Tokyo to Host the 2020 Olympic Games


Tokyo has won the bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games, beating out Istanbul and Madrid. Bloomberg reports:

The Japanese capital was the bookmakers’ favorite leading into this weekend’s meeting of International Olympic Committee members in Buenos Aires, and defeated Madrid and Istanbul today in a vote by the IOC. Madrid was eliminated in a first round of voting after tying for second place with Istanbul, setting up the final vote won by Tokyo.

The winning bid to stage sports’ biggest event came on the city’s second straight attempt. While a lack of public enthusiasm doomed its bid for the 2016 Olympics, a March survey found 70 percent of Tokyo residents were in support this time. The government also billed the Olympics as a way to help Japan recover from a 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Parliament passed two motions in favor of the bid and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe broke into song during a March presentation to the IOC’s evaluation panel in which he said hosting the event was a long-held dream.

“Choose Tokyo today and you choose a nation that is a passionate, proud, and a strong believer in the Olympic movement,” Abe said in today’s final presentation. He was joined on stage by Princess Takamado, the first member of the Japanese Imperial family to address the IOC.

The Japanese capital, now festooned with the bid’s cherry-blossom logo, has emphasized merits such as financial stability, safety, cleanliness and convenience. Tokyo has put aside 408.8 billion yen ($4.1 billion) for building and upgrading facilities. Tokyo’s flagship project is the futuristic 80,000-seat National Stadium designed by London-based Pritzker Prize-winner Zaha Hadid, which will be built on the site of the 1964 Tokyo Games, an event seen as re-launching Japan on the world stage after World War II.

I will make it to Tokyo before 2020, but the Olympic Games there sound like a repeat visit would be in order…

Poetry at the Olympic Games

Amanda Katz reminisces on the early Olympic games, which featured competitions in music, painting, and poetry:

Nine days into the Olympic Games of summer 2012, we’ve all been reminded that this event is not, in fact, a simple series of sports competitions. It’s an international, hallucinatory carnival of dancing horses, Coca-Cola, terrifyingly strong teenagers, Paul McCartney singalongs, badminton scandals, rude commentators, bodies doing the nearly impossible—and, of course, poetry.

Poetry? Yes, from every quarter. A quotation from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” has been carved into a wall at the Olympic Village. Canadian writer Priscila Uppal is in London as an Olympic “poet in residence,” posting new poems daily about the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Earlier this summer, a weeklong festival called the Poetry Parnassus brought hundreds of poets to London, one from each of the competing Olympic nations. Of course, there is a long association between poetry and the Olympics: At the ancient Greek Games, poets such as Pindar wrote famous odes in honor of the winners.

In recent history, however, the relationship went still deeper: For some decades, literature was actually an Olympic medal event. Today, the strange story of the event’s debut 100 years ago—and the florid, slightly unsettling poem that won—have been almost forgotten. But together, they offer a fascinating glimpse of the spirit of the Olympics at the time.

In 1906, the International Olympic Committee began discussing a proposal from the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man credited with launching the modern Olympics in 1896, to include arts competitions in the Games. Eventually, the committee announced that the 1912 games in Stockholm would include not just sports but also five unprecedented events: competitions in architecture, music composition, painting, sculpture, and literature. The rules called for entries to be unpublished or unexhibited works, “directly inspired by the idea of sport.”

Here is the winning poem titled “Ode to Sport” that won the gold medal at the 1912 Olympics:

O Sport, pleasure of the Gods,
essence of life, you appeared suddenly
in the midst of the grey clearing
which writhes with the drudgery of
modern existence, like the radiant
messenger of a past age, when
mankind still smiled. And the glimmer
of dawn lit up the mountain tops and
flecks of light dotted the ground in the
gloomy forests.

O Sport, you are Beauty! You are the
architect of that edifice which is the
human body and which can become
abject or sublime according to whether
it is defiled by vile passions or improved
through healthy exertion. There can be
no beauty without balance and proportion,
and you are the peerless master
of both, for you create harmony, you
give movements rhythm, you make
strength graceful and you endow suppleness
with power.

O Sport, you are Justice! The perfect
equity for which men strive in vain in
their social institutions is your constant
companion. No one can jump a
centimetre higher than the height he
can jump, nor run a minute longer
than the length he can run. The limits
of his success are determined solely
by his own physical and moral

The New York Times also had a recent piece on poetry at the Olympic Games:

For much of the 20th century, poetry was an official, medal-winning competition in the Games. The French visionary who revived the Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, always insisted Greek-style arts contests should be allowed alongside athletics. His dream was realized in 1912 at Stockholm, where literature, together with music, painting, sculpture and even architecture, became Olympic events in the so-called Pentathlon of the Muses, in which all submissions had to be “directly inspired by the idea of sport.” In seven Olympiads, writers — almost always poets — were awarded gold, silver and bronze medals alongside sprinters, weight lifters and wrestlers. The general literature category was then expanded in 1928, 1936 and 1948 to include specific contests for epic and lyric poetry.

Very interesting!

Racing Against History in the 100-Meter Freestyle

The New York Times has a really good interactive comparing the various milestones in the men’s 100-meter freestyle swim. Based on the athletes’ average speeds, if every Olympic medalist ever raced each other, France’s Alain Bernard (from the 2008 Olympic Games, with a time of 47.21 seconds) would win, with a wide distribution of Olympians behind him, including the 2012 London Olympics winner, Nathan Adrian, with a time of 47.52 seconds.

Other swimmers profiled in the interactive:

Alfréd Hajós: Hungary’s first Olympic gold medalist, Hajós swam in 55-degree open water, in the Bay of Zea outside Piraeus, Greece. He also won the 1,200-meter swim.

Johnny Weissmuller (United States): The first swimmer to break a minute in the Olympics. Later went on to play Tarzan in “Tarzan the Ape Man,” which made him internationally famous.

Mark Spitz (United States): Won seven gold medals in the 1972 Games in Munich; nearly withdrew from the 100-meter event because he wasn’t sure if he would win. (He did, setting a world record.)

Alexander Popov (Russia): One of only three athletes with three medals in this event; the first person in 68 years to win back-to-back golds after Weissmuller did it in 1928.

The two and a half minute video is worth seeing in entirety.

Comparing China and India in the Olympic Games

Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier write a good Olympics piece titled “How to Boost Your Medal Count in Seven Easy Steps.” The predictions at the end of the piece are excellent, but the most interesting part to me was the reasoning of how China and India will perform in the (future) Olympic Games:

Will China and India, the two countries with populations over 1 billion, dominate the Olympics of the future, especially as they become wealthier?

To date, their Olympic performances are almost polar opposites. China has become an Olympic powerhouse while India has underperformed. From 1960 to 2000, China won 80 gold medals, while India won only two. Over those 11 Olympiads, India only won eight total medals while China won over 200. While China has grown faster and is richer than India, the difference in wealth can’t begin to account for the chasm between their Olympic results.

In their book Poor Economics, MIT economists Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo attribute India’s dismal Olympic performance at least partly to very poor child nutrition. They document that rates of severe child malnutrition are much higher in India than in sub-Saharan Africa, even though most of sub-Saharan Africa is significantly poorer than India.

Even the significant segment of the Indian population that grows up healthy is at a disadvantage relative to China. The Chinese economic development model has focused on investment in infrastructure; things like massive airports, high-speed rail, hundreds of dams, and, yes, stadiums, world-class swimming pools, and high-tech athletic equipment. And while India is a boisterous democracy, China continues to be ruled by a Communist party, which still remembers the old Cold War days when athletic performance was a strong symbol of a country’s geopolitical clout.

We’re about a week into the 2012 Olympic Games. What’s your over/under for total medals for China and India?

The Teenage Swimmers at the London 2012 Olympics

One of the amazing stories unfolding in the London Olympic Games are the young swimmers shattering world records. Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen last night became a double Olympic gold medalist at 16. She’s predicting the stars of the future could be even younger.

Ye broke the Olympic 200-meter medley record in 2 minutes, 07.57 seconds in a race she led from start to finish. In the 400-meter medley on July 28, Ye swam her final 50- meter freestyle leg in 28.93 seconds. That same night, U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte recorded a final leg of 29.10 while winning gold in the men’s 400 medley. According to Bloomberg, Lochte suggested Ye might have beaten him had they raced together.


Ye’s not the youngest winner in the pool. Two days ago, Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte, a 15-year-old who trains in Plymouth, England, captured the 100-meter women’s breaststroke title. Their successes make Missy Franklin, a 17-year-old U.S. high school student who took the 100-meter backstroke gold, seem like a relative veteran.

It’s quite interesting to see these world records being shattered by teenagers.

Which Countries Invented the Various Olympic Events?

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article “Why Are You So Bad At the Sport You Invented?” profiling the respective countries which lay the claim to have invented the various Olympic sports.

You probably knew that the marathon has its roots in Greece. But did you know that Iraq invented boxing, Egypt invented archery and fencing, Mongolia invented field hockey, France invented the triathlon, Great Britain invented the shot put and water polo, Japan invented swimming, and Germany invented diving? I didn’t.

Here’s how the WSJ referenced the invention of the various Olympic sports:

The countries were assigned case-by-case based on the circumstance which meant most to the development of the modern sport. Some countries were designated due to that place having created the modern version of the sport, like Germany’s claim of diving—something they originally liked to call “fancy diving.” Others were assigned because countries created a device that essentially birthed a sport, like Canada and the canoe. Some were awarded for having created an earlier version of a modern sport, like China’s claim to soccer or Mongolia’s claim of field hockey. And other sports were awarded to countries who were the first to hold documented competitions, like Japan and swimming.

And as for the results:

By this simple methodology, the most inexcusably horrible country at a sport they claim is Iraq. An Iraqi has never won one of the 841 total Olympic boxing medals despite their claim of boxing as the Ancient Sumerians created carvings depicting boxers in 3000 BC. Egypt and Ireland have similar calamities based on ineptitude in sports they devised in ancient times. Greece has managed to medal at least once in every sport they claim via the Ancient Games, eight in total. If you’re Greek flaunt your heritage in the discus. Don’t watch freestyle wrestling.

This interactive graphic provides the summary and is a must-see.


What if you could apply the tactics of Moneyball to the Olympic Games? Nate Silver performs a neat thought experiment to do just that. As he writes, “I’ve identified three measures that, when weighted equally, suggest the sports in which the Kyrgyzstans of the world could direct their energy and resources to maximize their medal count.” The formula can be broken down to three parts:

Find a cheap sport:

The average medal winner comes from a country with per capita G.D.P. of $27,000 in today’s dollars, which is well above the worldwide average of around $11,000. But wealthy nations haven’t claimed every sport. Indonesia has won many medals in badminton; Belarus and Ukraine are powers in rhythmic gymnastics. 

Pick a sport with most medals awarded per participant:

Team sports like soccer require a lot of players for a single medal; that’s expensive and illogical for a medalball country. So I ranked the number of medals awarded in the 2008 Olympics, per event, for every 10 athletes participating. The higher the number, the better the chance of a medal.

The final tip is to pick a sport where the diversity of country winners (outside of the top three) is large. Putting these together, Nate Silver concludes the following sports are best for producing a medalball country (scores out of 10 points; 5 is average):

1. Wrestling 8.78
Thirty-five countries, including Kyrgyzstan, have medaled in wrestling since 1996.

2. Tae Kwon Do 8.76
Though an Olympic sport only since 2000, it already has among the most diverse lists of medal-winning countries, including Afghanistan and Venezuela.

3. Weight Lifting 8.69
Its eight male (and seven female) weight classes give athletes of all sizes a chance. The poorer nations of Southeast Asia have done well in the lighter classes.

A great thought experiment!

The Fake Sounds at the Olympic Games

We marvel at the video quality of sports events, but often the sound engineering goes unnoticed. Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlanticconsiders the sound quality at the Olympic Games. Dennis Baxter, an audio engineer at the Olympic Games for twenty years, says in the BBC documentary, The Sound of Sport:

“In Atlanta, one of my biggest problems was rowing. Rowing is a two-kilometer course. They have 4 chaseboats following the rowers and they have a helicopter. That’s what they need to deliver the visual coverage of it,” Baxter explains. “But the chaseboats and the helicopter just completely wash out the sound. No matter how good the microphones are, you cannot capture and reach and isolate sound the way you do visually. But people have expectations. If you see the rowers, they have a sound they are expecting. So what do we do?”

Well, they made up the rowing noises and played them during the broadcast of the event, like a particularly strange electronic music show. 

“That afternoon we went out on a canoe with a couple of rowers recorded stereo samples of the different type of effects that would be somewhat typical of an event,” Baxter recalls. “And then we loaded those recordings into a sampler and played them back to cover the shots of the boats.”

The real sound, of course, would have included engine noises and a helicopter whirring overhead. The fake sound seemed normal, just oars sliding into water. In a sense, the real sound was as much of a human creation as the fake sound, and probably a lot less pleasant to listen to.

I like Madrigal’s coinage of “sonic fiction”:

So, in order to make a broadcast appear real, the soundtrack has to be faked, or to put it perhaps more accurately, synthesized. We have a word for what they’re doing: This is sonic fiction. They are making up the sound to get at the truth of a sport.