Wednesday, March 10, 2010

That Giant Sucking Sound from Edmonton 

That sound you heard at the end of each period in the US-Canada gold medal game was the giant sucking sound of a multitude of potties being flushed at the same time in Edmonton. Here is an amusing graphic courtesy of Justin Wolfers of the Freakonomics blog and produced by the good folks at Epcor in Edmonton.

HT John Chilton

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Canadian Hockey, Sex, and My Golf Game 

Related to Skip's post, how much happiness was generated in Canada by Sunday's hockey victory?
"Thousands on street" in Vancouver (maybe 150,000), Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and all over the country.
Crowd estimates are always sketchy, but the crowd in Vancouver was large, very large. The team and entire audience's unabashed rendition of "O Canada" during the medal ceremony stirred even a cynical, non-Canadian economist like myself.

What other kinds of non-sports related celebration can match or surpass this kind of national celebration? The list isn't very long. V-E day, V-J day, ...? Where would one find such a large "utility" impact relative to the size of the revenues paid out for out-of-pocket expenditures by consumers?

Skip raises an interesting issue. Are these effects permanent or transitory? As with most utility-raising "recreational" activities ranging from sex to an enjoyable golf day, the warm glow fades. The Vancouver Games afterglow for Canadians may hang on longer due to gold medal performances, and, especially the hockey finish. The hockey finish itself, may have a very long-lived enjoyment value but at a much lower level just as the "Miracle on Ice."

Students sometimes ask me, isn't the enjoyment for the winning team's fans offset by the disappointment for the losing team's fans? Or, what if Canada had lost, is the downer to be subtracted from national "happiness." I like to use my golf game as an analogy. Yes, my relative "glow" increases when I shoot lower, but both bring enjoyment. Even losing a "match play" or scoring low in a tournament brings enjoyment, just less in relative terms.

On occasion, I can play badly enough to regret even going out. Maybe a Canadian loss on Sunday slips into this realm. My guess is that such an outcome would have been more analogous to Canada missing the medal round. Really poor performances raise some tricky questions regarding the intertwining of ex post versus ex ante measurement of happiness when part of the reason for playing is the "chance of winning" -- the participation -- and part is the expectation of winning.

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Olympic post-mortem 

Personally, less viewing was more fun. It was a shame though, to see "home-cooking" in the Men's 500m short-track race, where a Canadian judge made a marginal call to disqualify my countryman and elevate his onto the podium. If that's what "own the podium" means, the podium's not worth owning. So I'll join England's temporarily pro-American Simon Barnes in sending a somewhat sardonic "Well done, Canada" to our neighbors up North. But why wasn't there an English judge available?

Here at TSE in the past few weeks, we've been riffing on the psychological impact of athletic competition. At the Montreal Gazette, Randy Boswell applys this thinking to his country in "Historic Olympics a nation-building milestone for Canada: experts." Wow. I thought Canada already had a formidable nation? On second thought, perhaps that short track judge has a day job with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. More seriously, Boswell's story does have plenty of quotes from people who are either measuring or somehow attuned to Canadian psychology at the moment. My money though, is on Montreal historian Jack Jedwab who says "if you ask most Canadians today what they remember about Calgary [ed: site of the 1988 Winter Games], I don’t know that they’ll be able to tell you a lot.”

Back stateside, the impeccably named Casey Curlin focuses on the Olympics' impact "beyond Vancouver:" everything from a boom in orthodontics in Korea to the fallout in Russia from a disappointing haul of medals. "The headlines in Russia were brutal, 'Red Machine Crashes into Maple Tree,' 'Nightmare in Vancouver'," states Curlin. What strikes me as interesting in this case is that perceived Olympic failure is tied directly to Russia's Sports Minister, with the political opposition calling for President Medvedev to take action. In contrast, the U.S. went into these games with an Olympic organization that was universally disliked and apparently dysfunctional, yet somehow American athletes won more medals than ever. Hooray for decentralization!! I'm glad that the U.S. doesn't have a Sports Minister. But I doubt that Medvedev would consider abolishing the Russian office, even for a moment.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Support for Olympic Curlers (and other athletes?) 

As I have watched the curling from the 2010 Olympics, I have heard several of the commentators tell us that so-and-so from such-and-such country is a full-time curler. S/he is sponsored by their government and unlike Canadian curlers does not have to have another job to support themselves. There is always a whinging, wistful tone to such pronouncements, suggesting that in Canada we should also provide government financing for our top curlers.

I find this tone and its implications offensive for two important reasons:

  • It ignores the considerable sponsorship and prize money for curling that is provided by the private sector in Canada. Top curlers earn an acceptable (though probably not luxurious) living when their winnings and sponsorships are added up. This private support for curling in Canada is monumentally greater than the private support for curlers in other countries.
  • If the government were to provide support for Canadian curlers, who should receive that support? Only the top teams? If so, how might the gubmnt bureaucrats determine which are the best teams? And keep in mind that the fourth best team in Alberta could well be considerably better (and more likely to win on the international level) than the best teams from some of the other provinces. Governments are notoriously bad at "picking winners" in other industries, and I see no reason for them to be any more successful at picking winners in sports.

In fact, one might well argue that one of the several reasons for Canadian success in curling (aside from years of practice and inculcation) is that curlers in Canada must compete for sponsorship and prize money. Those who aren't very good don't receive much money; those who are better tend to receive more money. There is a huge incentive to improve one's game.

I doubt if these arguments would apply to all Olympic sports, but they certainly are important when discussing sponsorship for curlers (and probably most other sports for which private sponsorship and prize money are sizable).

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow 

The Room for Debate blog at the New York Times runs a series of short opinion pieces today about the lack of snow in Vancouver at the opening of the Winter Games. Here's my contribution.
Economists have shown time and time again that the rosy estimates of economic benefits put forward by sports boosters are at odds with actual economic data from cities that host mega-events like the Olympics and the Super Bowl.

In the face of that evidence, the boosters often turn to the potential “indirect” benefits to be reaped. For the Olympics, the claim is that the games can serve as a huge advertisement for the host city. But of course, the image left isn’t always positive.

The bribery scandal that surrounded Salt Lake City’s 2002 Winter Olympics bid sullied the area’s squeaky clean image. The terrorist incidents at the 1972 and 1996 Summer Olympics cast their host cities in a bad light. Even successful events may do little to promote a city. The 2005 Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. went off without a hitch, but many visitors left the city with the impression that it had little to offer tourists.

Vancouver is an appealing setting. But the warm weather and last minute scramble for snow might well damage perceptions of the city as a reliable winter sports destination. (Why book a ski vacation there when snow might be unpredictable?) That would be a shame, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a big event had a negative effect on a city’s image.

Of course, yesterday's tragic death of luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili only further decreases the chance that people will come away with a positive image of Vancouver after the games.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

"Own the Podium"? Why bother? 

The 2010Winter Olympics will soon begin in Vancouvre, BC, and environs. In the media build-up that is taking place in Canada, we are beginning to hear more about a programme called "own the podium", embodying the goal of some politicians, athletes, and bureaucrats for Canadian athletes to win more gold medals than the athletes of any other country.

Alan Adamson is distressed by this programme:
Why should my taxes pay to support aspiring athletes? This simply seems absurd to me. We have an idiotic program called 'Own the Podium' - apparently the government's goal is for Canada to score magnificently at the Olympics. This for a country of 30 million against countries with a lot more people, and also some, like Norway and Austria, with a lot fewer people, but a lot more fundamental and historical excellence than Canada has ever managed. ...

What is the point? A gold medal is useless to me unless I win it, and if I want it, I can decide to train for it. There are real rewards, and lots of people with crazy dreams and a poorly developed sense of reality will train to win gold medals. But why should I pay?

I think we need to change 'Own the Podium' to 'Let the Podium Go to Those Who Care Enough to Spend Their Own Money and Time and not Take away any of Mine'. That is of course too simple for the CBC or likely for our government.