jets flew over, trailing the colored smoke of the tricolor, the parade began, and whole squadrons of jets flew over. After the aerial show, row after row of soldiers filed past in full dress uniform, and following them, the tanks, humvees, personnel carriers, and other vehicles of the armored divisions rolled by. It was a very tangible display of national pride derived directly and unashamedly from the military institutions and military power.

There seemed something very refreshing in this acknowledgement in the military. Too often in the United States, it seems that military power and personnel are something that are taken for granted. For all the patriotism in our country, the efforts and sacrifices of our armed forces have been too easily reduced to a “Support our Troops” bumper sticker (which has itself been politicized beyond its basic concept), a yellow ribbon, or a kind word in the airport. What has ceased to exist is any up close and personal relationship. The percentage of people with direct family member who has served in the military has fallen from 75% for Americans over the age of 50 to about one-third for Americans ages 18-25. The result has been a military at arm’s length, so much so that we aren’t even able to credibly assess it as an institution any longer (see this link for some good commentary on the impact of this trend). With a professional military and wars on the opposite side of the world, it has become too easy to ignore the articles about Iraq and Afghanistan, and forget that our country and our military (for better or for worse) have been at war for almost a decade. As one soldier wrote, “America’s military is at war. America is at the mall. Or more likely in these difficult days, out looking for a job or standing in line for unemployment benefits.” How much better it is that the people of Paris see the faces of the people that protect them, see the equipment on which so much of the tax revenue is spent, and party with them openly in the streets of their capitol.

Afternoon – Impressions: Paris

After the close of the parade, we walked over to the Champs de Mars for a picnic under the Eiffel Tower. For €14, we had baguette, camembert, prosciutto, and wine enough for three people – one of the true joys of being in Paris.

After our picnic, we strolled to the Museé D’Orsay, a converted train station that houses one of the finest collections of impressionist art in the world. And while Monet’s “Impression: Sunrise” is not among the collection (it resides in the Museé Marmottan Monet), the picturesque landscapes, parties, and events shown in the paintings captured the Impressionist ideal of capturing a particular moment, the way the light hits a scene and lingers on in our consciousness.

Studies have shown that the human mind is not always a reliable narrator of the past. Indeed, we often remember events in the context of our state of mind at the time, referencing the recall of certain facts over others, and even writing in characters and events where they may not have occurred at all. (For further commentary, click here.) Our first impressions, “how the light hits” an event, color our future recollections.

With that in mind, I set down those “moments of light,” my impressions of the city of Paris. What will you take away from these “loose brushstrokes”?

-A hot water heater hanging by metal braces from the ceiling at our apartment on Boulevard Saint Michel

-Queuing for the public bathroom at Notre Dame next to pretty eyes and dark hair in a black t-shirt

-Children bounding on trampolines in the Tuileries, viewed from above

-A French picnic in the park with wine as cheap as water

-Francoise Holland, riding in an open-topped car

-A wife piggyback riding on her husband’s back to see the Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Elysees

-The view of and Montmarte from the clocktower in the Museé D’Orsay

-Sharing tall boys with Michiganders on the way back from the Bastille Day fireworks on the Champs de Mars

-A step-up backflip on the dance floor of the Pompier ball on the Rue Madame

-The “Goofy French Running Gait” (limp arms, open hands, palms facing back, legs sweeping from side to side)

-The feng shui squeegee with which they rake the crêpe on the hot stone

-A cat leaping from the top of a storefront to a second floor windowsill

Evening – A Preference for Beauty

After returning from our afternoon wanderings and enjoying some Ladurée macarons, we set out for our evening activities. Our first stop was the Jardin de Luxembourg, perhaps the most beautiful of the gardens in Paris. Site of the French Senate, this park is a perfect example of the use of public space in France. While American parks have a strongly utilitarian aspect to them (all baseball fields, basketball courts, and playgrounds), this park takes its aesthetics very seriously.  “Pelouse interdit” (forbidden grass) announce many signs on the finely manicured French lawns (which are just calling for short game practice with a pitching wedge). And while there is a “pelouse autorisée” (authorized grass) for throwing a Frisbee or playing tag, it is perhaps best to just sit on these lawns with a six-pack and admire the beauty of the rest of the gardens surrounding you (which is exactly what we did).

As the evening wore, on this preference for the aesthetic only grew stronger. We marched down from the Jardin de Luxembourg to watch the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, stopping to view them from the vantage point where the Place de la Concorde meets the Seine. The fireworks themselves were fantastic, lasting over 25 minutes and framed by the dramatic light show of the Eiffel Tower. But what was most curious about this experience was exactly where we watched it – in the middle of a busy road, leaving only a single lane in each direction for cars to travel the bridge. And not only did this crowd of Parisians block all but two lanes of traffic, but they jeered any bus or tall vehicle with the audacity to momentarily obstruct their view. As if!

In sum: stop and smell the roses. And don’t care if someone tries to run you over while you do it.

Epilogue – Not Quite Bastille Day Anymore

Our final stop for the evening was the Pompier ball, an outdoor party put on by the fire stations of Paris. This was a proper party, with people hanging out the dancing, singing, and hanging out the windows. After waiting in line for an interminably long time, we were swept up in a mob of some Parisian footballers and eventually spit out back onto the streets around 3:15 am.

When we finally rolled into bed, sweaty and tired, the dogs were barkin’.

-Tim

American in a China Shop

For someone who tried to make a point of not stepping on too many toes, and thereby fulfilling certain unflattering American stereotypes, during my visit to Paris, it was a bit ironic that my stay in the city ended with me quite literally running over a Parisian’s foot with my suitcase in our dash to the subway Monday morning.

“Poutain!” he spat out at me (which, I’ve since learned from Urban Dictionary, is “French for bitch/whore/slut”). The French word for “hey man, sorry about that” eluded me, so a dumb stare and some muttered English had to suffice as substitutes. I don’t think he was satisfied.

It was the last in a series of moments that showed me I was in decidedly unfamiliar territory. Apparently, you don’t need an “Iowa Hawkeyes” t-shirt and a camera around your neck to be identified as an American. It was pretty well understood, as I approached any Frenchman, that whatever business was to pass between us would be transacted in English—though they made no secret of their annoyance at that fact.

Still, I couldn’t help but appreciate the source of their disdain. The French have a value system to which they adhere every bit as fervently as we hold the ideals of patriotism and hard work as uniquely American. Children are expected to be serious, like the eight-year-old boy lunching next to us in a café, whose calmness and manners made his American contemporaries look like they deserved every bit of this current trend in parenting. (For those Mooney family members reading, hiking boots to the face and requests for house-shaped sandwiches would likely not be tolerated). Manners and cultural development are extremely important to the Parisians, and from what I could tell, much of those values are derived from the city of Paris itself and in the art and architecture that makes it unique.

It was suggested to me that the French surrendered prematurely to the Germans in World War II in order that Paris would not be reduced to rubble by the advancing blitzkrieg—in American terms, a singularly cowardly, superficial, and typically French act. But when so much of the national spirit is wrapped up in the city’s old stones, one must at least recognize that the truth isn’t quite so simple. Parisians are fanatically proud of their city, reflected in the disgust with which our host, Etienne, regarded a glass façade tacked on somewhat tastelessly to the classic limestone of a Parisian building. “It is terry-bull,” he lamented, shaking his head.

For them, Paris, and French culture as a whole, represents the pinnacle of culture and an appreciation of life’s finer things. And after touring the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, even with a pretty elementary understanding of art, it’s pretty clear that they’re not that far off. Maybe they don’t have to be so damn absorbed in their cultural breeding all the time, but it’s nice to know that principle, though in a form quite different from what I’m used to, still lives so strongly in some part of the world.

So I can’t be offended by my French waiter’s frustrated sighs when I jab my finger at my menu like a toddler picking out a new set of Lincoln Logs; I have a necessarily shallow appreciation of his environment and what it means to him. Those are the same sighs I breathe myself when a horde of Chinese tourists, with their goofy SARS masks (yeah, that’s still around) and picture poses, blocks my path on the way to class. They don’t mean any harm; they’re just looking to enjoy themselves (though I’d like to think Hello Kitty backpacks are ridiculous in any culture).

-Andrew

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.

***

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.

***

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!