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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. 
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The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics–or the XXII Olympic Winter Games, or something–are swinging, and snowing, or actually raining, as Sochi is apparently a seaside resort, but nonetheless they are happening and they are awesome. Over the weekend I watched nearly every second of NBC’s 15+ hours of coverage1, from Gracie Gold’s figure skating to Ole Einar Bjoerndalen’s skiing and shooting to Chris Mazdzer’s lugeing, and all the wonderful winter Olympic goodness in between.

Canadian Justine Dufour-Lapointe wins gold in the women’s moguls.

Team USA is off to a fine start, sweeping the men’s and women’s snowboarding slopestyle event, among other successes. Where exactly do these people, our celebrated Olympians, come from?

2014 U.S. Winter Olympic Team by State

State 2014 Winter Olympians Rank Team % State % Rank
CA 20 1 8.7% 0.000067% 22
CO 19 2 8.3% 0.000577% 5
MN 19 2 8.3% 0.000434% 7
NY 18 4 7.8% 0.000100% 16
UT 15 5 6.5% 0.000871% 2
WI 15 5 6.5% 0.000307% 10
VT 13 7 5.7% 0.002310% 1
MI 13 7 5.7% 0.000140% 15
MA 10 9 4.3% 0.000166% 13
IL 10 9 4.3% 0.000087% 18
NH 9 11 3.9% 0.000811% 3
WA 8 12 3.5% 0.000164% 14
CT 8 12 3.5% 0.000243% 11
ID 5 14 2.2% 0.000497% 6
PA 5 14 2.2% 0.000042% 25
AK 4 16 1.7% 0.000727% 4
NJ 4 16 1.7% 0.000052% 24
TX 4 16 1.7% 0.000024% 35
MT 3 19 1.3% 0.000375% 8
FL 3 19 1.3% 0.000023% 36
OH 3 19 1.3% 0.000028% 32
OR 2 22 0.9% 0.000070% 21
GA 2 22 0.9% 0.000031% 30
ND 2 22 0.9% 0.000313% 9
VA 2 22 0.9% 0.000032% 29
MO 2 22 0.9% 0.000039% 27
WY 1 27 0.4% 0.000220% 12
NV 1 27 0.4% 0.000083% 19
NE 1 27 0.4% 0.000063% 23
RI 1 27 0.4% 0.000100% 17
ME 1 27 0.4% 0.000081% 20
AZ 1 27 0.4% 0.000027% 33
IA 1 27 0.4% 0.000036% 28
KS 1 27 0.4% 0.000040% 26
KY 1 27 0.4% 0.000027% 34
NC 1 27 0.4% 0.000015% 38
SC 1 27 0.4% 0.000029% 31
IN 1 27 0.4% 0.000018% 37
HI 0 39 0.0% 0.000000% 39
D.C. 0 39 0.0% 0.000000% 39
DE 0 39 0.0% 0.000000% 39
SD 0 39 0.0% 0.000000% 39
MD 0 39 0.0% 0.000000% 39
AR 0 39 0.0% 0.000000% 39
NM 0 39 0.0% 0.000000% 39
MS 0 39 0.0% 0.000000% 39
WV 0 39 0.0% 0.000000% 39
LA 0 39 0.0% 0.000000% 39
OK 0 39 0.0% 0.000000% 39
AL 0 39 0.0% 0.000000% 39
TN 0 39 0.0% 0.000000% 39

1

California produced the most American winter Olympians at the Sochi games; how fitting coming from the Golden State. But California has the most people in general. Per capita, Vermont produced the most Sochi athletes.

How Do We Know Where the Athletes Are From?

This knowledge is sketchy, to be sure. World-class athletes tend to travel a great deal, and moving at a young age for better opportunities to train is not uncommon. And more generally, they may be born in one place, spend their childhood in another, perhaps go to high school or college in another, etc. Team USA lists their “hometown”. It is unclear exactly what that is; it does not seem to be where the athletes are necessarily born, but then it does not seem to be where the athletes are necessarily anything. Presumably this is self-reported by the athletes after they make the team, in which case it ought to more or less reflect which state they identify as being “from” in the traditional sense.

How Many People Live(d) in Their States…And When?

The athletes list their home town, which is often not where they live (and train, and compete) now. In terms of measuring state by state output of Olympians, it is not enough to ask where the athletes are from; when are from is also important. And even more complicated, given a 30 year age gap from 15-year-old freestyle skier Maggie Voisin (from Whitefish, Montana) to 45-year-old curler Ann Swisshelm (from Chicago, Illinois).2 But the average age of Team USA’s winter Olympians is 26, placing their births more or less around the 1990 U.S. Census. Consequently the 1990 state population figures are the relevant data.3 Or at least, more relevant; this is not perfect, but it is fun!

Which States Excel at Generating Winter Olympians?

State % of 1990 U.S. Population Rank % of 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Rank Difference Rank
CO 1.32% 26 8.26% 2 6.94% 1
MN 1.76% 20 8.26% 2 6.50% 2
UT 0.69% 35 6.52% 5 5.83% 3
VT 0.23% 49 5.65% 7 5.43% 4
WI 1.97% 16 6.52% 5 4.55% 5
NH 0.45% 40 3.91% 11 3.47% 6
CT 1.32% 27 3.48% 12 2.16% 7
MA 2.42% 13 4.35% 9 1.93% 8
MI 3.74% 8 5.65% 7 1.91% 9
ID 0.40% 42 2.17% 14 1.77% 10
WA 1.96% 18 3.48% 12 1.52% 11
AK 0.22% 50 1.74% 16 1.52% 12
MT 0.32% 44 1.30% 19 0.98% 13
ND 0.26% 47 0.87% 22 0.61% 14
NY 7.23% 2 7.83% 4 0.59% 15
WY 0.18% 51 0.43% 27 0.25% 16
RI 0.40% 43 0.43% 27 0.03% 17
NV 0.48% 39 0.43% 27 -0.05% 18
ME 0.49% 38 0.43% 27 -0.06% 19
NE 0.63% 36 0.43% 27 -0.20% 20
D.C. 0.24% 48 0.00% 39 -0.24% 21
IL 4.60% 6 4.35% 9 -0.25% 22
DE 0.27% 46 0.00% 39 -0.27% 23
OR 1.14% 29 0.87% 22 -0.27% 24
SD 0.28% 45 0.00% 39 -0.28% 25
HI 0.45% 41 0.00% 39 -0.45% 26
KS 1.00% 32 0.43% 27 -0.56% 27
NM 0.61% 37 0.00% 39 -0.61% 28
IA 1.12% 30 0.43% 27 -0.68% 29
WV 0.72% 34 0.00% 39 -0.72% 30
AR 0.95% 33 0.00% 39 -0.95% 31
SC 1.40% 25 0.43% 27 -0.97% 32
MS 1.03% 31 0.00% 39 -1.03% 33
AZ 1.47% 24 0.43% 27 -1.04% 34
KY 1.48% 23 0.43% 27 -1.05% 35
MO 2.06% 15 0.87% 22 -1.19% 36
OK 1.26% 28 0.00% 39 -1.26% 37
NJ 3.11% 9 1.74% 16 -1.37% 38
VA 2.49% 12 0.87% 22 -1.62% 39
AL 1.62% 22 0.00% 39 -1.62% 40
LA 1.70% 21 0.00% 39 -1.70% 41
GA 2.60% 11 0.87% 22 -1.74% 42
IN 2.23% 14 0.43% 27 -1.79% 43
MD 1.92% 19 0.00% 39 -1.92% 44
TN 1.96% 17 0.00% 39 -1.96% 45
NC 2.67% 10 0.43% 27 -2.23% 46
PA 4.78% 5 2.17% 14 -2.60% 47
OH 4.36% 7 1.30% 19 -3.06% 48
CA 11.97% 1 8.70% 1 -3.27% 49
FL 5.20% 4 1.30% 19 -3.90% 50
TX 6.83% 3 1.74% 16 -5.09% 51

Colorado was the place to be if you wanted to compete in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, and likely will continue to lead the United States in future winter games. Though in the lower half of population, Colorado is second in the number of winter Olympic athletes this year, with 19, more than eight percent of all of Team USA. And while California has the most athletes on this year’s team, with 20, Californians still make up a much higher percentage of the U.S. population than they do the U.S. winter Olympic team.

Most importantly, though Alaska contained 0.22 percent of the U.S. population 1990, the four Alaskans in this year’s games make up 1.74 percent of the team, more than 32 other states and the District of Columbia. Ryan Stassel, of Anchorage, finished 14th among 29 in the men’s snowboarding slopestyle on Saturday. And Holly Brooks, Kikkan Randall, and Jessica Schultz will be skiing and curling in the days to come. Go team everyone!

After three weeks, I was kind of tired of writing about football, so.. HA! Of course I’m not tired of writing about football.1 But with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi just 67 days away, I wanted to start on them. Before the athletes start competing (and even after they do, actually) there are often several economic impact stories in the media. By and large, these stories have nothing to do with any actual economics, and drive economists crazy. They tend to overlook basic analytic questions that don’t go beyond the sophistication of a frenzied Christmas gift shopper, such as “What does it cost?” and “How long will it last?”, abusing numbers more crudely than Hollywood abuses Bruce Willis’ inability to turn down a role. Fun right? So I Googled “winter olympics economic impact”, clicked on the top hits, read them, and picked a couple. Most of them were about Salt Lake City (AMERICA!) and seemingly not enough people care about Turin for Google to throw it on the first page too much, but Vancouver did make the cut.

“Olympics leave lasting economic impact” by Jason Lee, 2/7/2012, Deseret News.

A decade after the Salt Lake games, Lee makes the case for their resounding impact:

Official state estimates of the economic impact showed the Salt Lake Olympics yielded $100 million in profits, $4.8 billion in sales, 35,000 job years of employment and $1.5 billion in earnings for Utah workers during 2002. Since then, the skate’s ski and lodging industries have enjoyed record-setting years, with a 42% increase in skier visits. Direct expenditures from skiers and snowboarders have increased 67%…

Millions in profits, thousands in jobs, record-setting years for the ski and lodging industries! What else you got?

The profits from the Games were distributed throughout the local community, with a $72 million endowment left to maintain former Olympic facilities, $10.2 million for Olympic Legacy Plazas, $11.5 million for charitable donations and $7 million in U.S. Olympic Committee business credits.

Millions for the local community? And charity?!? Impressive, impressive. What else you got?

The global media exposure of the Games gave Utah an estimated $210 million value in media exposure from locally broadcast events that have translated into increased tourism, according to Leigh Von der Esch, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism… ‘Our total visitations have been increasing,’ she said. ‘We’re up to over 20 million visitors annually now… There is no question that the 2002 Winter Games made the case that Utah has the greatest venues,’ she said. ‘We were proud of how we showcased the state.’

Global media exposure? Get right of town. Now they’ve got millions of annual visitors? Great showcasing, Utah, great showcasing. I’m sold. Wait, hold on…

The problem with all of those numbers is that there is no counterfactual. “$100 million in profits, $4.8 billion in sales, 35,000 job years of employment and $1.5 billion in earnings for Utah workers…” compared to what? There’s absolutely no context to these numbers. $100 million in profits for whom? Utah businesses? Governments? Both? How much is $100 million anyway? There are millions in endowments, the interest of which maintains the grandiose facilities built for the games… for what purpose? Is Salt Lake City hosting the Olympics again some time soon? They have had success attracting other such, smaller events, but do those things really matter?

You can’t mistake transfers growth. How much of the spending in Utah would have happened anyway, if at slightly different times and in other areas of the economy? An actual economic report (by Levi N. Pace2, from the University of Utah, no less) concluded that

… during the years leading up to the 2002 Winter Olympics, Utah’s economic output grew comparably to that of the entire country. The substantial inflow of outside money into Utah ($1.3 billion) amounts to no more than two-thirds of one percent of total Utah Spending (Gross State Product) for any year leading up to the Olympics.

Investments in roads, airports, and other infrastructure happen anyway; investment in hotels and resorts happen anyway. Rushing them all into being ready for the same two-week event isn’t growth. Any additional spending then just meant less spending somewhere else, either on other sectors of the economy or across the board in the future. Outside money did come in, but the sum effect of it all over the years was no more than 0.67% of Utah’s GDP in any one year from the time period. Not such a big deal, magnitude wise.

What about the 35,000 job-years? That’s a lot, right? Well, again, how many of those jobs were created and how many transferred jobs from other sectors? And how many actually lasted? The same report (Pace) noted that

By 2003, Olympic-related employment was expected to fall to a negligible 250 jobs.

Another study, “The Labor Market Effects of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics”, by actual economists Robert Baumann, Bryan Engelhardt, and Victor A. Matheson of the College of Holy Cross3, found that the Salt Lake Games provided

… a maximum of 7,000 job-years of employment (and a minimum of just 580 job-years).

Typically, the media has reported the duration and magnitude of the benefits to be far beyond the reality.

“2010 Olympics: Vancouver Winter Games Gave Economy a $2.3 Billion Boost, Report Says” by The Canadian Press, 10/27/11, The Huffington Post.

The article highlights a report from the consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers when making the case for the economic boost, stating:

the Games generated at least $2.3 billion in real gross domestic product to B.C. alone, [and] created more than 45,000 jobs

More billions of dollars, more thousands of jobs! What else you got?

The report said B.C. venue construction and other third-party investments injected $1.26 billion into the economy and tourism revenue increased by $226 million during the Olympic period from 2003 to 2010.

Construction investments! Tourism! Alright! And none of these things had costs, right? Oh, a line from that earlier study by Baumann, Engelhardt, and Matheson, mentioning a finding from yet another economist, Andrew MacLeod:

The Conference Board of Canada estimated that the 2010 Vancouver Games injected $1.56 billion into the local economy, an impressive figure until one compares that amount to the $10 billion impact predicted by finance minister Colin Hansen prior to the Game [sic] or to the $6 to $7 billion in costs to stage the event. (MacLeod, 2010)

Oh, you mean many of these things are costs? That the money spent on construction was money that now couldn’t be spent on other things? Well, how about tourism? The Huffington Post article sort of confesses that in fact,

Global economic uncertainty forced Premier Christy Clark to scale back tourism growth forecasts this week to five per cent a year until 2016. Former premier Gordan Campbell said the Olympics would double tourism numbers by 2015.

As we get set for Sochi, we’ll see a lot of forecasts, predictions, and hopes. They will invariably be proclaimed and confirmed by the media, often backed up by numbers. Think about those numbers. How much local investment is coming from truly new sources, how much will it truly benefit locals, how many jobs will it truly create (not move around), and how long will these things last? If you do that, chances are you’ll understand the article substantially more than whoever wrote it. Of course, like many economists, you also might find yourself tired of reading them.


  1. I’m currently 8-6-1 on picks this week, with the Saints at the Seahawks tonight. Bring it home, Drew Brees! 
  2.  “Economic Impact of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games” Levi N. Pace, 7/26/2006, Policy Perspectives, Center for Public Policy & Administration, The University of Utah, http://www.imakenews.com/cppa/e_article000623341.cfm?x=b11,0,w 
  3.  “The Labor Market Effects of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics” Robert Baumann, Bryan Engelhardt, and Victor A. Matheson, May 2010, College of the Holy Cross, Department of Economics Faculty Research Series, Paper No. 10-02 http://college.holycross.edu/RePEc/hcx/Matheson-Baumann-Engelhardt_SLCOlympics.pdf 
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