Friday, August 12, 2016

Thoughts on the Olympics

This is an amazing photo Source: unknown/internet

1. We've known for some time now that staging the Olympics is a money pit whose only real purpose is to attain for the host city some amount ambiguous reputational benefit. Elite incentives to use public money and resources for these boondoggles closely mirror the public choice dynamics of stadium politics, but at a much greater scale.

2. One solution is to decentralize the games to some degree, holding events in different cities across the globe and enabling the repeated use of infrastructure. Movement in this direction seems unavoidable, and something like a regional games could be a good first step. Perhaps a Nordic-hosted winter Olympics could diffuse costs over a wide set of small countries while maintaining a coherent cultural brand. Certainly a tiny country like Iceland could never host an entire games all by itself--an obvious waste of its telegenic landscapes and sporting culture.

3. It doesn't really make much sense to compare different events, but rowing remains underrated as one of the most physically demanding sports from a holistic fitness perspective, alongside perhaps cross country skiing and probably some others. This short post is a memorable description of why rowing is so brutal.

4. It goes without saying, but the Olympics remains one of the highest-profile examples of cosmopolitan ethics in action: the recognition that humans are united as a species and worthy of equal dignity regardless of other identities like national affiliation, gender, race, language etc. This utopian quality throws into stark relief the inanity of various geopolitical narratives that inevitably play out in TV coverage. The nationalism that dominates the Olympics is friendly and fundamentally decent, and highlights the strangeness of true nationalistic hate.

5. The ranking of medal counts by nation is always curious to me, because it closely mirrors the pitfalls of voting (formally studied in social choice theory). No aggregation system is flawless, and any rule necessarily advantages some countries over others. Ranking by golds is unfair, because it totally negates the value of silver and bronze: a country with 100 silver/bronze would lose to a country with a single gold and zero silver/bronze. But ranking based on raw medal count--as NBC does--is equally flawed because it falsely equates the value of all three medal types. A runoff system might be considered (count up a countries' golds, but if none, then count silver, etc.), but some form of Borda Count would probably be the best, where points are assigned to each medal type and a countries' total points are simply added up (a GPA system, basically). Incorporating outside contextual data, like a countries' population or GDP, is interesting but not strictly relevant to the question of ranking countries' medal accomplishments.

5. In every Olympic games some number of world records get broken. This is likely due to many factors, such as:

  • Psychological ratchet effect: elites train with WRs in mind
  • Genetic improvement due to assortative mating
  • Genetic improvement due to better parenting and cleaner environments
  • Economic growth and development widening the pool of potential elite athletes
  • Economic growth and development increasing the number of paying sports fans, increasing specialization and resources available to elite athletes
  • Relatedly, shifting media and brand economics incentivize both superstardom and obscure sports, further increasing resource allocation and professionalization
  • Globalization and cosmopolitan attitudes among youngsters continue to reduce transaction costs of doing international sports
  • Increasing competition in fields rewarding top-tier genetics shifting higher-quality people into elite sports
  • Increase in post-materialist attitudes among individuals with top-tier genetics increasing interest in elite sports
  • Better science and technology
6. Although sports continuously adapt to new technology and scientific methods, arbitrary restrictions necessarily exist. That's fine: at their core, elite sports are about exercising virtue within a set of arbitrary rules, just like any other cultural creation. But some sports seem to identify much more with an external notion of absolute human accomplishment, which introduces a tension. Some performance enhancements are allowed, while others are banned. Transhumanist Party presidential nominee Zoltan Istvan has written about the need for an 'escape valve' in the form of a Transhumanist Olympics, where enhancement rules would be greatly reduced to allow for a 'true' measure of what humans can really do.

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