olympics

Olympic sports and failure

I wanted to post some follow-up to my prior post about sports where the contestants go to the edge and fall down. As I see it, the sports fall into the following rough classes:

  1. You push as hard as you can. The athlete who does the best — goes higher, stronger, faster — wins. The 100 metres is a perfect example.
  2. You push hard, but you must make judgments as you compete, such as how hard to push, when to pass etc. If you judge incorrectly, it lowers your final performance, but only modestly.
  3. You must judge your abilities and the condition of the course and your equipment, and choose what is difficult enough to score well, but which you can be confident you will execute. To win, you must skate (literally or figuratively) close to the edge of what you can do. If you misjudge, or have bad luck, you are penalized significantly, and will move from 1st place to the rear of the pack.

My main concern is with sports in the third group, like figure skating, half-pipe and many others, including most of the judged sports with degrees of difficulty. The concern is that sudden shift from leader to loser because you did what you are supposed to do — go close to the edge. Medals come from either being greatly superior, knowing your edge very well, which is the intention, or from being lucky that particular day — which I think is not the intention.

Many sports seek to get around this. In high jump and pole vault, you just keep raising the bar until you can’t get over it, and somebody gets over the highest bar. This is a good system, but difficult when a sport takes a long time or is draining to do even once. You could do a figure skating contest where they all keep trying more and more difficult moves until they all fail but one, but it would take a long time, be draining, and cause injuries as there is no foam pit like in high jump.

Other sports try to solve this by letting you do 2 or more runs, and taking the best run. This is good, but we also have an instinct that the person who can do it twice is better than the one who did it once and fell down the other time. Sports that sum up several times demand consistent performance, which is good, but in essence they also put a major punishment on a single failure, perhaps an even greater one. This approach requires you be a touch conservative, just under your edge, so you know you will deliver several very good runs, and beat somebody who dares beyond their ability, but falls in one or more runs. At least it reduces the luck.

The particular problem is this. “Big failure” sports will actually often give awards either to a top athlete who got a good run, or to the athlete who was more conservative in choosing what to do, and thus had a very high probability of a clean run. Fortunately this will not happen too often, as one of the top tier who went-for-broke will have that clean run and get 1st place. But the person who does that may not be the one who is overall most capable.

Imagine if high jump were done with each competitor choosing what height they wanted the bar to be at in advance, and getting one try at it, and getting a medal if it’s the highest, but nothing if they miss.

The sports like short-track speed skating, which are highly entertaining, have this problem in spades, for athletes who wipe out can also impede other athletes. While the rules try to make it up to the athlete who was knocked out, they have a hard time doing this perfectly. For example in the semi-finals of short-track, if you get knocked out while you were in 3rd, you are not assured to get a consolation qualification even if you were just about to try for 2nd with the strength you were saving.

In some cases the chaos is not going away because they know audiences like it. Time trials are the purest and fairest competition in most cases but are dead-boring to watch.

Curling is the best Olympic sport

Some notes from the bi-annual Olympics crackfest…

I’m starting to say that Curling might be the best Olympic sport. Why?

  • It’s the most dominated by strategy. It also requires precision and grace, but above all the other Olympic sports, long pauses to think about the game are part of the game. If you haven’t guessed, I like strategy.
  • Yes, other sports have in-game strategy, of course, particularly the team sports. And since the gold medalist from 25 years ago in almost every sport would barely qualify, you can make a case that all the sports are mostly mental in their way. But with curling, it’s right there, and I think it edges out the others in how important it is.
  • While it requires precision and athletic skill, it does not require strength and endurance to the human limits. As such, skilled players of all ages can compete. (Indeed, the fact that out-of-shape curlers can compete has caused some criticism.) A few other sports, like sharpshooting and equestrian events, also demand skill over youth. All the other sports give a strong advantage to those at the prime age.
  • Mixed curling is possible, and there are even tournaments. There’s debate on whether completely free mixing would work, but I think there should be more mixed sports, and more encouragement of it. (Many of the team sports could be made mixed, of course mixed tennis used to be in the Olympics and is returning.)
  • The games are tense and exciting, and you don’t need a clock, judge or computer to tell you who is winning.

On the downside, not everybody is familiar with the game, the games can take quite a long time and the tournament even longer for just one medal, and compared to a multi-person race it’s a slow game. It’s not slow compared to an even that is many hours of time trials, though those events have brief bursts of high-speed excitement mixed in with waiting. And yes, I’m watching Canada-v-USA hockey now too.  read more »

Being the greatest athlete ever

NBC has had just a touch of coverage of Michael Phelps and his 8 gold medals, which in breaking Mark Spitz’s 7 from 1972 has him declared the greatest Olympic athlete, or even athlete of all time. And there’s no doubt he’s one of the greatest swimmers of all time and this is an incredible accomplishment. Couch potato that I am, I can hardly criticise him.

(We are of course watching the Olympics in HDTV using MythTV, but fast-forwarding over the major bulk of it. Endless beach volleyball, commercials and boring events whiz by. I can’t imagine watching without such a box. I would probably spend more time, which they would like, but be less satisfied and see fewer of the events I wish to.)

Phelps got 8 Gold but 3 of them were relays. He certainly contributed to those relays, may well have made the difference for the U.S. team and allowed it to win a gold it would not have won without him. So it seems fair to add them, no?

No. The problem is you can’t win relay gold unless you are lucky enough to be a citizen of one of a few powerhouse swimming nations, in particular the USA and Australia, along with a few others. Almost no matter how brilliant you are, if you don’t compete for one of these countries, you have no chance at those medals. So only a subset of the world’s population even gets to compete for the chance to win 7 or 8 medals at the games. This applies to almost all team medals, be they relay or otherwise. Perhaps the truly determined can emigrate to a contending country. A pretty tall order.

Phelps one 5 individual golds, and that is also the record, though it is shared by 3 others. He has more golds than anybody, though other athletes have more total medals.

Of course, swimming is one of the special sports in which there are enough similar events that it is possible to attain a total like this. There are many sports that don’t even have 7 events a single person could compete in. (They may have more events but they will be divided by sex, or weight class.)

Shooting has potential for a star. It used to even be mixed (men and women) until they split it. It has 9 male events, and one could in theory be master of them all.

Track and Field has 47 events split over men and women. However, it is so specialized in how muscles are trained that nobody expects sprinters to compete in long events or vice versa. Often the best sprinter does well in Long Jump or Triple Jump, allowing the potential of a giant medal run for somebody able to go from 100m to 400m in range. In theory there are 8 individual events 400m or shorter.

And there are a few other places. But the point is that to do what Phelps (or Spitz) did, you have to be in a small subset of sports, and be from a small set of countries. There have been truly “cross sport” athletes at the Olympics but in today’s world of specialized training, it’s rare. If anybody managed to win multiple golds over different sports and beat this record, then the title of greatest Olympian would be very deserving. One place I could see some crossover is between high-diving and Trampoline. While a new event, Trampoline seems to be like doing 20 vaults or high dives in a row. And not that it wasn’t exciting to watch him race.

More Burning Man packing…

Olympics notebook

Found a thread on avsforum where NBC's engineers are participating. Turns out it would be very simple for them to include a second audio stream without the commentary. In addition, this has apparently been done by some European broadcasters.

I would like to even propose we expand the standard a bit here, to indicate when two streams are "mixable." If Stream 1 had the full audio, and stream 2 had it without commentary, one could also mix these streams, to effectively adjust the volume of the commentary if your equipment knew enough to do so. You could also subtract them if you wanted just the commentary. In a perfect world, each audio channel would come in its own stream so that you could mix yourself, and edit out Scott Hamilton for example, but that's not likely to happen.

So let's encourage them to do this for all sports. Give HD viewers a true "being there" sense. Other interesting things learned: The SD stuff is being shot with widescreen PAL (625 line, 50hz) cameras, cropped and coverted to 525line 60hz for SDTV, upconverted with no need for crop for 1080i60hz viewers.

Sport inflation: It keeps going. Just too many sports. I must admit I am of two minds on Snowboardcross. On the one hand, sports where people physically race one another (like in track) are much more exciting to watch. On the other hand, both Snowboardcross and short-track speed skating tend to have too much luck in them because of this, as people both fall, or are hit by those who fall. Those who are innocent have been getting free passes from the heats (fair) but are just out of luck in the finals.

At least there is no "program component." In spite of Figure Skating's efforts to revamp the terrible judging system which ended in scandal last time when a French judge was bribed to reduce the score of a Canadian pair, it seems that "reputation" remains a huge hidden component in the scores.

It probably wouldn't get the audience, but I would switch figure skating to a pure, non-judged event like high-jump. You keep raising "the bar" (difficulty level on a series of jumps and moves) until only the gold medalist can do it. You would end up with more medals (at least one for the Axel and Toe Loop, or just a general for toe jumps and edge jumps.)

It's not that the dances and choreography aren't pretty and fun to watch. It's just that they are artistry rather than pure athletics -- and thus depend on reputation too much.

These olympics are doing poorly in the ratings. I would have figured with all the HDTVs out there the reverse would happen. Of course, I watch with MythTV. It would be unbearable to watch these games without Myth or Tivo or similar, and most HD users don't have those things.

Interesting issue with Ice Dancing. One of the teams featured a U.S. man and Canadian woman, who could not compete in 2002 because of this. They competed this year after some lobbying got U.S. citizenship for the woman via act of congress. I wonder if we'll see more Olympic gamesmanship with modification of citizenship rules. (It's been common for years for people with dual citizenship who can't get on one country's team to just compete for the other country, particularly small ones.)

I suppose one could just allow a bi-national team like this one to compete. I mean they give 2 gold medals to the winning team, what harm is there if it's one for each country? Seems like something grand in the spirit of international cooperation. The problem is the rules about how many competitors a country can send. Both nations might be afraid to send half of a team if it counted the same as sending the full team against their quota. If it only counted half, they would need to send half of two teams, but it might work.

The national borders are becoming less important in the big money sports. The US-Canadian ice dancers train in the US. I recall at least one eastern team which trained in Calgary. (Such training in richer countries is common.) Why not present the world with the best team?

HDTV to SDTV cropping in the camera, and NBC SD widescreens

Note 1: NBC doesn’t have nearly enough HD cameras for the Olympics, and I can’t really blame them for not having one for every section of luge track to show us something for half a second.

But it seems in many areas they are showing us a widescreen image from an SD camera, and it looks more blurry than the pillarboxed SD footage they show of past scenes. I wonder, are they taking a cropped widescreen section out of their 4:3 SDTV camera? If so, that’s not what I want. Or are there a lot of 16:9 SD cameras out there?

Note 2: I haven’t researched much how people are using broadcast HD cameras for live events, but notes I have found suggest the camera crews shoot in 16:9 and compose the frame so that the 4:3 frame in the middle will look good for downconvert.

I propose a fancier scheme. Sometimes you want HD to get more detail on the same scene. Sometimes you want it to get the same detail and a bigger view, especially in sports. It would be good if somebody (camera operator or directors in control room) could set the crop box dynamically. It could just be a 4:3 box in the middle, or panned left and right, but it could and should also be a smaller box anywhere in the frame, perhaps 2/3rds of the frame height (a 480 line section of a 720 line field) or even a 480 line section of a 1080 line field.

The camera operator would have to see a clearly marked box in their viewfinder, to show what the current 4:3 SDTV view is like, and compose to assure the main action is in that box. In the meantime HD viewers would see the whole scene. When it makes more sense to show both viewers a similar view, the box would pull out. In theory, the box could pull out all the way so the SDTV viewers see a letterboxed view, though I doubt many networks would use that.

It would be confusing for the camera operator to do this at first, and it might make sense for the control room folks to do this at least some of the time.

This would also be a sort of digital zoom for the SDTV viewers, and the UI might be integrated into the zoom control. Possibly a button would control whether an optical zoom was done, or the SDTV view was shrunk.

Anybody know if they’re doing it this way? I’ve certainly seen TV shows like SNL recently that are clearly composed for 16:9. Are we seeing a crop of the 4:3, or are the 4:3 people seeing letterbox? I would have to tune both programs to find out.

Blinky balls at olympics

I finally watched the closing ceremonies yesterday (did not see them while at Burning Man, obviously.) I liked the blinky balls that the children and audience members had, and the sense that the flame lit the LED ball. But it was just manual, people pushed buttons.

It occured to me it would not be too expensive to make an LED blinky that worked a bit like flame. While it was on, it would transmit a particular signature code in its blinking. If another blinky got close enough to see this brightly enough, it would detect it and turn itself on for some period of time. You could tune the range, it's just a photoresistor.

That way they could "light" their neighbours the way a flame does, and the flame would pass along. With the range tuned to a few feet, the lighting would have propagated through the audience at some speed (you could define what the speed would be.)

This would also be a fun rave/party favour. You might be able to light your own or you could light from somebody else. Perhaps after too long alone the blinky would go out and need to be lighted from somebody else's, encouraging socialization.

Olympics on the Tivo

As I watch the Olympics on my Tivo, I'm having a hard time understanding how anybody could watch them without one. The number of events has become immense, and the coverage is 24 hour -- more than that, because I have both CBC and NBC coverage. (Plus CNBC, MSNBC and others, and I could buy TSN and Country Canada if I were desperate.)

So my Tivo records a lot of it, and I use it extensively. Most long races are watched at high speed for the middle part. It silences the commentary too, though at times it would be nice if the Tivo, when in 3x mode, would decode the closed captioning and display it for me. Of course I zoom over the endless array of constantly repeated commercials, and the sports I don't care to see.

How long before we get what we really want, on either a bigger screen or two screens (one for the images and one for text.) Tell us the background facts in text, let us call them up when we want and browse them. Let us surf around all the video, be it the backgrounders on the athletes and locations, and the events themselves. This is what I'm trying to get close to with my Tivo. There are web sites with streaming video but that can't approach even NTSC television, let alone high-def TV.

They would learn what's popular and put money into it, and what's not popular. What's not too popular might get very minimal coverage (fixed cameras at the event or bloggers coming hi-def videocameras if the networks yield on a given event) but that's OK.

The local paper had a reporter try to watch all the coverage in a day, which was of course unbearable. But working people can't be watching even the 4 to 5 hours of primetime, not easily. This may be the last summer Olympics to be viewed this way, based on the pace of innovation, though all the regulation trying to interfere with TV innovation (Broadcast flag etc) may prove me wrong.

A totally mixed sporting summit

At the Olympics, only in equestrian events do men and women compete on an equal footing, since it's about control of the horse, not strength. There used to be a truly mixed event in shooting (skeet and trap) but these were split in the 90s. (Perhaps shotgun experts will explain why this is, even though a woman won the last mixed event.) There are other mixed events -- Sailing, mixed doubles badminton, ice dancing, pairs skating, mixed doubles luge and so on, which are mixed by requiring a fixed number of men and a fixed number of women.

It would be nice to come up with some more events that can be truly mixed, but it's also pretty easy to design events mixed as defined by the rules. Mixed doubles tennis already exists. It's easy to imagine all sorts of "relay" sports with a mixed team in swimming, track and other sports. Ideally even a relay consisting of events women do particularly well at combined with events men do particularly well at. Team events are easy to mix as well, such as rowing, bobsled as well as baseball, basketball, voleyball etc. Many of the machine-based sports (car racing, motocross, etc.) don't show up in the olympics but can be, and are in some cases truly mixed.

So the idea, initially for the PR value, would be to create a games where all events are mixed in some way or another, with as many truly mixed events as possible. One imagines it should be able to get good TV ratings at least the first time for the novelty, which could turn into prizes good enough to attract top athletes to do the work of creating new teams.

In some cases, forming new teams would be trivial. 2 men and 2 women both experienced at relay racing for example, need learn very little to make a mixed relay team, and in fact mixed relays take place in amateur sport fairly regularly.

(Another interesting thought would be mixed relays of entirely different sports. One is depicted in one of the commonly running TV ads on the CBC. Some people have done relay Triathalon already, and the concept can be extended.)

I will add that I'm not trying to add more sports to the Olympics, which are already overflowing with events.

Use closed captions or SAP to blab over music at Olympics

2 years ago, I got so frustrated at Bob Costas blabbing over parts of the Olympic opening ceremonies that clearly were not meant to be blabbed over that I rush ordered a satellite dish to watch the rest of the Olympics on the CBC.

(Besides, you find out there are events at the Olympics in which Americans are not competing for medals!)

This year Costas was probably a little better, the CBC announcers a touch worse than before but still better than Costas. However, there's an obvious answer out there. Use more text. If you need to explain the symbolism of a piece of music or art, do it in text. Either put text on the main screen, or just put the text into the closed captioning but don't say it.

Another alternative, use the SAP. Have the announcer exercise some judgement, and create one audio stream with just the non-intrusive commentary (during applause and breaks) and add in the blabber on the other channel (probably the main channel since they think the bulk of their audience wants this blabber.)

For those watching in HD, there is much more potential to add text, since you have more screen real estate and can have smaller text and thus more of it.

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