The Sports Revolution: Tweaking the Olympics

Let me set the scene for you: The Games of the XXI Winter Olympiad are about to end, and they were pretty good.

Let me reset the scene for you: The Games of the XXI Winter Olympiad are about to end, and they were truly transcendent. Everyone is anxiously awaiting the Closing Ceremonies, complete with the first unveiling of the Ultimate Podium and the first declaration of a real Olympic winner.

We all know that the Winter Olympics suffer from a bit of a middle-child syndrome, perpetually locked between the last Summer Olympics and the next Summer Olympics. But at their heart, the Winter Olympics should be more fascinating than their vernal kin. This is because so many of its events are so novel to us living in America. We no longer live in the peaceful America of Saturdays spent with Jim McKay and ABC’s Wide World of Sports, where we’d occasionally catch a glimpse of a skiing event in a year that wasn’t divisible by four.* With our sporting purview more limited to the mainstream now, our predominant reaction to the sports of the Winter Olympics comprises questions such as, “What’s going on here?” and “How come nobody else thinks this is that cool?” (The latter of which is adopted by my own colleague.)

*This was back when the Winter Olympics only occurred in years divisible by four.

Of course, Pierre is able to simultaneously enjoy mainstream sports and the Winter Olympics—even if they were never better than in Albertville.* This does not, however, mean that the events of the Winter Olympics are perfect as currently constituted. In fact, many require subtle tweaks and, in some cases, complete overhauls to keep them relevant and generate increased appreciation.

*A.k.a. The Last “Real” Winter Olympics.

Olympic Hockey should completely adopt the rules of the NHL.

It has been encouraging to see the number of North Americans (and yes, I could probably drop the qualifier) invested in Olympic hockey. At the same time, it will be all the more discouraging when they inevitably lose interest in the sport next week when the NHL returns to action—because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the main cause for the improvement in quality is the more open rules of Olympic hockey. If the Olympics adopt the NHL’s rules, nobody would think so anymore, and everyone would watch the NHL again.

Short-Track Speed Skating should embrace its physicality and eliminate disqualifications.

STSS, as we in the business call it, is one of the most exciting sports in the Games—at least until someone “interferes with” or “accidentally bumps” or “intentionally shoves” an opponent out of the way, earning a disqualification in the process. This burdens the sport with two major issues: an overreliance on luck and on judges. The luck factor is readily apparent when skaters battling for second slip out and allow Apolo Anton Ohno to breeze to a silver from fourth place.

The judging in the sport is shoddy enough to recall memories of my beloved countrywoman, Marie-Reine Le Gougne. A few evenings after Ohno lucked into silver, the Chinese women lucked into gold when one of their skaters was ruled to have been interfered with by a South Korean who, truth be told, just took a better angle. The best way to prevent opaque and incompetent judges from deciding the sport’s biggest events is to eliminate the need for them; that is, to eliminate the rules against physical contact.

You get a sport still dependent on speed and one with a clear and, just as important, just conclusion.

Cross-Country Skiing should no longer be the cranberry juice of the Games, sneaking into events such as the Biathlon and Nordic Combined.

Unless the Winter Olympics plans on incorporating some sort of Winter Decathlon, there is no reason to continue churning out hybridized sports that don’t make intuitive sense. In terms of the Biathlon, I understand the idea that skiing for a long time makes hitting a small target with a gun harder, but I don’t understand why so much of the focus of the sport ends up on the shooting. It has nothing to do with winter. And with the Nordic Combined, why ski jumping and cross-country skiing? Why not moguls and cross-country skiing? Or downhill? Or speed skating? The fact that both are done on skis is meaningless. Why don’t the Summer Olympics adopt some sort of swimming/water polo combined? They both occur in water!

The idea of a Winter Decathlon is fantastic—provided we cut it to a Septathlon.

Your seven events:

1. Ski Jump

2. Downhill Skiing

3. Freestyle Skiing

4. Short-track Speed Skating

5. Long-track Speed Skating

6. Luge

7. Cross-country Skiing

You’ll have to do it based on points instead of time because of the sheer distance of the final event. But still, isn’t this the best way of finding the true Winter Olympian?

Restore Figure Skating to its once-proud ways.

Get rid of this ludicrous objective system that stifles creativity just because my countrywoman was bribed once by the Russians.* The performances, particularly on the men’s side, have become stale and uninspiring. The skaters have not just toned down their aesthetic sensibilities; they’ve almost eliminated them entirely.

*It doesn’t matter what you do; the Russians will always find a way.

Figure skating will always be an event defined by judging, regardless how objective you try to make it. At least try to maintain its aesthetic beauty.

Curling has to cut the number of rocks per end in half.

Eight rocks? Bit much, if you ask Pierre. Cut it to four—one per player—and you get shorter, more intense, and more exciting games where mistakes can’t be overcome. It further eliminates some of the emphasis on the skip. As currently constituted, the event allows teams with an outstanding skip defeat teams that are otherwise better. John Shuster and Cheryl Bernard agree with me.

Introduce a scoring system to the Medal Count.

I’ve never understood the idea of a Medal Count that didn’t care to differentiate between Gold, Silver, and Bronze. The goal is not to win as many medals as possible; it’s to win as many good medals as possible. Therefore, create a point system, where gold is worth six, silver three, and bronze two (hence, one gold = two silver = three bronze). Then, at the Closing Ceremonies, build an Ultimate Podium, where a representative from the countries that finish first, second, and third in this Revised Medal Count celebrate their respective nations’ achievement. It would be like selecting the flag-bearer for the Opening Ceremonies, except based on actual accomplishment at the Games.

If you think quantifying medal counts is outside of the spirit of the Olympics, then you haven’t been paying much attention. The Olympics are a competition, and as much as we try to portray them as a Kumbaya-the-world-comes-together-as-one event, they are decidedly not. The dirty snow of the Winter Olympics is that most of its participants compete in order to win—not to unite with the world. For instance, even Canada—polite, conciliatory Canada—adopted an “Own the podium” motto for these Games. Let’s make that possible.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on February 27, 2010 at 9:41 PM

    Pierre, take your French Fries, French Toast, French Bread, and French accent and go back to Montreal, Quebec, Indiana, France, or the Ton Ton Macoute or where ever you came from. Why? You are right for once and that is no way representative of your French heritage. All that being said, I do kind of like the biathlon in that it’s real world. There was a time where people really did have to cross-country ski and stop and shoot a deer. Hey, if you don’t shoot no deer, you ain’t got no venison. Who cares how fast you skied if you come home to your starving family real fast with nothing but ice. Also, I think Russians should be penalized on the podium for sulking. “You don’t like your second-place silver, Ruski, good, now you get bronze!” (inspired by the Soup Nazi). I didn’t say that. John Mayer did and I can prove it.

    Reply

  2. One other note, Pierre. I assigned number values to gold (3), silver (2), and bronze (1) medals – pretty innovative, don’t you think? Then I calculated standings and lo and behold the top 5 were exactly the same. The next 5 had 2 changes. Korea came out number 6 overall with all their golds, and France dropped to number 10 with the lack of golds. So basically 2 countries in the top 10 switched positions.
    So, let’s leave it alone Pierre – after all this is the Olympics standings, not baseball statistics.

    Reply

    • Maybe there is no change based on your insipidly simplistic point assignations; under mine, the Canadians would have passed the Germans on Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal (115 points to 113; a silver would not have sufficed). Further, the South Koreans would have leaped from seventh to fifth–no small jump for the nation.

      And as you yourself perhaps see through your own comparison, novel approaches to statistics influence our perception of purported “average” performance more so than that at the top. After all, we don’t require OPS to know Albert Pujols is the best right-handed hitter.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Wey on February 28, 2010 at 3:37 PM

    “Olympic Hockey should completely adopt the rules of the NHL”

    wouldn’t the reverse be preferable? If people enjoy Olympic hockey more because it has a more “open” style, wouldn’t this improve the NHL? Furthermore, after the lockout, didn’t they try to adopt some more Olympic-style rules and as such, there’s been more of a shift in that direction anyway? I guess I don’t understand what trying to make the Olympic tournament more like NHL (and in the eyes of many, not as exciting) would accomplish. I can understand why rule symmetry in preferable to the status quo (in whatever direction that may be), but I don’t understand why this is the alternative you would want them to pursue…

    Reply

    • If you have the financial resources to retrofit 30 North American hockey arenas with the extra 10 feet of length and 13 feet of width that traditional Olympic rinks require, go ahead.

      The issue is that many individuals will make the case that the NHL needs to adopt the more “open” rules of the Olympics to transfer the quality of hockey back to its own league when this is financially impossible. However, the quality of play is far more attributable to the collection of talent–not an extra 130 square feet in area (as proven this year, when the Olympics were played on NHL-sized ice). If the Olympics were to adopt the NHL’s rules, the quality of play would not suffer much, and fans would not have an excuse not to watch regular-season hockey at the end of the Games.

      And the NHL has made several rules changes of late–some aligning with Olympic rules and some not. There is no overriding philosophy of symmetry.

      Reply

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