May 11, 2005

28 Sports: In or Out?

During the last week several analysts have come out with new rankings comparing the 2012 bid cities. If you're interested, everybody agrees that Paris is winning, with London close behind, and New York trailing. Ho hum, pretty much what everybody has been saying for months.

Here at Now THAT's Amateur, we know what's really important. If you follow this blog you will already be aware of the impending vote on the composition of the summer Olympic programme. Many of the international federations (IFs) for the current Olympic sports are concerned about the voting process, but so far there has been no sign that their displeasure is going to cause the IOC to change their plan. Today I want to present my analysis of which sports have the most to fear in the upcoming vote.

The IOC went to a lot of trouble to set out specific criteria to be used in evaluating Olympic sports, and the Programme Commission then spent a lot of time collecting data and evaluating each of the IFs against these criteria. I am not even going to attempt to repeat this evaluation, because (a) the IOC has already done it, and (b) in my opinion it won't influence the vote anyway. When the time comes to vote by secret ballot, I think that the outcome will be determined by politics, not technical merit. Therefore, this is not an analysis of which sports should be voted out of the Olympics, but an attempt to guess which sports will be voted out.

As usual, I'll spell out my (very heroic) assumptions before we start. I am not going to do anything very sophisticated here, since you could probably spend several months studying the complex interactions between the delegates and the IFs. My goal is to get a quick idea of which sports are safe and which sports might be in trouble, and see if there are any surprises in the results. I have three primary assumptions:

  • Each IOC voter is independent of all others. This is certainly not true, but the vote will be by secret ballot, which should serve to make the voters more independent than they otherwise would be.
  • Each IOC voter will vote according to his or her national interest. I will use a couple of different (simple) ways to measure national interest.
  • All IOC voters have an interest in adding at least one new sport to the summer Olympic programme. I am not sure if this is true, but if true it means that each IOC member will vote for as few sports as possible, in the hopes that at least one of their non-preferred sports fails to gain a majority.

I am also assuming that the delegates will be voting on each of the 28 sports, and not disciplines within those sports. This agrees with all published reports that I have seen. The distinction is not necessarily obvious to everybody, but it is critical to the outcome. It means, for example, that the delegates will be voting on the sport of Aquatics, and not on the component disciplines of Swimming, Diving, Synchro, and Water Polo. Obviously, this is good news for Synchro! There are several similar cases where a potentially vulnerable discipline (e.g. Trampoline) will benefit from an untouchable protector (e.g. Artistic Gymnastics).

Before we go any further, it is worth pointing out that the 117 IOC members, who represent 79 different countries, are not evenly distributed according to region. Table 1 shows the number of active IOC members for each of the continental Olympic Associations.

Table 1 — IOC votes by continent
Continent Active IOC Members
Europe 53
Asia 22
Africa 19
Americas 18
Oceania 5
Total 117

Remember: a sport will need a simple majority of 59 out of 117 votes to remain on the programme. This means that a European-dominated sport like modern pentathlon starts out with a huge advantage over an Asian-dominated sport like badminton, even though badminton might be an order of magnitude more popular worldwide.

I've attempted to come up with some simple measures of a nation's interest in a sport. When I say "simple" I mean that the data are easy to obtain on the web, and also that they are not very sophisticated. Nevertheless I think that they might provide some interesting insight into the voting tendencies of the committee.

Let's assume that a delegate will vote in favour of a sport if his or her country has won at least one Olympic medal in that sport. This criterion gives the same weight to a bronze medal in 1904 as it does to six medals in 2004, but using a long time baseline does allow some of the ups and downs of national performance to be smoothed out. The historical medal data by sport and nation are available from the NOC database of the Athens 2004 web site. I call this the "historical medals" criterion.

Let's also assume that a delegate will vote in favour of a sport if at least one athlete from his or her country participated in that sport in the 2004 summer games. This one is problematic for sports with tough qualifying standards, especially team sports. On the other hand, it should be a more current and more generous measure of a nation's interest in a sport than my "historical medals" definition. The participant numbers by nation and sport discipline are available from the participant database of the Athens 2004 web site. I call this the "2004 participation" criterion.

Table 2 summarizes the results of the hypothetical vote, using these two methods of estimating national interest. I present the projected votes using only the "historical medals" definition, using only the "2004 participation" definition, and then the combined score under "either or both." The 28 sports have been divided into non-team sports and team sports, and then ranked according to the total votes in the "either or both" column.

Table 2 — projected IOC votes by sport
Sport Projected Votes
Historical Medals 2004 Participants Either or Both
  Non-team Sports
Athletics 90 117 117
Aquatics 67 113 113
Shooting 74 99 99
Weightlifting 73 71 93
Judo 57 90 90
Boxing 76 73 88
Wrestling 63 78 84
Tennis 53 83 83
Sailing 63 81 82
Rowing 55 82 82
Cycling 55 80 80
Fencing 48 71 75
Equestrian 52 69 73
Gymnastics 59 69 72
Taekwondo 32 69 71
Canoe/Kayak 50 69 69
Table Tennis 15 66 66
Archery 40 61 62
Triathlon 12 60 60
Modern Pentathlon 26 54 56
Badminton 9 55 55
  Team Sports
Football 48 35 63
Volleyball 36 40 44
Basketball 30 32 42
Handball 31 27 39
Hockey 28 28 33
Baseball 10 18 24
Softball 10 18 18

Given the heroic assumptions, it would be unwise to make any wagers based on the results, especially since most of the non-team sports end up above or very close to the required 59 votes. This is an interesting result in itself, however, and suggests to me that we are not going to see a massive programme amputation at the July session. In fact, overall my analysis probably underestimates the number of votes for each sport, so it seems possible that all of the non-team sports will be brought back for 2012.

As for the ranking order, common wisdom has it that modern pentathlon is the non-team sport most at risk, and sure enough my analysis shows it to be near the bottom of the pile. I have heard some speculation about shooting and weightlifting, but I don't see any worries there. Equestrian, fencing, taekwondo, and canoe/kayak have been having a few sleepless nights too, but they appear to have enough delegate support to survive. Archery is another sport worried about its status, and I do show them on the bubble.

On the other hand, I haven't heard anybody worrying about badminton, which comes in last in my ranking. The shockingly small number of "medal" votes (9) is partly due to the fact that badminton only became a medal sport in 1992, but it still indicates a lack of competitive balance that might hurt it. There have been 61 medals awarded in badminton in Olympic history, and 50 of them have been won by China, Indonesia, and Korea (Malaysia, Denmark, Great Britain, and the Netherlands have won the rest). The number of "participation" votes is also the smallest of the non-team sports. This is one sport that could be hurt by Asia's underrepresentation on the IOC. Remember, if badminton is voted out, you heard it here first!

Although it is outside the scope of my assumptions, there's an interesting political possibility here as well. It turns out that the delegate overlap for badminton and modern pentathlon is quite low. Of the 55 votes I am predicting for Badminton, only 35 of them also have an interest in Modern Pentathlon. That means that there are about 20 votes out there with an interest in Badminton and no interest in Modern Pentathlon, and vice versa. This in turn opens up the possibility of vote bargaining between delegates.

For the team sports, it isn't really fair to use the projections as an estimate of the total votes, because of the hard limit on the participation numbers. This means that the projected vote totals for the team sports are certainly underestimates. However, it is still interesting to compare the team sport numbers to each other. Baseball and softball are way down the list, which is again in agreement with the conventional wisdom. The "medal" comparison is slightly unfair because both have only been on the programme for a few Olympics. Both sports are also hurt by the fact that they are single-discipline, single-event sports. Each of the other team sports has a men's and a women's event, which boosts both the "medal" votes and the "participation" votes. In reality, I think that this oddity will hurt baseball and softball. The more events a sport has, the more difficult it will be to vote it off of the programme.

To try to put baseball and softball on the same scale as the non-team sports, I expanded the "participation" votes to include all of the countries that competed in the Olympic qualifying events. In this case, baseball ends up with 59 votes, which puts it just barely over the acceptance threshold. For softball, even the expanded picture still looks pretty bleak: including all of the countries that participated in the 2002 World Championships and the three 2003 regional qualifying tournaments increases the total to only 45. To survive, softball is going to have to get significant delegate support from countries that don't compete at a high international level. Add to this the fact that softball is on president Rogge's hit list, and things don't look good.

If I was going to place bets on the outcome of the vote, I would guess that softball is going down, and baseball will probably be dragged out with it by the most backwards kind of "gender-equity" reasoning. I predict that all of the non-team sports will survive, but it will be a close call for modern pentathlon and badminton.

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