Designing Olympic sports for the spectator


Most sports are for the athlete, and should be. Some gain an audience, and bend to it to some degree. Perhaps the pinnacle of spectator sport is the Olympics. The are an international stage. While the medals are highly coveted by the athletes, almost all sports have their own world championships and other tournaments which are mostly for the athletes and a more limited cadre of serious spectators. The Olympics are about showing the world, as well as a bit too much national pride.

The games, in particular the winter games, are hit-and-miss on that count. Nobody can watch more than a tiny fraction. I always watch using a DVR, in particular a local DVR not a cloud DVR, where the video is stored on my disk and I can seek through it in an instant, and do decent quality fast-forward, rewind and sped-up playback. This is even more important than skipping commercials, and it lets me get through hours of coverage, seeing just what I want, in minutes, and see far more of the events than I ever could.

But there are definitely big differences in how engaging events are for the spectator. Perhaps the #1 event is the 100 meter sprint. It is of course very brief, and impressive -- "fastest man alive" -- but it has another important attribute -- you can watch it, and understand it, and see who is winning and who won, just with your eyes. (It's actually a little too fast, and the longer distances are a bit better.) You usually know who won, you don't need to check scores, or get ratings from judges, or not times on a clock. If it's close, a photo tells you the answer. There is action, and drama, and all the final contenders race at once.

Few sports live up to this. A large number of sports are done only with the clock. You watch 30 people do exactly the same thing, and note their times, and the best time is the winner. They work hard to have people compete in an order to make it interesting, with fastest going last or first, but they can only do so much. It's just not the same as seeing people race in real time to cross a finish. There's not the same excitement when somebody who went earlier gets a fast time, and the final racer misses by a small margin, and the camera then switches to that prior racer who has become champion.

Even more confusing are staggered races, where somebody leaves every 30 seconds, and people are competing but not. Those finish lines are confusing in spite of efforts to explain what's going on.

The clock is great though, compared to judged sports. Unless you are skilled, you may not be able to tell the difference between different tricks. The judges do their thing, and have to deal with the fact that they judge the early competitors without having seen the later ones. They are supposed to be objective but obviously can't be. And many sports have both clock and judging.

The clock is understandable. It is certainly the most fair (though the later racers get to know what time to beat.) Some sports, like short-track speed skating and snowboard cross try to give us the race we crave, and it's very entertaining, but of course victory and defeat can come from just being in the wrong place at the wrong time when there's a crash. It's "part of the sport" and audiences partly love chaos, but we do also want the competition to be about excellence rather than luck.

The other form of competition is one on one matches. These require ranking and eventually playoffs, where people or teams face elimination rounds until there is a gold vs. silver final match. Those can be quite engaging to watch, though the process takes a very long time in comparison to other approaches. There can also be some luck in what pairings somebody gets, and we've seen times when the gold was not won by the competitor universally praised as the best.

At least with this method you get something fairly pure, and individual matches have the full drama of their sport. But few have time to watch all the hockey, or curling, or baseball, though you can satisfy with the final matches. They take so long that TV tends to keep away from them.

I like to see strategy as well as performance, so I have tended to like the long races and the curling bonspiels and that gold medal hockey game. Even so, I definitely watch them vastly sped up. In the hour long races I will speed through most of the race. I would love a recording which does that for me, slowing down for where it is worth doing so. I was fortunate to catch the race of Anna Kiesenhoffer and a few others like it but my speeding up technique did not serve me well there to capture the drama of her amazing accomplishment. The alternative though, would be to not have the time to see it at all.


As noted above, I am not a fan of judged sports. While they are not going away, I think there could be merit in moving towards computer judging -- ie. like the clock -- for many of them. We are now at the point that computers can track everything about the body, and know not just how many rotations somebody did but how close to ideal forms they did them. They can also report it instantly. We might be surprised at how well they could even do at judging "artistic impression," even though we think that's a human thing. Machine learning could surprise us there.

Machine judging would not only be impartial (it might have biases from how it was trained or coded, but would treat all the same) but could be given to competitors in advance. A competitor when training or practicing could see how well the machine scores them, and work to improve their score in an objective way. This makes it more sport than art, particularly if the "artistic" components are machine judged.

One other method of competition I didn't list above is the progressive method of high jump, pole vault and some other sports. Athletes go over the bar, and they keep raising it until nobody but one can do it. This is objective and dramatic. One could imagine a discipline of skate jumping where figure skaters just show off harder and harder jumps and tricks until the best is left skating. This might not be as pretty as a figure skating long program to music, but would be more athletic and leave us with a winner who was clearly best that day.

One of the tragedies of sports like figure skating is that because people are pushed to the limit of what they can do, the winner ends up being the one who didn't fall. In a contest between one man who can jump a quad axel 80% of the time, but then tries it and fails, he loses to the man who can't do it at all and never tries.

New visualizations

For the audience, sports where individuals are timed or judged could be put together with video tricks. We already see some of this, such as painting a line on the ice or field to show where the current leader was at this time, so we see somebody race the line. For those waiting to watch after the fact, we could see the computer produce an image of a giant 10 lane blobsled track where 10 sleds are racing, and see something like that sprint.

You could even imagine that in judged events where you see an array of people (whoever will fit) doing their tricks or moves in parallel so you can compare and see why one is better than another.

Watching the games with Peacock from a local hard disk

As I need to watch from local DVR, and don't have cable, I am limited to what they put on broadcast NBC. That means no curling, but there is a solution.

Every single sport can be watched on Peacock, which is free to me and only $5/month for people without Comcast. Something like this exists in most countries. However, what you watch has forced commercial breaks -- and if you fast forward over a large section past a commercial break you must watch it -- and you can't really fast forward, only seek around. This doesn't fit my style of watching curling, which is to fast forward over the first few stones and watch the exciting part of each end, possibly pausing if the opening is interesting. I will also hit "quick skip" when a stone is moving down the ice. (In hockey, I hit my quick skip button when a whistle blows to take me right to the face-off. Yes, I'm that nuts about this.)

Anyway, right now I am playing a match on Peacock and recording it as a local video, commercials and all, using OBS (any screen recording tool will do.) Later I will watch it from the local file, with all the functions I want. The big problem is spoilers. If you are not very careful, if you go to the Peacock site you will get spoilers. For example, if the medal games are in your list, they change the title of the entry to be the names of the people playing -- spoiling the semi-finals for you.


Olympic rant #2: Fake "team" events. We now see a lot of events promoted as team events where the team members need never have practiced together and don't even meet each other at the venue necessarily. These are team events where just add the scores of various competitors, or "relays" where there is no baton, nobody touches. Sadly to me, this has become a common form for mixed events. I have been wanting to see more mixed events, but I wanted to see mixed events where the men and women actually work together, like pairs skating or mixed doubles tennis or curling.

It's very easy to make a mixed team event in a real team sport. You can make a rule like "3 men and 3 women on the ice."

I understand that in some sports, like swimming, you can't have a baton, but it would be nice if they had to touch or something. In the downhill sports they can't easily physically meet. Mixed team snowboard cross had the man set a time, and that controlled when the woman was let out of the gate (later.) But all this is better than the sports where you just add scores and they aren't really a team at all. These events are just an excuse for nationalism. They will always be won by big countries which have the size and budget to send a group of high level athletes good enough to get the best average score.


The Olympics are, first and foremost, about business -- tens of billions of dollars
in construction contracts, television rights, sponsorship deals, and so on. Secondly
they are about unfettered nationalism -- tribal chest-thumping about medal counts, etc.
In distant third are the actual competitions, with athletes striving to do their best.
IOC officials live high on the hog via the fees they collect from nations trying to
curry favor in their misguided bid to secure the Olympics, while making outrageous
demands on the part of those that do manage to get selected. Some countries are
beginning to see that it's a bad deal, and are declining to make an offer. The
media are complicit in white-washing the whole process and putting a happy face
on the show.

Long ago we were promised that, with a multitude of channels and some interactivity,
we would able to select from multiple streams to select the activity, the camera
angle, and so on. We would have more control over what we wanted to watch, and
when. Never happened. We're still forced to watch what the powers that be want
to show us, and for the most part when. So much for the brave new world of 500 channels!
This is true not only for the Olympics, but for other sporting events as well.

Yes, they could do much more. Though at least they now make every event available on the streaming service, which is a step up.

What would be good would be a way to allow 3rd parties to "value add" on top of the raw coverage, and then resell it. However, the economics of selling TV and streaming are still very rough so this is hard to do.

"This might not be as pretty as a figure skating long program to music, but would be more athletic and leave us with a winner who was clearly best that day."

To the people in charge of such things, being "pretty" rather than purely "athletic" is the whole point of the competition. What you're describing is like a Home Run Derby for skating -- perhaps a worthwhile event but not the same sport.

Remember, there's absolutely no reason for "women's" and "men's" figure skating to be separate events, except that the IOC wanted to keep women out of the sport entirely and gave them a separate-but-equal event as consolation. They didn't want to risk a man being asked to "judge a girl to whom he was attached".

In a similar vein, women's gymnastics is required to feature music and dance moves, while men must focus on strength. It's not because women are too weak, or men can't dance to music. Judged, gendered events are simply Victorian mores as sport. You may as well ask why Miss Universe can't be reduced to a written test and a weightlifting contest.

"I think there could be merit in moving towards computer judging -- ie. like the clock -- for many of them. We are now at the point that computers can track everything about the body, and know not just how many rotations somebody did but how close to ideal forms they did them. They can also report it instantly. We might be surprised at how well they could even do at judging "artistic impression," even though we think that's a human thing. Machine learning could surprise us there."

No surprise that a technocrat thinks everything is a technical exercise and discounts
or ignores the human element. (It's the same with self-driving cars, but that's a
discussion for another day.) Yes, what about "artistic impression?" Sorry, computers
are not good at this and saying "we might be surprised" is pure speculation with no
evidence behind it -- there's a long history of such failed technological maybes.

Being judged by others who couldn't perform the same routines is certainly less than
optimal, but presumably these are experts who have training and experience. They
may have biases, but that's no different than an AI have biases based on its training.
One can easily assume they will also have an equal influence across a judge's decisions.

There is another model -- have the participants judge each other. That's how it's
usually done in Freestyle Frisbee. However, disc sports have a long history of
self-officiating, and of course the stakes at the Olympics are very high. (Which is
sad in itself.)

Ultimately, good figure skating is what figure skating officials say it is. As
another poster pointed out, the expectations for what is and what is not in a given
sport is highly regimented. Remember Surya Bonaly? She couldn't perform a backflip
because they are banned from figure skating. Future innovations are likely to be
downplayed or even forbidden because they don't fit the established mold. Skating
officials, like those in many other sports, are more interested in maintaining the
status quo than in expanding boundaries. New sports, like snowboarding, take decades
to break through.

Your suggestions for changing figure skating would fundamentally change sport and
are non-starters. The people in charge are basically happy with the way things are
and have little reason to make such big changes.

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