I’ve waited a few days to publish these Olympic musings for fear of sounding like a sour-viewer, so let me say first:

Congratulations, Olympics 2012! I was as addicted to watching you as much as the next fairweather rhythmic gymnastics fan. So the following rant does not come from an anti-sporting place. Instead, my concern is with some of the group think blathered by various Olympic commentators.

(1) We need more money for our athletes!

During and after every Olympics, we hear broadcasters noting how relatively little public money goes towards the raising of our athletes. The group think here is that winning on the world stage is a priceless commodity that we must always pursue at increased cost. I am compelled by the assumption that success in world sports encourages the rest of us to use our running shoes more often, which in turn may improve public health. Great, but—given that every country is competing for the same role model positions—in order for us to win the top spots, we may need to increase our funding beyond what it’s worth in public health benefits. At a certain point, therefore, it may be more economical to divert some of that sport budget to creating new rec centres.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t put the money towards athletes: that may be the most effective way to promote health (and community spirit, etc), but I am weary of broadcasters who assume that anything less than dominance on the podium implies insufficient investment. That’s the tricky thing with competition: the other countries may be trying to buy success, too, and sometimes we’ll cancel each other out.

(2) It’s unfair that some athletes don’t get paid as much as others!

It’s an unfortunate bout of bad luck that certain athletes are born into a skill set (or sex) that doesn’t tend to make much money or fame in sport. On the one tax bracket, the world’s greatest basketball player, Lebron James, is a many-millionaire who is recognized wherever he goes in the galaxy, whereas the globe’s greatest rower, No Namath, is too obscure to be worth my googling energy. Bad luck. But that’s just capitalism. If your product is popular enough with fans, then you get to be rich.

The Olympians (and gushing commentators) who complain that they work just as hard as the wealthy athletes are making an appeal to merit-based-pay in an economic system that has nothing to do with equal pay for equal effort or worth. I’d love if if it were feasible to pay people for how hard they work instead of how commercial their efforts are, but those advocating for such a system should bear in mind that, if we truly did pay everyone according to what they deserve, then—by actual merit—nobody would make millions of dollars per year.

(3) We should watch and cheer on our Olympic athletes every year, not just during the Olympics!

Why? Once again, if we’re cheering for people based on how hard they work or how talented they are, then we should go applaud foreign aid workers and physicists. Olympians are great athletes who perform muscle-defying feats, but the fact that sport is cheered on more than other professions is an accident of taste, not a right of talent. If we’re not entertained by these athletes during non-Olympic years, then I see no obligation to purchase their product any more than we’re hungry for it, as much as we may admire them.

(4) Usain Bolt is the world’s greatest athlete!

Congrats to Bolt for his unprecedented sprinting success at these and previous Olympics. (And he seems like a nice person who does a lot for his impoverished homeland.) However, I’m confused by why Bolt is considered by many commentators (including himself, it seems) to be the world’s greatest athlete simply because he’s the fastest in the most famous speed-contest.

First, I see no reason why his speed at running is more impressive than Michael Phelps’ speed at swimming, or No Namath’s speed a rowing. Personally I find all three competitions to be boring (when there isn’t the drama of athletes sprinting for medals), but I admit that, by sheer power, they are awesome. However, when measuring athleticism, why are other abilities such as skill, flexibility, agility, endurance, and even creativity not also worth consideration?

If we must crown a top athletic discipline, the obvious choice is gymnastics, which requires its athletes to combine almost every possible athletic aptitude in order to complete their seemingly impossible (and incredibly diverse) feats.

I realize that these Olympic matters may be trivial (except how much money we spend on our athletes), but I think that they are a microcosm of the sort of assumed agreement that lives in more significant political discussions. Commentators notoriously gravitate to the easy, uncontroversial notions that ultimately limit our ability to creatively solve society’s ills.


  1. Seth,
    Your comments are pertinent and well put. As you may imagine, my thoughts turn immediately to artists and the arts. Imagine if an opera singer were to be judged solely on how high and how loud, or a pianist on how fast, or an actor on how long. Makes no sense since artists are judged on nuance and expression as well as on technical prowess. I agree with you on your assessment of gymnastics; they come closer to artistry than any other Olympic achievement as far as I can see. If you look around, you can see that Canadian artists (singers, actors, writers, painters, musicians, etc.) are making a name for this country all around the world. And they do this with little or no public financial support, and even precious little recognition in their own country.

    Fund an athlete and get a medal or two and a lot of product endorsements; fund an artist and get a lifetime of achievement.

  2. Interesting points.

    1. I think the availability bias is mostly to blame here. Profile any athlete/musician/actor/etc., and make a compelling case for public funding being in to the public’s benefit (even as tenuously as you describe for athletics), and I don’t doubt that the public would clamour to agree.

    2. I don’t often hear this expressed, except more along the lines of “it sucks that…”, which seems like a fair enough comment if one is a devote of an un-sexy sport (at least in Canada) like water polo.

    3. Agreed on this one; I’m okay with the free market defining compensation/coverage. Either it’s economically viable to be an Olympian or it’s not. If not, then perhaps being a really good gym teacher would be more financially rewarding and of greater benefit to society.

    4. I mostly agree on this one (though might make a case for heptatheletes/decathletes over gymnasts), but I personally do find there is something particularly compelling about pure running speed. So long as the “greatest” label is professed as an individual opinion instead of a an indisputable fact, I see nothing wrong with it.

  3. Thanks TomD and Tarrin for the thorough and intriguing replies.

    TomD, I think we are winding up in the same place for slightly different reasons (I’ll take what I can get, though!). From my point of view, it isn’t merely the artistry that makes the gymnasts the best: it is the incredible athletic feats of gravity-defying behaviour that boggles the eye. Artistry or not, I’m amazed. Meanwhile, I don’t quite see why it matters that artists are judged by different standards than athletes (subjective vs generally objective) since the two fields have different aims. The latter is meant to be an objective measurement of higher, faster, stronger, is it not?

    I’m compelled, however, by your conclusion that we may need to worry more about funding our artists than our athletes. I don’t know what the government contributions are to each, but I think the sports commentating is overpowered by nationalism such that it creates the impression that winning in sports is more important than it may be; whereas arts funding seems to have no such advantage.

    Tarrin, thanks for introducing me to the term “availability bias”, which Google has explained to me is the accident of assumption that many people make. G.dot says that because certain types of stories, such as plane crashes, are more newsworthy, and so we hear about them more often per capita than car crashes, we assume they occur more frequently, when, in fact, the opposite is true. I’m not sure how this term applies in point (1). I don’t think the broadcasters are simply telling us about individual under-funded athletes, leading us to falsely conclude that there are lots of them. Instead, I hear many sports pundits decrying what they say is a general lack of funding. So, unless you’re saying that those commentators are suffering from availability bias, aren’t the viewers under the influence of a particular philosophy as opposed a mistake in calculation?

    In example (2), I think you are suffering from a reverse availability bias (or “unavailability” bias”): that is, because you haven’t often heard commentators complain that Olympic sports aren’t supported enough during non-Olympic years, you assume that the complaint doesn’t happen. (Clever, Seth!, reversing Tarrin’s fancy term against her! ;)) I can assure you that, if you listen to sports radio, you will hear a monsoon of moralistic insults of audiences for not supporting our athletes year round.

    In point (3) you have said more than I had the courage to say: very gutsy of you to admit that perhaps the athlete gets what isn’t coming to them if they choose a low-funded career instead of something more logistically feasible.

    Fair enough re your comment (4) that heptathletes/decathletes might be considered the top conglomeration of athleticism: at least there’s some variety in their performance; nevertheless, what they do still seems to me to be basically a diverse set of strength and speed; whereas gymnasts are from another planet. If someone, at 16, trained hard enough they’d have a chance in your competition, whereas in gymnastics, if you didn’t start remodelling your body when you were a few seconds old, you don’t have a chance.

    Meanwhile, I once again think you’re suffering from the unavailability bias if you don’t think Usain Bolt is often referred to as the greatest athlete (in an objective manner) because he won in a ten-second race from A to B. Please review the Olympic coverage and get back to me with your apology. 😉

  4. What a shock! After reading your blogs and responding with comments for some months, I now realize that “Tarrin” is some friend or relative of yours. That brings your real readership down to 3 or 4, assuming the other responders are not friends or family members as well. That’s what you get for being self-congratulatory!!! Liked the blog though.


  5. Thanks TomM (Tom2). Well observed. There are indeed rumours that Tarrin is a sister of mine. I cannot confirm or deny this fact, though, for she knows to much about me, so if I were to betray her with such an admission, she would likely reveal something equally bad about me. Thanks for reading. Keep up the good speculation! 😉

  6. hey sether,
    nice work!
    i, too, agree that just because you can run real’ fast doesn’t make you the best athlete in the world (you should see me take off after an ice-cream truck but nobody gives me money to run in London).
    who is this Tom2? sounds like you should block him, Seth Sisters rock!

  7. Thanks Tamsen! Well put re your uncelebrated running ability in regard to chasing ice cream trucks. Very unfortunate since that’s actually a useful ability, unlike some Olympic disciplines such as the triple jump. (Tom2 is a very good sort of fellow, even if he sometimes underestimates the power of Sethblogs. 😉

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