The Olympics hooked me from my earliest memories of Bill Toomey, Lee Evans, and Jim Hines in Mexico City in 1968. The Super Bowl, The Tour de France, the World Cup all rank high among my list of epic, enjoyable sporting events, but the Olympics still sits at the top for me.
Twenty years ago, in the opening chapter of Sportometrics Bob Tollison and I contemplated the widespread affinity toward play and competition that appears hard wired into almost all humans. As children, we participate in all sorts of games, whether with formal rules or of spur-of-the-moment invention. A sizable percentage of the population also relishes watching other people engage in competition, especially when performed at the highest level beyond the grasp of average people. Many years ago, a friend contemptuously asked another friend and myself why we liked to watch sports. She was more interested in “doing things” rather than watching. Of course, she enjoyed plays, musical performances, and movies in which she was only an observer, not a participant.
My colleague, Dennis Wilson, linked the enjoyment of movies and books with watching sports when he recently noted that the Olympics is a lot like watching the Avengers — The Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, … — expect that these are real life people with exceptional gifts that allow them to perform incredible feats rather than fictional characters. Particularly in sports with very a very large pool of participants and development opportunities, the selection from the very upper reaches of a large distribution of athletes isolates individuals with Avenger-like , “freakish” abilities that draw our attention.
Using basketball as the example, when out of a population of 100 million young people, the top 1 percent are sorted out by height, 1 million remain of all levels of athletic ability. When the top 1 percent of these are sorted out by most athletic, most coordinated, a pool of 10,000 athletes remains — the pool of NCAA players. Among these 10,000 suppose 1 percent are sorted by related skills, training opportunities and personal motivation, 100 are left — the pool of NBA starters. Among these, the top 10 percent make up the elite of the elite — the top 10 percent of the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent, the tail of the tail of the distribution.
In some sports, such as basketball, swimming, or gymnastics the advantage of large or small size stands out. An NBA player walking near gymnast in the opening ceremonies accentuates the physical extremes and selection. Among other athletes in sports like distance running or cycling, the physical advantages such as oxygen capacity or transport are not showcased outwardly but are just as extreme. Any doubter should train hard for 5 years in the sport of their choice and then go out and see how long they can ride at 30 mph on a flat road or if they can reach that speed at all, or how long they can run at a 4:00-5:00 minute per mile pace, or how long they can swim at a 50 second per 100 meter pace, again, if at all. Contrary to the false paradox set out by my friend many years ago about participation versus observation of sport, my participation in some of these sports over the years only increased my enjoyment of watching them because it highlighted just how much like Dr. David Banner (the Hulk) they are.