Medalball

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.

Zuckerberg’s Freshman Roommate: An Olympian

Bloomberg has a good story on Samyr Laine, a roommate of Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard (in the now famous room D11). Laine will compete in the triple jump at the London Olympics for Haiti, the country of his parents’ birth.

Remembers Laine:

We had a good time our freshman year in Straus, we played a ton of PlayStation. We probably didn’t sleep nearly as much as we should have. None of us slept as little as Mark did, and now you can see why.

Laine, 27, holds Harvard records for the triple jump, both indoors at 51 feet, 11 1/4 inches (15.83 meters) and outdoors at 53 feet, 7 1/2 inches, which compare with the world outdoor record of 60 feet, 1/4 inch by Britain’s Jonathan Edwards in 1995.

This was my favorite tidbit from the story:

Laine still laughs at an incident from freshman year. He remembers Zuckerberg running out of their dorm room after oversleeping and missing the first hour of a computer science final exam, only to get the highest mark in the class.

“The mastery he had of computer science, even as a freshman, it was almost comical,” Laine said. “We would often try to see how fast he could hack into our computers.”

Full story here.