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August 10th, 2008


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08:55 pm - The weight is over
The heat is on, the time is right and Going For Gold turns 21 this year. (I might have guessed it turned 20 this year, by virtue of its original prize being a trip to watch the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, but it makes sense that it started in 1987 so that it might finish in 1988.) All of this acts as preamble to the fact that the 2008 Olympic Games are now underway in Beijing. Happily I have a break between shifts starting on 8/8/08, which will permit maximum viewing, but really I don't think many of the team will mind doing night shifts at work at the moment because there'll be plenty of top-class sport to watch between trades.

True to form, I woke up at two in the morning (so 42 hours ago as I type) with a heavy cat stretched right out like a star between my legs and couldn't get back to sleep. Accordingly, with the main sporting programme barely three hours old - he said, sidestepping football's early start - I set up the air mattress in front of the TV for a mixture of sport viewing and sleep as my body dictated. The BBC are serving up typically half a dozen sports at any one time if you're watching by satellite; their number 1 choice was dressage, or at least the dressage section of the (don't call it "three-day") eventing competition. My tolerance for equestrian ballet can be measured in seconds rather than minutes so I started sport-surfing quickly.

I caught the end of a first-round (thirty-second-final, if you will) match in the ladies' singles badminton and was reminded of a reverie regarding the fairness or otherwise of sports whose matches are organised into games and thus a competitor might lose a match by, say, 21-0 19-21 19-21 and thus lose by one game to two despite having won 59 points to the opponent's 42. Sports which collect games into sets like tennis and darts are even worse still in this regard, though I do notice that at least one darts tournament that has moved away from the sets paradigm and merely has its matches being "best of large odd number", which makes more sense to me. Charles Dodgson ranted about lawn tennis in a similar fashion, if I recall correctly.

Badminton held my attention for only a few minutes, as did ladies' beach volleyball. (It's impressive how much of a court can be covered by just two players.) Between beach volleyball matches, I flicked over to some weightlifting. Ooh, I had forgotten just how much I like weightlifting. It's a great sport, sorely underappreciated outside Olympics fortnights, and I'd love to get the chance to watch it more frequently. It hits the fortius of citius, altius, fortius pretty squarely and its Olympic pedigree is second to few; while it's not been an ever-present, it appeared at the first International Olympic Committee games and has only missed a couple of appearances since then.

I admire weightlifting for its purity and for the certainty of telling who has won. Sure, judges are required to tell whether the form of a lift is valid or not, but which Olympic sport doesn't have some sort of human refereeing? (Some might consider the 100m track sprint to be the Olympics' blue riband event, but a degree of judgment is required over the start; remember the Linford Christie disqualification in the 1996 final.)

In each of the two disciplines, the competitor gets three attempts to raise a bar at the weight of their choice, with the stipulation that the weight on the bar can never fall. (Effectively, you've got to call or raise.) Compare this with the high jump, where you get three attempts, the count reset after each successful clearance. (Sure, there aren't two disciplines in the high jump, and lifting a weight is probably more exhausting than making a high jump, but those high jumpers have it easy.) There's also a brilliant tie-breaker; should two competitors lift the same weight, the tie is broken in favour of the lighter competitor. (The competitors are all weighed to the nearest ten grams, too.)

I saw the women's "up to 48 kg" category in the weightlifting. It was great fun. A Japanese competitor wrapped herself in, I think, a towel with a great big embroidered Stitch, from Lilo and Stitch. A coach of a competitor from Chinese Taipei had an awesome comb-over. Even Sir Bobby Charlton would have been impressed; he did a lot with just three strands. There was even controversy when the judges ruled 2-1 in favour of a lift from a French competitor being of good form, the jury overruled the judges and declared it no lift. I didn't know weightlifting had a jury that could overrule judges; it may be an Olympic competition stipulation only.

All of this excludes the fascinating decisions about what weights to attempt to lift; it's very easy to wait too late before you come in, record three failures and end up with nothing whatsoever to show for your efforts. (Remember, even Sergey Bubka, quite literally the ne plus ultra of pole vaulters, recorded no height in the 1992 games at Barcelona.) With only three attempts possible, it's not nearly as safe as it ought to be to deliberately come in at a light weight for your first lift and get a safe score on the board.

To me, it seems the obvious thing to do, assuming you're in the shape of your life, to attempt three weights as follows: Personal Best minus 10% to ensure you avoid a zero, then a lift to equal your Personal Best, then a lift to increase your Personal Best. Surprisingly many lifters came in too high and failed on their first attempt; I suppose the argument for their actions would be that the safe weight that they might get on the board is so far away from putting them in medal contention that it's not worth having, but surely "a success at a lousy weight and then two fails at a good weight" has got to be worth so much more than "three fails at a good weight", especially if sufficiently many people do try for too much and end up recording no score.

I also have the faintest of suspicions that this may not be the very strongest of Olympic competitions, relative to other Olympic competitions. People can participate perfectly well at levels of performance 20% under the World Record, and there can't be many other competitions where that's the case. (For instance, you don't see many men's 100m runners clock 12 seconds.) Athletics and swimming have a qualification system based around every competitor having to have achieved a certain standard; weightlifting starts with a certain number of competitors in the competition, then tries to allot the available number of spaces to apparently suitable contestants. I have a suspicion the standards-based model works better, but may be more expensive to implement, which may be why it's only used for the apparent prestige sports.

After the weightlifting was a tiny bit of judo, which - as ever - was impressive but impenetrable. Judo is one of those sports whose tournament format includes a repechage that is almost never properly explained; with a bit of investigation, the format is pretty simple. It's single elimination until the last 16 (and there were 33 competitors in the lightest weight men's competition, requiring one match in the thirty-second-final round and 31 byes) and double elimination thereafter, with the wrinkle that the final two in the no-loss bracket compete for gold and silver and the final four in the one-loss bracket compete for two bronzes. Why there isn't one bronze awarded in the one-loss bracket is unclear, but I might point at the prcedent set by the two bronzes awarded in boxing. (By comparison, the repechage in Taekwondo in 2004 is totally screwed up - if you're not beaten directly by either finalist, you don't get a chance to have a second elimination. Why is that a good way of organising things?)

The only sad thing about weightlifting is that they have got rid of the wonderfully evocative names for weight classes that they used to have up until the adjustments in 1996. Weight class names, especially deprecated ones, are sporting trivia taken to their most trivial, but I love to see the various sports' struggles to come up with something appropriate-sounding for categories of not-quite-unrestricted-weight contests. Pro boxing has the delightfully daffy "cruiserweight", a name for which I have never seen an adequate explanation, and amateur boxing used to cop out by declaring "heavyweight" to be a restricted division itself with "super-heavyweight" being unrestricted. Judo fares no better, with its contribution being "half-heavyweight". Weightlifting might be (or have been) the most bizarre of them all, with classes called "light-heavyweight" (fine), "middle-heavyweight" (yerrrsss...) and "first-heavyweight" (!!) as well as "heavyweight" and "super-heavyweight". It makes "bantamweight" and "welterweight" sound comparatively sensible.

So hurrah for weightlifting and hurrah for being able to watch it. The BBC are broadcasting, usually, five additional streams of Olympic broadcasting by satellite and three additional streams terrestrially. Effectively, as well as the well-known BBC One, BBC Two and the digital-only BBC Three and BBC Four, there exist BBC Five to BBC Nine in a way that would make Austin Powers' head spin. These additional BBCs can be addressed by pressing the red button on satellite while watching Olympic broadcasting; terrestrially, three of these streams are broadcast with default channel numbers 301, 302 and, er, 81, the third replacing BBC Parliament for the duration of the games. Oh, and Eurosport have a channel or two of action as well, should you like ads and different commentators with your sport.

I'd be delighted to know what other broadcasting systems worldwide do to bring a selection of sports to their viewers. I haven't actually seen all that much of the BBC presentation yet, not having been in the right place at the right time to see a broadcast begin, and this is a surprisingly important part of the Olympic experience. (Isn't it?) I have happy memories of the 1992 games, being in Tenby on our last family holiday, at least as much as anything else due to the magnificence of Freddie Mercury's Barcelona, with an assist from Montserrat Caballé. It was delightful to see this recognised by the Guardian in their recent sports presentation Joy Of Six, which gives Barcelona its pride of place.

However, however, that page manages to bring forth something somehow more delightful still. With a ba-ba-baaa sequence that knocks that of even the mighty Jim'll Fix It into a particularly cocked hat, let's go to Brazil for the awesome 1970s opening sequence and closing sequence of the magnificently-titled, magnificently-sung Esporte Espetacularrrrrrrrrr. It's pure sporting... Scorchio!
Current Mood: geekygeeky

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Comments:


[User Picture]
From:hedwig_snowy
Date:August 10th, 2008 08:52 pm (UTC)
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Here's a link to the Yahoo, USA television schedule. We also get the O Soccer Channel, the Korean O Channel, and the Mandarin O Channel....

http://sports.yahoo.com/olympics/beijing/schedule/television

Waiting for Monday on Oxygen for the equestrian cross country. Now, that's some serious "NASCAR fan waits to see crash" type of excitement there.

Actually, I like badminton and all the usually obscure sports. The ones I ignore are the ones I can see all the time (soccer, basketball, baseball, etc...). And, while I like diving (artistic meets sports) I have, just like figure skating in the winter olympics, never liked gymnastics... (May be a repeat comment because I've been posting that every where...because I really don't like it...and NBC fills up its evening primetime coverage...and shuts down its other networks...with gymnastics. Maybe if, at least, the women's teams would wear the same outfits that the female beach volleyball players wear... :-))!
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:August 14th, 2008 06:47 pm (UTC)
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Mmm, yes. The equestrian cross-country is the closest thing in the Olympics to a good old-fashioned obstacle race. If only they had a similar one for humans!

The best event they ever had in the X Games, but it was only one year, back at the very, very start, was a multi-day adventure race - one of those really involved more-than-triathlons with more than three different modes of transport, plus you have to orienteer your own route through ridiculously challenging conditions, you have to meet up at certain checkpoints for climbing tasks and so on. Not really in keeping with the X Games core of bikin', boardin' and bladin', but more interesting and more in keeping with my own sense of X.

Well, the sky surfing (surfboarding, except you're dropping to earth on a parachute) was pretty damn brilliant as well, and that just seems to have completely dropped off the radar. But it's between those two.
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From:zandev
Date:August 10th, 2008 09:02 pm (UTC)
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I'm a bit torn on the whole games one versus number of points issue.

Though it seems potentially unfair, the games won scheme does add some additional strategy in that some points matter more than others, so it makes a difference where you expend your effort.
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From:bateleur
Date:August 11th, 2008 06:46 am (UTC)
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I'd go a bit further and argue that under some circumstances grouping points into games can actually be fairer in some ways.

If, for example, the game is one in which players become tired and this substantially impacts their play. In this situation you could have a match in which one player is tremendously dominant early but is not adequately pacing themselves. Bundling points into games prevents this player from taking the match on the strength of their X-nil initial streak of wins whilst still allowing for the possibility that they might win in straight games despite the fact that they couldn't hope to take another after that.

This quite often seems to happen in tennis, for example.

Also makes the psychology of the game more interesting.
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:August 14th, 2008 07:04 pm (UTC)
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That's the best defence of the practice I've yet seen offered, thank you, but I am still not convinced it is necessarily a desirable phenomenon. For instance, I am not convinced it is one that would be sought to be replicated in the design of an arbitrary new sport - though if all a sport has to commend it is a funky scoring system then it may be a fairly weak sport. To me, you've argued it as far as "well, it clearly works both ways".

...he said, grumpily.
[User Picture]
From:bateleur
Date:August 14th, 2008 07:15 pm (UTC)
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I am not convinced it is one that would be sought to be replicated in the design of an arbitrary new sport

Here I agree with you. Unfortunately many existing sports have distinctly suboptimal designs.

[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:August 14th, 2008 06:50 pm (UTC)
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I'm not convinced that arbitrary score advantages for achievements of the same type does necessarily make the game more interesting. To go back to the tennis example, if there were as satisfying and distinctive a conclusion to a game of tennis as there was to a game of darts (or a game of snooker, or...) like making the final point required to win a game slightly harder somehow, that would be more interesting to me than this arbitrary selection of x.
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From:brigbother
Date:August 10th, 2008 09:21 pm (UTC)
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What I love about weightlifting is when people will got for 200kg, say, and they'll do it fine, but 201kg? THAT'S TOO HARD.
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:August 14th, 2008 06:52 pm (UTC)
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Ah, these days you can increase your lifted weight by a single kilogram. I always thought the minimum step was 2½ kilograms, but no more!
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From:lambertman
Date:August 10th, 2008 09:34 pm (UTC)
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In the States:

NBC/NBC HD: broadcasts roughly 9 hours per weekday (10 AM - 1 PM and 8 PM - 2 AM, possibly longer, minus 35 minutes for local news), 13 hours on weekends (when 10-1 becomes 10-6). All the swimming, diving, gymnastics and track & field (except for the walking events) go here. US mens' basketball goes here on weekends, along with lots of volleyball, both indoor (late-night) and beach (prime-time).

USA/USA HD: 10 hours per day weekdays, starting at 2 AM; the de facto "Olympics 2" focusing on major US team sports (football, men's basketball, women's basketball, and women's field hockey. Tennis, more beach volleyball, misc.

MSNBC: 12 hours per day starting at 5 AM; those same team sports with non-US teams playing, lots of USA baseball, yet more beach volleyball, handball, misc.

CNBC: 7-8 hours per day; late night baseball or softball followed by boxing (midnight - 4:30 am); afternoons, more boxing (usually 5 - 8 PM). MSNBC and CNBC basically combine to be "Olympics 3".

Universal HD: 24/7 simulcast or rerun of MSNBC and CNBC.

Oxygen: 2 hours weeknights, 6-8 PM; oddball sports with female skew (equestrian, synchro swimming, et al) along with lots of gymnastics rehash.

Telemundo: errantly-scheduled Spanish language coverage. Like Oxygen, pretty much irrelevant.

Olympic Soccer HD and Olympic Basketball HD: 12 hours per competition day of live and tape-delayed matches. Available on satellite and some cable systems. NBC also apparently launched Mandarin- and Korean-language channels, of which little is known.

NBCOlympics.com: live and (short-term) on-demand coverage of 25 sports (notably absent: swimming and diving, gymnastics, track, beach vb, boxing - all TV-only!). These are raw feeds from Beijing with no commentary.
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:August 14th, 2008 07:18 pm (UTC)
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I see, thank you. The BBC generally seems to run programming whenever there's any live action in a sport they're going to cover. Accordingly, at the weekends when BBC-friendly sport starts at 7am or 8am Chinese time then coverage starts at midnight or 1am UK time and during weekdays, when BBC-friendly sport starts at 10am Chinese time, then coverage might get a lie-in until 3am UK time. Once it has started, it runs on BBC 1 without a break (though it will nip across from BBC 1 to BBC 2 when there are scheduled news bulletins) until about 5:15pm when it stops for TheWeakestLINK - with most of the last few hours being recorded broadcasts only, obviously - but there's a daily magazine show from 7pm to 8pm.

Now so far we haven't had any baseball or softball, but I have checked and the semi-finals and finals, at least, are going to be made available as streams. Can't remember if we've had handball on the BBC yet, but it's definitely been on Eurosport. Didn't see any table-tennis until yesterday, but quite possibly it just hasn't taken place until now; after all, most sports only take up part of the programme. Haven't seen any rasslin' yet.
[User Picture]
From:bateleur
Date:August 11th, 2008 06:49 am (UTC)
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but surely "a success at a lousy weight and then two fails at a good weight" has got to be worth so much more than "three fails at a good weight"

Depends on the individual's utility payoffs for various different results.

If I'm a (relatively) novice weightlifter at my first Olympics, I might be delighted with a top ten finish and choose my first weight cautiously to ensure that I place.

By contrast, an experienced lifter at the peak of their career might only be interested in maximising medal chances and then shouldn't attempt any weight that doesn't have at least an outside chance of being a bronze-worthy lift.
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:August 14th, 2008 07:01 pm (UTC)
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You are clearly correct, but I think that 90% of athletes (in events where such a concept is meaningful) ought to have a utility function which involves a moderate approximation to a step function, "personal best = loads of utility, less than personal best = very little utility".

Now if you're not in ideal shape or in ideal form then you may be willing to settle for a season's best rather than an all-time best; indeed, injured GB weightlifter Michelle Breeze participated (at risk of aggravating further injury) to demonstrate a utility function of "personal best under the circumstances of the injury = loads of utility" and roundly came close to last, beating the no-lifters. There are certainly lots of events (e.g. canoe slalom) where the circumstances are sufficiently different from event to event to the point where the concept of a personal best is meaningless, and the concept can hardly be measured at all in team ball games (modulo the likes of the Opta measurements in football) but "personal best" is so clearly close to demonstrating you have put in the maximum possible effort that I think it's a well-suited metric for many-to-most utility functions.
[User Picture]
From:undyingking
Date:August 11th, 2008 09:21 am (UTC)
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I would prefer to see two bronzes in all sports that use a semi-final system... it seems very harsh otherwise. But that's me being a sympathetic human rahter than a sporting purist.

I understand that the BBC actually have more people in Beijing than the British Olympic team do.

What the others said about game-grouped scoring systems -- the strategic dimension can often add a bit of drama I think. It is interesting how we become attached to these essentially ad hoc accidents of sport-rules history, though. Racket sports (and volleyball, which is basically a racket sport without the racket) all seem to score in this sort of way, plus things like bowls and curling as well as darts. But why?
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:August 11th, 2008 02:25 pm (UTC)

You've hit the rantpot

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It's remarkable how many different formats there are between the sports at the Olympic Games. Consistency may not necessarily be a worthwhile goal in itself, but some sports clearly get better treatment than others and there's no clear reason why this should be. If some sports can (for instance) have more events than others, or have more competitors than others in their tournaments, or can award more medals than others, then I want to know why it isn't my favourite events that are treated most favourably. (Though, in practice, it probably is.) Even if we accept a market solution that different sports bid sums to the Olympic pot for the right to be included, that would at least have clarity. It would be a terrible way of doing things - I'd prefer to start from a standpoint that sports where the Olympic title is genuinely viewed as more important than any annual title awarded in that sport getting priority - but at least it would be transparent.

You're the first person to mention darts in your reply and I think there's a difference between darts and the rest. Games of darts have a satisfying and distinct conclusion; the fact that you require a double to finish makes the end of the game of darts clear, decisive and dramatic. (Conversely, arguably, darts doesn't have a satisfying and distinct start, as people play darts starting at 101, 301, 701 or 1001 as well as 501. Would darts be a more interesting game with fewer legs starting at a higher total or with more legs starting at a lower total? Open question.) Tennis and the others don't have anything like the same conclusion - it's simply get to x points with a two-point lead, occasionally with minor variants, and there's no particular reason why the conventional value of x (in tennis' case, 4, but 4 in disguise - and, in tie-breakers, 7) has been chosen. Why 4? Why not play with badminton scoring, or squash scoring, or table-tennis scoring, or volleyball scoring? (And, presumably, a rule taken from one of those games about occasional alternation of service.)

Suppose tennis had a rule that if you're at game point then your opponent gets to serve, regardless of whoever the regular service is. This provides a much clearer and more distinct conclusion to a game of tennis, and makes tennis much more identifiably about winning games rather than winning points.
[User Picture]
From:undyingking
Date:August 11th, 2008 02:47 pm (UTC)

Re: You've hit the rantpot

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sports where the Olympic title is genuinely viewed as more important than any annual title awarded in that sport getting priority

I would like that too. It's depressing that even after 20 years or whatever it is, the stars of tennis still clearly don't take it all seriously. Chuck them out I say!

I like your scoring thoughts, though: perhaps an experimental series of tennis matches using those variations is called for.
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:August 11th, 2008 04:25 pm (UTC)

Re: You've hit the rantpot

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A chemistry teacher at my secondary school (who I never had, sadly) was in charge of the handicapping of tournaments at his local squash club. He tried one tournament which was just a best-of-99-points competition with an appropriate handicap and time-outs every ten points or so. I don't know whether it worked or not.

The whole question of which sports should or shouldn't be in the Olympics is a tricky one. Football has a particularly weak claim, given that it deliberately seeks to have representative teams not be the strongest possible teams from their country, and the claim must be weakening still now that clubs are requesting that their players do not play in the Olympics. I think the sports to be featured in 2012 are now fixed (this year's 28 minus baseball and softball) which is a shame; while football has the questionable advantage of taking the one-city games around the country, getting rid of football would be an elegant solution to the "if Great Britain competes as a team in football once, the four home nations can't ever compete separately again" dilemma. (To which I say let Catalonia have its own team if they want one - anything that makes Spain weaker can't be bad...)
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:August 11th, 2008 02:34 pm (UTC)
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I understand that the BBC actually have more people in Beijing than the British Olympic team do.

Ooh, now there's an assertion. It was trickier than it ought to have been to find this stat which I saw a couple of days ago, but the director of BBC Sport says "As a piece of context, we flew 437 people from London - while our American colleagues NBC have 2900 here." (Incidentally, one NBC employee is called Ed Winchester. John Inverdale got him to do a "Hi! I'm Ed Winchester" from The Fast Show on air this morning, to which Hazel Irvine gamely responded with an impromptu Jesse impersonation. Marvellous.)

Conversely, the team GB website says "The total number of Team GB Athletes selected is 312 (168 men, 144 women)", proving your assertion correct. I wonder how large Team GB is if you include the coaches as well as the athletes?
[User Picture]
From:undyingking
Date:August 11th, 2008 02:48 pm (UTC)
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Mm, I guess it would be fairer to include coaches etc too. Still, mustn't let fairness stand in the way of a good statistic.
[User Picture]
From:jumbach
Date:August 11th, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC)
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American coverage on NBC sucks. They tell a lot of the stories of the athletes' struggles, but very little of the actual events.
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:August 14th, 2008 08:08 pm (UTC)
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I've heard that claim in the past. Interesting to see this claim about the average age of Olympics viewers, though I'd be interested to know if there were much difference from broadcaster to broadcaster - and, more to the point, from broadcasting approach to broadcasting approach.

lambertman above suggests other networks are covering the Games as well. Do they fall into the same trap or are they more factually driven?

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