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The Olympics are again broken, cursed by economic fallacies relating to crowding out, shortsightedness, and the winner’s curse. Yet given the global demand for Olympic viewing, a new kind of corporate politics may provide the answer, albeit an unpopular one.

The growing revelation that bringing the Olympic torch to town ignites skyrocketing public costs in exchange for a two-week circus is not new. The 1984 Games of the XXIII Olympiad—the most financially successful Olympics ever—went to Los Angeles because literally no one else wanted them. Tehran, the only other city in the world to even bid for those games, withdrew from consideration.

How could such lackluster interest produce the most successful Olympics ever? Precisely because the city appreciated the economics of public finance, had substantial existing facilities, and did not fudge the numbers in order to win the bid.

Generally, crowding out refers to the propensity for government spending—particularly tax dollars and loans—to replace, rather than supplement, private spending. A government collects $1 and puts on the Olympics, returning $2 in revenue. Terrific! Except that $1 is no longer available to the private sector, where it may have returned $3 or even $4. Study after economic study suggests that the Olympics induce crowding out. In 1984, however, Los Angeles privately funded the games. By now the six words seem as natural as the five rings, but Los Angeles only introduced them 31 years ago: “Official sponsor of the Olympic Games”.

Additionally, Los Angeles refrained from building even one new facility to host. The monstrous, newfangled venues of today are magnificent for two weeks (if they are finished), then rendered useless tracts of concrete. NFL stadiums are used a minimum of 10 times a year, for decades, and those built since 2004 have cost about $900 million each in 2014 US Dollars. Yet recent Olympic Stadiums have cost roughly $500 million, despite being doomed to hit full capacity a scant 16 times, if that. By modestly upgrading existing facilities, Los Angeles organizers did not overreach, nor overvalue the present.

Lastly, consider the winner’s curse, the economic idea that the winner in an auction likely overpays, being by definition willing to pay more than any other bidder. Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing, etc…did these cities truly stand to gain more from hosting the Olympics than those they outbid? Economist Evan Osborne notes: “When multiple cities bid, each has a different view of what the revenues will be, and the one with the brightest economic forecast usually wins.” When the torch leaves and the foolish forecast fails, cities are left footing the bill. Los Angeles’ relatively unenthusiastic acceptance of the 1984 games put the city in position to embrace the economic realities from Day 1—and chase corporate dollars accordingly—rather than delude themselves with fictional returns and false hopes for the best.

Los Angeles was different. And so must the next host city be to succeed. The next games must disrupt the status quo. This may mean pushing to larger, established cities with infrastructure in place. This may mean hunting for more sponsors and offering more advertising. Perhaps that seems against the Olympic spirit, but it seems the only way to keep the games viable. As Boston’s reluctance shows, the current system is broken. A change is gonna’ come.

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Yesterday, Norwegian Ole Einar Bjørndalen became the most decorated winter Olympian in history, winning his eighth gold medal in the mixed relay, a new Olympic event in the biathlon. He now stands alone atop the list of individual success…in the winter. American Michael Phelps still towers over Olympians at large; why, Phelps won eight gold medals in the Beijing games alone. Who has the most impressive individual Olympic performance: Bjørndalen or Phelps?

Ole Einar Bjørndalen

In the north, one learns to never f%&$ with someone who can both out-ski and out-shoot you.

Michael Fred Phelps II

Whereas further south people are like “Skiing…on the water?”

Individual Medal Count

For both athletes, there is their individual medal count, and then their individual-medal count. Bjørndalen won eight golds, four silvers, and one bronze; his golds tie for the most and his total medals are the most of any winter Olympian. Phelps won 18 golds (freak), two silvers, and two bronze; his 18 golds are the most of any Olympian by far (next closest is nine from Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina), and his 22 total medals are the most by four (also ahead of Latynina).

But then, many of those medals came in relays and team events. Group medals should not be forgotten, but they go beyond the control of one person, even if that one person is Michael Phelps. Remember this?

In purely individual events, Phelps has 11 Olympic golds (second-most is 8 from American Ray Ewry in the early 1900s), one silver, and one bronze; his 13 total rank second-most (yes, behind Latynina). Bjørndalen has five individual golds, tied for 11th-most of all Olympians, and tied for 2nd among winter Olympians. With three silvers and one bronze, his nine individual medals rank tied for 5th among all Olympians, tied for 2nd among winter Olympians (with his countryman Bjørn Dæhlie; it pays to be Bjørn).

Competition

Inspired by Tuesday’s “What If?” XKCD, Fermi estimation will guide this segment. Fifty-one nations have won 1,561 medals in Olympic swimming, beginning with the first summer Olympics in 1900. Twenty-one nations have won 190 medals in Olympic biathlon, beginning with the official introduction of the event in 1960. Curiously, in the most recent Olympics, about 40 men contested both the 100 meter swim and the 20K individual biathlon. Forgetting differences between men and women, changes over time, etc, on average assume a biathlon and a swimming event have 40 competitors at the Olympic level.

How about the competition in getting to the Olympics? Both sports certainly require gear, facilities, and exposure inaccessible to most throughout the world. Likely there are more aspiring swimmers than biathletes in the United States, though perhaps not in Norway.1 Worldwide, perhaps twice as many people try to compete in swimming than biathlon, per country, on average. And say one percent of all competitors make it to the Olympics. (Likely it is much less, but no matter.)

Roughly, that is 51 swimming countries times 11 individual events Phelps won times 40 Olympic competitors per event times 100 for non-Olympic competitors times two for swimming =

51 * 11 * 40 * 100 * 2 = 4 million competitors (with double counting due to crossover between different events) whom Phelps bested in his 11 individual gold medals.

For overall medals (51 * 13 * 40 * 100 * 2), Phelps’ competition pool was maybe 5 million competitors.

For Bjørndalen, his “golden” competitors total some 0.4 million and his total competitors total roughly 0.8 million. Even dropping the “swimming is twice as popular” assumption, Phelps’ competition would seemingly still be double Bjørndalen’s.

Timing

Phelps participated in the Sydney 2000 games, before winning medals in Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, and London 2012, after which he retired from Olympic competition. Bjørndalen participated in the Lillehammer 1994 games, before winning medals in Nagano 1998, Salt Lake City 2002, Turin 2006, Vancouver 2010, and Sochi 2014 (whew!). Bjørndalen won Olympic medals, indeed Olympic golds, for a period eight years longer than Phelps did. Biathletes and swimmers age differently, but Bjørndalen still fended off progressively younger challengers through his 40th birthday.

Is that unusual? Of the 20 Olympians who have eight or more medals in individual events, only 4 (including Bjørndalen) did so over more than eight years. Bjørndalen is the only one of those individuals to win medals (and gold medals) 16 years apart. This cuts both ways; he had more Olympics to win medals in, but he also kept performing at an elite level for sixteen years.

And as they come to the finish, it is…

Michael Phelps, by a nose! Or one one-hundredth of a second, whatever.

Ultimately, Phelps’ dominance–11 individual gold medals–over millions of swimmers around the world for eight whole years is too extreme to ignore. Bjørndalen will always be attached to the modifier: winter Olympian. Being Norwegian, he is probably okay with it.


  1. Norway has one silver and one bronze in 100+ years of Olympic swimming. Norway has 12 golds, 18 silvers, and 9 bronze in 54 years of Olympic biathlon. 

Real quick, let us all remember three things that have happened in hockey, real or fictional.

First, this:

shot hits goalpost

Up 2-1 with less than two minutes left, Team USA’s clear to the empty net hits the post. Canada would score seconds later, and win 3-2 in OT.

Second, this:

The Mighty Ducks, starring Emilio Estevez & Joshua Jackson

It was, Charlie! It was so cool.

And lastly, remember this:

The United States and Canadian houses in Olympic village play an impromptu pickup game in a parking lot. They tied 4-4.

And read Katie Baker’s short, beautiful piece on Grantland about this absolute gem of a game. The game pictured above is why we play hockey, why we play sports, why we have Olympics. Not to have gold medals. (Though yeah, gold medals are nice.) To “have fun out there” does not even do it justice. “Teamwork”, “chemistry”, “bettering yourself”, and “friendship” might not do it justice either. But the moment itself does.

We should not tell the American women who lost today to be happy with their silver medals (though it is fine if they are). They practiced hockey for years, they played the game, their emotions–whatever they are–are legitimate. (Duh.) In fact I fully support Team USA in stabbing with their skates anyone who tells them to “just get over it” because “it’s just a game” or “you still got silver” or whatever. F@#$ those people

As a civilization of human beings, we have progressed from arguing whether it is okay for girls and women to play hockey to arguing whether cheering “Let’s go girls!” at a women’s hockey game is inappropriate and sexist.1 Which is cool, but still kinda missing the point.

NBC analyst and former USA Hockey player (and gold medalist in 1998) Natalie Darwitz remarked after the loss that it was a great game of and for hockey, not just “women’s hockey”. And she is totally right. It was a great game, a great championship. Someone had to lose. Unfortunately, yet again it was the United States. But God it was so cool. Let us all remember, and be proud, of that.


  1. Man [addressing hockey team of male adults]: “Alright, let’s go boys! Defense!” Woman: “Cool.”
    Man [addressing hockey team of female adults]: “Alright, let’s go girls! Defense!” Woman: “HOW CAN YOU BE SO SEXIST AND DEMEANING? THEY ARE INDEPENDENT WOMEN, NOT HELPLESS GIRLS, OKAY?” Man: “I, uhh…neither said nor implied nor thought that. (Thanks for projecting your gender stereotypes of men onto me!)” 

Last night the men’s curling teams of Scotland Great Britain and Norway battled in what was a positively enthralling one-game playoff for the medal round, after finding themselves tied for the fourth and final spot by going an identical 5-4 through the preliminary round robin. Seriously, enthralling. (Yes, it is curling, but get over it because curling is actually awesome.)

Observe:

What the hell is that? A snake?

What the hell is that? A snake?

Britain prepares to curl...

Britain prepares to curl. Suave. But they could use better pants.

UK Curling

And they add a fourth freeze shot just outside the house!

Norway's skip lines up the potential triple takeout.

Norway’s skip lines up the potential triple takeout.

Wait is this a billiards break or WHAT IS GOING ON?

There was a lot to love about that match, the first curling match I have watched live and in its entirety, though I had seen large swaths of some of the United States’ matches over the last week. Ed Lukowich, two-time Brier champion, former director of athlete development at the United States Curling Association, and current Olympic commentator is the Vin Scully of curling, making the game a thoroughly enjoyable experience for newcomers and old-timers alike. And of course curling is “chess on ice”, a remarkable blend of finely tuned skill and the ever-present strategy of an alternating move game. Yet like all good sports, curling is quite capable of coming down to a few key plays, perhaps even to the final shot. Such was the case last night (/ morning in Sochi).

Appreciating the finer skills of a good curl are still quite beyond me, but this article from The Independent provides a good sense of what went down. Real generally, down 5-4 on the final shot of the game, Scotland Great Britain had two options: tie it up, but give Norway the advantage of shooting last going into overtime1, or end the game right there by going for the win, either immediately advancing out of the tie-breaking game to the medal round or seeing their Olympic dreams end in the span of 105 feet of ice. The advantage of going last is a non-trivial, serious deal (again, just get over that it is curling we are talking about), and rather than face Norway with such an advantage, Scotland’s Great Britain’s captain (or rather, “skip”) David Murdoch opted to go for it.

Sound familiar? Throughout an NFL season, teams punt and kick field goals on fourth and short rather than increase their chances of winning by going for the first down or touchdown conversion. The conservative strategy of losing more slowly is the convention, and can occasionally still produce a win, but on net loses far more often than an aggressive strategy built on maximizing a team’s chances of winning. For whatever reason (see: “inertia“), the NFL’s conservative mentality continues, by and large. Riverboat Ron was a welcome addition this past season, but just glance at the “Thank You For Not Coaching” features in Bill Barnwell’s weekly regular season Grantland columns to see a laundry list of poor decisions.

Murdoch, with his fellow Scotsmen on Great Britain’s curling team, went for the win, knowing it would not work every time, but equally confident that it would work often enough to justify it. Well, maybe. Per that Independent article by Ronnie Esplin, Scotland’s Great Britain’s vice-skip Greg Drummond remarked afterwards:

You’re going to make that shot once in 50, maybe two in 50. … We called time out and weighed up our chances to steal the extra end. Against Norway I would rate the chances at 35 per cent on a good day so it was probably worth going for a win.

Said in the intensity of a post-match interview, the remarks are still perplexing: one in 50 amounts to two percent, two in 50 amounts to four percent, and both are far less than the 35 percent chances Drummond gave them in overtime. But unlike Brian Burke, Drummond does not have hard data to back up his claims; those are just his opinions on their chances.

It is hard to say what the true probabilities were. Data of the nature of the NBA’s recent foray with STATS LLC would make it possible, but unfortunately it does not yet exist for curling. Assuming going for the win was the right decision just because it worked is just as wrong as applying outcome bias in football.

Regardless, what the NFL can learn here is the philosophy of risk-taking in general. Do not let the worst-case possible outcome dictate all strategic decisions. The fact that calculated risks are inherently risky does not mean they are worthless. Just ask Scotland’s Great Britain’s curling team.


  1. Curling overtime works like baseball, in that there are “ends”, or innings, rounds, whatever you want to call them, and as soon as there is a score difference after a completed extra end the game is over. In each end there is a huge advantage to going last, sort of like batting last in a baseball inning, but in this context really more akin in magnitude to getting the ball first in overtime in the NFL. By tying the game and extending it to an extra end, Scotland Great Britain would give that advantage of shooting last to Norway. Just FYI, this advantage is known as “the hammer”. Scotland Great Britain did not like their chances against a Norway armed with the hammer. The vernacular may be the best thing about curling. 

Companion tables to the piece yesterday breaking down the current American winter Olympic athletes by state:

U.S. Summer & Winter Olympians by State

State Rank 2014 & 2012 Olympians Rank 2014 Winter Olympians Rank 2012 Summer Olympians
CA 1 147 1 20 1 127
NY 2 53 4 18 2 35
PA 3 40 14 5 2 35
TX 4 37 16 4 4 33
FL 5 34 19 3 5 31
CO 6 31 2 19 13 12
IL 7 29 9 10 6 19
MN 8 27 2 19 18 8
WA 9 24 12 8 10 16
MA 10 23 9 10 12 13
MI 10 23 7 13 16 10
NJ 10 23 16 4 6 19
GA 13 20 22 2 8 18
OH 13 20 19 3 9 17
UT 15 19 5 15 24 4
WI 15 19 5 15 24 4
CT 17 16 12 8 18 8
VA 17 16 22 2 11 14
VT 19 15 7 13 35 2
MD 20 12 39 0 13 12
NC 20 12 27 1 15 11
OR 20 12 22 2 16 10
MO 23 10 22 2 18 8
NH 24 9 11 9 47 0
AZ 25 8 27 1 21 7
ID 25 8 14 5 31 3
NE 27 6 27 1 22 5
AK 28 5 16 4 40 1
IA 28 5 27 1 24 4
IN 28 5 27 1 24 4
KY 28 5 27 1 24 4
LA 28 5 39 0 22 5
MT 28 5 19 3 35 2
NV 28 5 27 1 24 4
HI 35 4 39 0 24 4
KS 35 4 27 1 31 3
AR 37 3 39 0 31 3
MS 37 3 39 0 31 3
WY 37 3 27 1 35 2
AL 40 2 39 0 35 2
ME 40 2 27 1 40 1
ND 40 2 22 2 47 0
RI 40 2 27 1 40 1
TN 40 2 39 0 35 2
D.C. 45 1 39 0 40 1
DE 45 1 39 0 40 1
OK 45 1 39 0 40 1
SC 45 1 27 1 47 0
SD 45 1 39 0 40 1
NM 50 0 39 0 47 0
WV 50 0 39 0 47 0

Recent U.S. Olympians By State Population

State Rank % 1990 Population of U.S. Rank % of Last Two Olympic Teams Rank Difference
CA 1 11.97% 1 19.34% 1 7.38%
CO 26 1.32% 6 4.08% 2 2.75%
UT 35 0.69% 15 2.50% 3 1.81%
MN 20 1.76% 8 3.55% 4 1.79%
VT 49 0.23% 19 1.97% 5 1.75%
WA 18 1.96% 9 3.16% 6 1.20%
CT 27 1.32% 17 2.11% 7 0.78%
NH 40 0.45% 24 1.18% 8 0.74%
ID 42 0.40% 25 1.05% 9 0.65%
MA 13 2.42% 10 3.03% 10 0.61%
WI 16 1.97% 15 2.50% 11 0.53%
PA 5 4.78% 3 5.26% 12 0.49%
AK 50 0.22% 28 0.66% 13 0.44%
OR 29 1.14% 20 1.58% 14 0.44%
MT 44 0.32% 28 0.66% 15 0.34%
WY 51 0.18% 37 0.39% 16 0.21%
NV 39 0.48% 28 0.66% 17 0.17%
NE 36 0.63% 27 0.79% 18 0.15%
HI 41 0.45% 35 0.53% 19 0.08%
GA 11 2.60% 13 2.63% 20 0.03%
ND 47 0.26% 40 0.26% 21 0.01%
NJ 9 3.11% 10 3.03% 22 -0.08%
D.C. 48 0.24% 45 0.13% 23 -0.11%
DE 46 0.27% 45 0.13% 24 -0.14%
RI 43 0.40% 40 0.26% 25 -0.14%
SD 45 0.28% 45 0.13% 26 -0.15%
ME 38 0.49% 40 0.26% 27 -0.23%
NY 2 7.23% 2 6.97% 28 -0.26%
MD 19 1.92% 20 1.58% 29 -0.34%
VA 12 2.49% 17 2.11% 30 -0.38%
AZ 24 1.47% 25 1.05% 31 -0.42%
IA 30 1.12% 28 0.66% 32 -0.46%
KS 32 1.00% 35 0.53% 33 -0.47%
AR 33 0.95% 37 0.39% 34 -0.55%
NM 37 0.61% 50 0.00% 35 -0.61%
MS 31 1.03% 37 0.39% 36 -0.64%
MI 8 3.74% 10 3.03% 37 -0.71%
WV 34 0.72% 50 0.00% 38 -0.72%
FL 4 5.20% 5 4.47% 39 -0.73%
MO 15 2.06% 23 1.32% 40 -0.74%
IL 6 4.60% 7 3.82% 41 -0.78%
KY 23 1.48% 28 0.66% 42 -0.82%
LA 21 1.70% 28 0.66% 43 -1.04%
NC 10 2.67% 20 1.58% 44 -1.09%
OK 28 1.26% 45 0.13% 45 -1.13%
SC 25 1.40% 45 0.13% 46 -1.27%
AL 22 1.62% 40 0.26% 47 -1.36%
IN 14 2.23% 28 0.66% 48 -1.57%
TN 17 1.96% 40 0.26% 49 -1.70%
OH 7 4.36% 13 2.63% 50 -1.73%
TX 3 6.83% 4 4.87% 51 -1.96%

U.S.

State Rank Average Annual Temperature °F Rank % of 2012 Olympic Team Rank % of 2014 Olympic Team
FL 1 70.7 5 5.85% 19 1.30%
HI 2 70 24 0.75% 39 0.00%
LA 3 66.4 22 0.94% 39 0.00%
TX 4 64.8 4 6.23% 16 1.74%
GA 5 63.5 8 3.40% 22 0.87%
MS 6 63.4 31 0.57% 39 0.00%
AL 7 62.8 35 0.38% 39 0.00%
SC 8 62.4 47 0.00% 27 0.43%
AR 9 60.4 31 0.57% 39 0.00%
AZ 10 60.3 21 1.32% 27 0.43%
OK 11 59.6 40 0.19% 39 0.00%
CA 12 59.4 1 23.96% 1 8.70%
NC 13 59 15 2.08% 27 0.43%
TN 14 57.6 35 0.38% 39 0.00%
KY 15 55.6 24 0.75% 27 0.43%
DE 16 55.3 40 0.19% 39 0.00%
VA 17 55.1 11 2.64% 22 0.87%
MO 18 54.5 18 1.51% 22 0.87%
KS 19 54.3 31 0.57% 27 0.43%
MD 20 54.2 13 2.26% 39 0.00%
NM 21 53.4 47 0.00% 39 0.00%
NJ 22 52.7 6 3.58% 16 1.74%
IL 23 51.8 6 3.58% 9 4.35%
WV 23 51.8 47 0.00% 39 0.00%
IN 25 51.7 24 0.75% 27 0.43%
OH 26 50.7 9 3.21% 19 1.30%
RI 27 50.1 40 0.19% 27 0.43%
NV 28 49.9 24 0.75% 27 0.43%
CT 29 49 18 1.51% 12 3.48%
NE 30 48.8 22 0.94% 27 0.43%
PA 30 48.8 2 6.60% 14 2.17%
UT 32 48.6 24 0.75% 5 6.52%
OR 33 48.4 16 1.89% 22 0.87%
WA 34 48.3 10 3.02% 12 3.48%
MA 35 47.9 12 2.45% 9 4.35%
IA 36 47.8 24 0.75% 27 0.43%
NY 37 45.4 2 6.60% 4 7.83%
SD 38 45.2 40 0.19% 39 0.00%
CO 39 45.1 13 2.26% 2 8.26%
ID 40 44.4 31 0.57% 14 2.17%
MI 40 44.4 16 1.89% 7 5.65%
NH 42 43.8 47 0.00% 11 3.91%
WI 43 43.1 24 0.75% 5 6.52%
VT 44 42.9 35 0.38% 7 5.65%
MT 45 42.7 35 0.38% 19 1.30%
WY 46 42 35 0.38% 27 0.43%
MN 47 41.2 18 1.51% 2 8.26%
ME 48 41 40 0.19% 27 0.43%
ND 49 40.4 47 0.00% 22 0.87%
AK 50 26.6 40 0.19% 16 1.74%
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