Some thoughts on the Olympics

Todd Henderson —  18 February 2010

I just love the Olympics. Exhibit A for me was the face of American skier Lindsey Vonn in the starting gate last night before her gold-medal-winning race. Vonn was the overwhelming favorite, having proved herself the greatest skier in the world for the past few years. She was, however, plagued by a nasty shin injury and was only able to ski because the weather gods delayed her race by several days. She was also preceded by several near-tragic crashes of her competitors. The look on Vonn’s face was pure intensity. She embodied the human spirit of accomplish and excellence in that moment.

Exhibit B was Shaun White’s second run in the halfpipe competition. White had already won the gold before his last run, and instead of taking it easy, he pushed the envelope of human capabilities. He proceeded to perform the greatest halfpipe run of all time, doing a trick that have never been done, and, if I’d seen it on YouTube, would have been convinced it was a trick of editing.

But the Olympics got me thinking about the odd role that political history plays on the competition. Take my favorite sport of ice hockey. What would the competition look like if the Cold War was still going on? Imagine the Czechs and the Slovaks, who had an epic battle against each other last night, playing for the same team? Or how about reuniting all the Soviet republics? Or giving Finland back to Sweden (sorry to my Finish colleague Anu Bradford for even suggesting this)?How about a combined American-Canadian team, say based on an American victory in the war of 1812? We can imagine a few mighty teams had history been not that much different, but would the competition be better? Is a tournament better with a few great teams or a larger number of nearly great ones?

Compare the US and Europe. These regions have a similar number of people, similar GDP, and similar living standards. And yet the fact that we 50 are 1, and their 27 are 27, means that they send more athletes and win many more medals than we do. In fact, one European state, Germany, will likely win as many medals as the US will. We could imagine instead an Olympics with US states competing individually, say as the territories of the United Kingdom do (e.g., England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, etc.). Minnesota, California, and New York, which send most of our winter Olympians would do well, but would they do better if they competed as states? In other words, would American medal totals be higher with our states competing individually, as in Europe, or as a union?

We might expect state-based teams to produce more athletes but lose a bit of enthusiasm — who wants to hear the state anthem of Illinois (do we have one?) on the podium? We might expect more innovation in techniques, styles, coaching, and technology, but perhaps a centralized body like the USOC does a good job of learning and implementing the best of the world. It is unlikely we will ever know how many medals Americans would win on state teams, but someday we may have a competition between America and Europe on equal geographic terms. Until then, I’ll enjoy watching how incredible we humans are, no matter how trivial the goals we pursue. I’ll also continue cheering for strangers just because they live nearer to me than those they compete against, and I’ll keep getting choked up watching the Stars & Stripes fly high over the medal stand.

2 responses to Some thoughts on the Olympics

  1. 

    Nice points. I wasn’t aware of this. But I think the question still remains. After all, to get to the Olympics, these various styles must compete at the US Olympic trials, and only a certain number, say 3, get to go to the Olympics. It is often said, for instance, that the US swimming trials are as good a meet as the Olympics, and that we could send many more athletes. The question would then be whether the winnowing at the trial stage helps or hurts the ultimate production of medals.

  2. 

    You underestimate the degree to which this competition already exists. In many of the major sports, distinct styles develop at the regional level and that tends to determine how American athletes are trained for most of their careers. For example, midwestern boxers today (especially in Chicago) tend to fight in the Mexican style: trade power for speed, moderate focus on defense, high stamina fighters. The east coast has usually been the domain of brawlers. By the time the boxers get to the national level, it’s too late to change those styles except for at the edges. Compare to the Russians, or the Germans, who tend to have a uniform style of fighting which is absolutely distinct. That’s the sport I’m personally most familiar with but basketball works similarly to a lesser degree as well.