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The Olympic Games so far - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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August 1st, 2012


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11:13 pm - The Olympic Games so far
The Olympics are always one of the highlights of my - er - Olympiad (OK, "quadrennium") and so far, despite the lack relative paucity of gold for Great Britain (not forgetting our representatives from Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and quite possibly the Channel Islands) the whole event has exceeded my expectations. I won't claim that things have been perfect, but at worst there has been a valiant effort to attempt to fix the bugs that have arisen.

History will likely judge the ticketing poorly. There were 20 million ticket applications for the first round of tickets released, and fewer than half of applicants received anything. Starting there and ending up with tens of thousands of non-football tickets unsold (on top of hundreds of thousands of football tickets unsold) seems to indicate a procedure that was somewhat made up as it went along and a public that was frustrated by this to the point where it lost enthusiasm to try towards the end. This does not start to address prominently-positioned tickets apparently sold but not actually occupied. Nevertheless, history will likely also judge this a less substantial fault than you might suppose, because this episode of the Games may well actually have struggled less badly in this regard than at least most - if not actually all - of its recent predecessors.

TV coverage has been a quantum leap forward from that of previous events. The BBC, and many of the other rights-holding broadcasters, have made almost all the action available live. In the UK, all up-to-24 streams have been available not just online but also broadcast digitally by satellite and cable. As befits the BBC and its track record of operations "because of the unique way it's funded" all the streams are available without a subscription fee, and as free as television ever was. My pedantry here relates to the fact that many nations have comparable funding (e.g. a majority of the G8: UK, France, German, Italy and Japan) and you have to pay for a Freesat receiver in much the same way as you have to pay for a TV aerial, but there are no subscription fees after that.

Yet it is probably human nature, or at least a reflection of the sense of entitlement that our modern wealth has brought us, that it's easy to focus on the imperfections rather than to enjoy the freedom. For instance, if you miss a live broadcast in the UK, the BBC are sometimes disappointingly slow (taking as long as a double-digit number of hours) to make things available on catch-up. Additionally, when so much is available, it irrationally sticks in the craw that anything might not be broadcast at all, even when the omissions are just qualifying and ranking rounds (e.g. in shooting and archery respectively).

Furthermore, much of the physical broadcasting is performed by a neutral, peripatetic organisation called Olympic Broadcasting Services rather than the host nation, and some of their work has been frustratingly far below the standard achieved by an experienced broadcaster within a particular sport - the men's cycling road race was particularly criticised here. I fear that the logical progression from here is not just to offer a single point of view on each event but a choice of points of view. In the greater scheme of things, these are not just First World Problems, these really ought to be considered "the 1% of problems".

Having so many options available can be a little overwhelming as a viewer. My conclusion is that while the BBC are doing a decent job of curating the action and picking the best available at different times to provide general-interest rolling shows on BBC One (and BBC Three), the balance between showing sport and showing people talking about sport has not quite been to my liking. (There are a small number of exceptions. I've got a lot of time for Claire Balding as a pundit; in fact, the whole of the aquatics team have been tremendous.) Fortunately we are lucky enough to have the option of flipping over to see any of the 24 streams if we want to - and BBC One, tastefully, tends to reserve the punditry for the pauses between the events and coverage of all the medal ceremonies at which there is no domestic interest.

It amuses to me to consider the likely reactions of a theoretical alien visitor who came to visit the Olympics and make a ludographic study of them. The different sports display a great variety of procedure and inconsistencies; there does not seem to be nearly the extent of sharing of best practice from one sport to another that there could be, and there seem to be few or no reasons for the differences other than preserving tradition - tradition often borne of historical accident. This is an example of the sort of social conservatism of which I am generally disfavourable.

For instance, there are almost as many different ways of holding races as there are different races. Sprints on track are generally held over four rounds, with race position in previous rounds being an important factor in advancement; however, sprints in the pool are held over three rounds, with only competitors' individual times in comparison to the entire field at large, rather than in comparison to the particular heat in which they participated, being considered. Why is one better than the other? I must say that my gut feeling tends towards the swimming way of doing things, though it could be argued that the swimming method makes the race aspect of the race less important.

Furthermore, these are not the only way of determining who is the quickest to complete a particular endeavour. There is no particular reason why competitors participate eight at a time on the track or the pool which may have nine or ten lanes constructed, or why competitors participate six at a time on the rowing lake; it could be argued that if you want to discover which of two participants is faster, then the purest way to do so is just to have a competition between the two of them. If cycling or tennis or archery or boxing or many other sports are happy to have several rounds of single-elimination competition between pairs, it's logical to consider whether it might be more fun than the current approach to have more of this pair-based competition.

We can take this further still; instead of having two competing at once, let's have only one competing at a time. In the cycling time trial, competitors participate individually and the gaps between starts are such that there is no practical chance of interference between competitors. Would this be a better way to determine who's the fastest at a particular feat? If the objection is that this risks adding a factor of differing weather conditions between those who compete early and those who compete late, why not go to the other extreme and draw a lesson from the marathon?

It's easy to imagine a one-off 100 metre race competed on a square track; 100 competitors, each has a metre-wide lane, making the whole track a square. If you object that the speed of sound means that some competitors will hear the starting-pistol a sufficient fraction of a second later than others to be unfair, let's lose the starting-pistol and draw from the inspiration of (e.g.) a BMX race and have a physical obstacle in the way of competitors that drops away to start the race. Furthermore, it would sort out the false start issue.

Of course, these not-entirely-serious suggestions would bring about their own drawbacks. For instance, in the 100-running-at-once marathon-analogue 100m race, sorting out 36th place from 37th place might require the sort of touch-to-register-race-completion sensor currently found in the pool. Arguably this is purer than the whole "let's look at an image to determine whether a torso has crossed the line" system used at present. I'm not saying that any of these suggestions are necessarily better than the current way of doing things, but I'm not immediately sure why they're actively worse, rather than just different.

And that's just the racing... or some small section of racing. Considering different methods of tournament organisation, some competitions are organised on a single elimination basis, others have repechages, others have pool systems to determine progression and elimination. Sometimes these pool systems don't quite work properly and inadvertently incentivise people to lose matches, causing controversy. I'm not suggesting that one sport has it right and all the others have it wrong, but I do think the different sports can look at what each other's systems have to offer.

There are also huge disparities in how many attempts people are given to prove their worth or otherwise. For instance, in team sports, even the weakest (association) football team that qualifies is guaranteed three matches before elimination, and the British handball and basketball teams will get five matches even if they lose each time. However, in archery, after firing 72 arrows in the ranking round to determine an initial seeding, it's straight down to single-elimination competition, where half the competitors will be eliminated in their first match. No matter how strong the initial 72 arrows were, it's possible to lose a match 30-29 30-29 30-29, so even six arrows that score 10/10 and three that score 9/10 may not be enough. This strikes me as pretty inequitable compared to the degree of failure permitted in team sports. It also surely increases the chance that the strongest athlete in the competition might be eliminated due to a short-term dip in performance.

There is an analogue to the old "degrees of skill" argument here; a game might be said to be a better test of skill if there are more identifiable levels of skill in it. For instance, noughts-and-crosses (tic-tac-toe) has one level of skill; either you know how to force a draw or you don't. However, well-established ratings systems have identified 8, 10, 12 or more identifiable skill levels in many different mind sports such that a player of one higher skill level will (*waves hands a little*) almost always beat a player of a lower skill level. You can artificially increase the degree of skill in a contest by playing best-of-three, best-of-five or more and thus giving the more skilled player more chances to demonstrate their superiority. In the same way, might (say) the 100m sprint be a more accurate reflection of ability if it were competed on a "best of three" basis? If not, why do any sports use "best of three" at all? By extension, why do some team sports use "best of seven"?

Part of the reason why there is no absolute right and wrong is that different sports are wanting to try to reward different things and meet different goals. That's OK and has got to be OK. It's only when the reason for having these different goals is nothing more rational than tradition that there's room for dissatisfaction.

It's also interesting to see the way that some sports have fixed their inherent procedural bugs and others, well, haven't. The most interesting sporting bug story so far (the badminton one is just dumb) relates to a fencing semi-final; specifically, in the Women's Individual Epee contest.

With a second left in overtime, and one of the fencers requiring just to secure a tie in that final second to win the match, the timekeeper dropped a blob and started the clock too early - then may have not properly reset the clock for the final part of the action. This final "second" proved decisive and the losing team's coaches kicked off to the extent you would expect. The fencer was briefed not to leave the fencing piste, for leaving the piste signified acceptance of the controversial decision, and sat there for about 70 minutes while appeal after appeal was conducted. The BBC have a not-too-technical write-up, fencing.net has a more technical one, but for me the sweet spot of a concise, clear explanation is hit by this discussion here on Dreamwidth.

It does occur to me that fencing could stand to learn from the best practice example of basketball, which prominently has a decimal clock counting down fractions of a second as time winds down and plenty of experience at resetting the clock very exactly. Fencing could be even better-suited to this than basketball in that the exact time of a hit can be measured precisely and thus can be ruled legal or otherwise. Frankly, fencing is so fast that it could probably do with being timed to decimal parts from the first swing of a sword.

On the other hand, Gregg Easterbrook of the consistently entertaining and excellent Tuesday Morning Quarterback on ESPN has long taken a contrarian position against greater precision being announced or depended upon than can realistically be relied upon, and might take this as a case in point. It's a respectable view, but I tend to believe that video evidence is available (and, at the level of the Olympic Games, genuinely practicable) that could make sub-second timing genuinely reliable, and thus I am in favour of its use. On the other hand, events like the 100m sprint reflect the state of the art in even more precise sub-second timing, and show the limitations; while people enjoy super-slow-motion camera footage that might be used to provide millisecond (or tighter?) accuracy, that has not yet found favour with the sporting community.

One day I want to produce a meaningful ranking table that compares sports and the demands they place against each other, because there is no particularly famous or well-regarded attempt to do so. A quick search reveals ESPN's attempt at this, which is a reasonable starting-point, but it is open to criticism.

For a start, it's pretty old. While there is no date listed, you can get temporal context from discussion of Hasim Rahman and the heavyweights prominent at the time; I think this places it at late 2003 or early 2004. More importantly, there are some important sports missing; off the top of my head, decathlon, triathlon, cricket, mixed martial arts (the single category for martial arts doesn't really cut it to me), dance as sport and doubtless plenty of others. I admit that I rather like the concept of some relatively unknown sport proving the most meritorious of them all.

The whole algorithm they used is open to question. The attempt to measure participant fitness rather than holistic merit leaves elements of dexterity and skill underrated and only a certain sort of stamina considered at all - but, more importantly, there is no attempt to say that some categories are more important than others, and some sports which only particularly attempt to require some characteristics but not others criticised as a result. (All the non-contact sports suffer, for instance.) Even if you accept the premise that the categories selected are valid, and all of them should be fully weighted for every sport, some of the scores awarded look dubious... or, at least, borne of a particular common sporting heritage rather than the cosmopolitan background that would be ideal. This is essentially qualitative research dressed up as being quantitative, which will only ever be truly satisfactory for the person compiling the figures. (Which is, in part, why I want to produce my own list!)

I think there are some axioms that should prove reasonable starting-points. I contend that there is a concept of purity of sport that deserves consideration. A sport is relatively pure if it requires relatively little, and relatively readily available, equipment. (By extension, I don't think it's unreasonable for team sports to suffer in this regard.) A sport is relatively pure if the experience playing it is relatively similar at the grass-roots level to the way it is at the global level. A sport is relatively pure if its rules are relatively easily learnt and understood; every tweak and game balance that is required - no matter how good the reason - diminishes the purity of the fundamental activity. A sport is relatively impure, arguably to the point of very considerable detriment, if it is significantly subjectively judged; the greater the role of the referees, let alone any judges, the less pure the sport.

I also contend that there is a concept of relevance of sport that deserves consideration. This is not to be confounded with popularity or media attention, because the media of the world has its own twisted and self-interested set of drivers, and it would require a survey of the entire world's media - not just a single language of global media, either - to measure it properly. It would be particularly capitalist to attempt to measure this relevance in purely financial terms or only to consider professional sport, let alone only considering spectator sport, but a survey of relevance that did not consider such factors at all would be similarly incomplete.

I may be asking the impossible, but it would be a fun long-term project at the very least!

One other way to compare a certain set of target-based precision sports against each other is to consider the degree of precision and repetition required. Trap shooting and skeet shooting are blatantly binary; either you hit the target or you miss it. Repeat a hundred times, or a hundred and fifty times, then count the hits up. A typical winning score is 99%. Tie-breaking is necessary and obscure.

Yes, it's pure, but it's dull; I'd rather cut the size of the targets by - say - 20% or 40%, or some other appropriate extent so that a winning score might be somewhere between 60% and 80%. I'd rather require something extremely difficult to be performed frequently, rather than something very difficult to be performed perfectly, and am prepared to accept the very small element of increased risk that this would introduce that requires people to get lucky - as opposed to the current situation which requires people not to get unlucky. This is a preference based on human nature, borne of similar thinking to the conventional wisdom that quizzes become less satisfying if anyone scores under 50% or over 90%.

Archery comes close to being problematic here, but gets away with it. The Olympic records are such that there's a worrying degree of requirement of ceaseless, consistent perfection, but we're talking about a reasonably sociable requirement of 75% perfection or so, and there's plenty of reason for the "9" ring to exist outside the "10" ring, with "8"s not being particularly rare even at the top levels. My main problem with archery is the small sample size used in the individual elimination matches. Up until 1988, similar numbers of shots were required in archery as in other target events, but also it was required to fire them from a variety of distances. I think I'd like to see the Olympic round moved back to requiring a 90m shot, as was the case pre-'90.

The best practice here, as far as I'm concerned, comes from shooting, with some disciplines featuring the best practice as well as others featuring the worst! While the qualifying rounds of the rifle and pistol competitions are based on five dozen or so shots at an archery-like target, with typically a very dull 85%-90% or so of bullseyes required to advance to the final, the grand final uses a target that awards not only whole points but tenths of a point for being millimetre-by-millimetre closer to the very centre of the target. I don't quite like the aesthetic that a perfect score from a single shot is rewarded with the ungainly value of 10.9, but it could be argued that pistol and rifle shooting require the most precision of them all by virtue of the smallest solid angle subtended by the bullseye from the shooter's point of view. I think we're talking nanosteradians here; hitting a 10.9 with a pistol from 50 metres is akin to hitting an airport terminal (or at least an airport) when firing at the Earth.

And yet - and yet! - the great and humble sport of darts has a couple of significant advantages over them all here. I am convinced that if you had to go to a darts range in order to play the sport, rather than a pub, it would be taken as seriously as any other accuracy sport, be played around the world and could be a contender to be as respectable as archery or shooting. (Maybe it's just a reflection of the "sport as an analogue of war" persistent undercurrent; you can kill someone with a gun or an arrow, whereas you can merely blind them with a dart.) Perhaps, snootily, darts looks like a poor relation because of its accessibility, humility and lack of expense. To me, that speaks well in terms of purity; few sports are quite literally as "pick up and play" as darts.

The other target sports require people to shoot for the same part of the same target each time, whereas in darts, no matter how many triple-20s or triple-19s you start off scoring, at worst you need to go for a specific double in order to get down to zero - and, in practice, you'll probably need to vary your throws a little sooner in order to get the out-shot of your choice. Tip of the hat, here, to the "running target" events in the shooting; while the bullseye remains on the same part of the target, at least the running targets move. Minus a million points for the hunting origin, on the other hand. Darts also deserves credit for its arithmetic requirements.

Other than its tradition, darts might also suffer in reputation by virtue of being more of a game than most of the other target sports, which tend to be very po-faced and uninteractive. Specifically, the championship 501 could be viewed as being one of several different games that are played with darts and a board, though I might hazard a guess that dart game popularity might break down as something like "90% n-hundred-and-one, 4% Round The Clock, 3% Killer, 2% Cricket, 1% others".

And yet darts could - and arguably should - be even more of a game than it is. Here is my design for a darts game, roughly comparable to - say - a best-of-five-sets of best-of-five-legs match. It is designed to slightly increase interaction between players and to require them to hit a wider variety of out-shots rather than repeatedly counting down from 501.

Players start on 5001. Nine integers are drawn at random and pre-announced, one between 4500 and 5000 (exclusive), one between 4000 and 4500 (exclusive) and so on down to one between 500 and 1000. Players must exactly reach each of these scores at the end of one of their darts; the penalty for busting past one of these intermediate scores is to conclude the turn, with a return to the target score plus 111. It's not necessary to hit these intermediate scores through doubles, but a double is necessary to reach 0 and go out. (This rule improves the game because it forces slightly different arithmetic and different out-shots each time.)

Additionally, any segment that a player scores is worth zero to their opponent on the next turn - so if you score triple-20, triple-20, large-single-20, then the triple-20 and large-single-20 are worth zero to your opponent on their next turn, though small-single-20 would still score for them. However, if they do hit a blocked target, then in turn they deny that segment back to you for your next turn. (This rule improves the game because it increases interactivity between the players and permits tactics.)

The scoring for bullseyes is a bit different; the first dart in the bullseye is worth 50 as at present, a second dart in a set of three is worth 70 rather than 50 and a third dart in a set of three is worth 100, thus valuing the spectacular but highly unlikely triple bullseye at 220 and incentivising it ahead of the triples. On the other hand, the outer bullseye is only worth 15 rather than 25 to stop the bullseye from being overvalued. A bullseye can also substitute for any single value between 1 and 10 even if blocked by the previous player - so if you need (e.g.) a 1 and both small-single-1 and large-single-1 are blocked, you can always score it through the bullseye.

In conclusion, I am delighted that London was selected to host the Olympic events for the year, from torch relay to Paralympics, and so far consider that it has done the job tremendously well and is likely to carry off the rest of the job with aplomb. That said, a nagging doubt leaves me thinking that the French passion for grands projets and public engineering means that they might have done it better still. Part of me would be happy to live in a world where Paris got the Olympics and we got the 2018 World Cup instead, even considering that FIFA are actually even worse than the IOC for being over-reaching self-interested supra-governmental global detriments and general public nuisances. We all know that Malthusian bargains don't work that way, and more likely we would have been left onlooking everything, again.

Hosting an Olympic Games is inherently an unreasonable proposition. Then again, so was building a Millennium Dome. It may have been fashionable to criticise the Millennium Experience at the time (and I will say that there was a lot of "try lots of different things to see what works" playing safe to it, though the results were not without high spots) but I do think that the continued existence of the building as an indoor arena adds to London life. Fingers crossed that the Olympic infrastructure does find a good eventual use. I am far more convinced, and far less merely hopeful, than ever before that it will all prove to have been well and truly worth it.

Please redirect any comments here, using OpenID or (identified, ideally) anonymous posting; there are comment count unavailable comments to the post already. Thank you!
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