My brothers dislike the Olympics tremendously. They would rather watch NFL Network’s “10 Most Clutch Quarterbacks” and make fun of it for including Dan Marino. And, having just completed a fantasy football draft and the local paper starting an NIU football blog, Hank Williams Jr. could ask his question and I’d say yes. But the Olympics provided so much variety and so much nervous, desperate passion in its athletes that I couldn’t help but be in awe of both their drive and the ways we’ve turned odd combinations of skills into sporting tests.
Case in point: the modern pentathalon. While the winner of the decathalon can rightfully claim dominion over the track and field landscape (even if Usain Bolt gets all the headlines), what do we call the winner of the modern pentathalon? Renaissance man/woman? The event includes swimming, horse riding, shooting, fencing and a final running race, where a lead in the first four events turns into a head start for the medal. You half expect an essay question to be thrown in there. The idea appeals to that kid inside me who would break out the putter when the Masters came on, then the old wooden tennis rackets for Wimbledon. In an age of laser-focused specialization in even junior high athletes, the modern event just feels so appealingly retro.
The Olympics preview for Sports Illustrated helped me along in this enjoyment. In addition to the usual preview stories on Michael Phelps and what was new for the games, it tried to predict the medalists in each sport. So, if the magazine took enough time to pick the names and a one line nugget (Women’s individual time trials: “[Kristen] Armstrong is not related to Lance”), then the endeavor deserves some review.
In terms of overall medal predictions, smaller countries succeeded in spreading the wealth. Though the magazine predicted the U.S. as medal count winner, it overshot its estimate (121 predicted, 110 actual). The top five countries all were overestimated, and we don’t get to the overachievers until France (38 predicted, 40 total) and Great Britain (35 predicted, 42 total).
As far as the individual events, it’s hard to separate poorly picked events from just unpredictable events. Still, I quantified the selections like this: 10 points for correctly picking the gold medal winner, 5 for silver and 3 for bronze. If an athlete was predicted to a win a medal other than the one he or she earned, I gave that one point.
The unpredictable events (zero points) included: two boxing classes, five cycling events, men’s modern pentathalon, five shooting events (including both men’s and women’s trap), men’s team handball, women’s singles tennis and two wrestling classes.
Predictable (or, more optimistically, well-picked) events that scored at least 10 points included: women’s team archery, men’s single badminton, men’s and women’s basketball, two boxing classes, six canoe/kayak events, seven cycling events, seven (of eight total) diving events, three fencing events, six total gymnastic events, three judo classes, five rowing events, five sailing events, 20 total swimming events (of 36 total, no doubt aided by Michael Phelps‘ favorite status), seven men’s track and field events, nine women’s track and field events and four weightlifting classes.
Both the predictable and unpredictable cut across disciplines, but I was surprised to see so many accurate predictions. It’s hard to say whether this was an improvement or a decline over past years, but my knee-jerk reaction is to consider any success when so many sports come down to fractions of seconds/inches/points as admirable. This issue, when used in combination with the various NBC networks and its commentators, made for at least one well-informed viewer.