January 31, 2006

That's Not Freedom of Expression! It's Journalism!

There was some odd news out of Japan yesterday, which has been picked up by a few other bloggers today:

The Japanese Olympic Committee is telling athletes competing at the Turin Winter Olympic Games not to open web logs because the Olympic Charter bans athletes' journalist activities when the games are on, and violators will be disqualified.

Indeed, the Olympic Charter does ban journalism by athletes, as a bye-law to Rule 51:

Only those persons accredited as media may act as journalists, reporters or in any other media capacity. Under no circumstances, throughout the duration of the Olympic Games, may any athlete, coach, official, press attaché or any other accredited participant act as a journalist or in any other media capacity.

In Canada, the COC issued this Media Advisory in 2004 which provides some interpretation of Rule 51 (then Rule 59):

This rule forbids any accredited Canadian team member to write articles, conduct interviews, be a commentator, host a report, publish his/her journal or interview others, from the moment they receive their accreditation until the end of the Olympic Games.

If an athlete is found to be in conflict with the Olympic Charter, he may be subject to having his accreditation revoked and lose his opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games.

I have also received an advisory from October 2005, which is similar in spirit but slightly different in detail:

an athlete or any accredited team member who may be producing a column, "diary" or any other type of submission for a Canadian print, broadcast or online media outlet prior to the Games is prohibited from doing so during the duration of the Games.

Now, if I was a real journalist, and not just an opinionated know-it-all, I would call up the COC and ask them if these statements are meant to include blogs, and what if the athletes aren't getting paid, and exactly how will this rule be enforced? But luckily Alison Korn is a real journalist, and she investigated this subject. After some initial confusion, the COC made a statement that athletes are allowed to update their own personal blogs with their personal comments, as long as they do not report on any events that are not related to them. In other words, you might say that a diary of your day-to-day experience is not journalism, and is therefore not covered by the IOC ban.

If the stories out of Japan are correct, then at least one NOC is taking a more restrictive view on the matter than Canada has. The IOC's position is still unclear and so far no official statement has been forthcoming.

So what is this rule all about, anyway? Perhaps we can get some more guidance from the IOC itself. Let's take a look at the IOC Internet Guidelines for the Written Press and Other Non-Rights Holding Media, XX Olympic Winter Games, Torino 2006. The title of the document reflects the IOC's business interest in journalism, you might say. The IOC sells the broadcast media rights to the Olympics, and they have a financial interest in controlling access to the sounds and images of the games. The written press is not subject to the same arrangement. Any journalist — or anybody else — in the world is free to write about the games, and they can do it on the internet if they wish.

As you might expect, then, these internet guidelines are all about moving images and sound; blogs are not mentioned, and in fact the document has this to say about written content:

Nothing contained within these guidelines is intended to restrict media organisations in any way from using their own websites to disseminate written coverage, for example to post articles such as those that would appear in a newspaper …

So I don't think that Rule 51 is about protecting the rights granted by the IOC, because the IOC really doesn't put many restrictions on the written word. They generate money from print only indirectly, in the sense that it contributes to a high level of public interest. Surely athlete journalists would do that too.

Maybe Rule 51 is not about controlling images of the Olympics, but controlling the Olympic Image. At the games, accredited athletes have access to many areas that the members of the press do not: the locker room, the playing field, the athletes' village. The members of the press have their own priveleges, but for all parties access and security are carefully controlled and segregated. I am heading into sportsBabel territory here, but perhaps the IOC's restrictions are simply designed to keep the two populations separate, except for designated mixing zones, and thus control the public's access to information.

I think that's part of the story; but I also think there is something else at work here. Why the special interest in blogs, and why now? Let's look at some history. This is not entirely a new story; or rather, it is new in the sense that blogging is new, but not new this year. The IOC first warned off bloggers in 2004, which generated a bit of outrage in the blogosphere. Interestingly, I have not been able to find any examples of the rule being enforced against an athlete blog. In 2002, on the other hand, this guide for AP Sports Editors explicitly claims that the IOC was OK with the unpaid publication of athlete diaries in the newspaper or on the internet:

Rule 59 in the IOC Charter stipulates that athletes can't act as journalists. They can't cover news or take photos, but they can write a diary – without pay, the IOC insists – for a hometown newspaper or Internet site.

So in 2002, having your diary published on a media outlet's web site was OK, as long as you did it for free. The new interpretation of the same rule in 2006 is that publishing on your blog might not be OK; or it might be, as long as you stick to recounting the day's events.

What, exactly, does the IOC have to fear from blogs that it doesn't fear from accredited journalists? Maybe they've only now recognized the power of self-publication, and it scares them. Could the IOC be worried about the weakening of Olympic Charter Rule 53?

No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.

With the proliferation of mobile internet access, the IOC can't contain the "Olympic area" as it used to. If they want to maintain an absolute grip on the athletes' freedom of expression, the boundaries set by Rule 53 will be inadequate. So if you make a political or social statement on your blog, they'll get you for practising "journalism" instead.

January 25, 2006

Amateur Medal Prediction for Torino: 21

I'm getting a little bit of web traffic from people looking for 2006 winter Olympic predictions, so I decided I should do some. (I also get a little bit of web traffic looking for nude photos of Romanian gymnasts, but that one I've decided is a little bit outside my scope here.) Now, these may not be the kind of predictions that people are looking for, but I don't really follow all the winter sports closely enough to make event-by-event forecasts.

I am interested, though, in Canada's Own the Podium program and its implementation. The Own the Podium program has a goal of finishing first in the medal table, with 35 medals, at the 2010 winter Olympics in Vancouver. The interim goal for 2006 is to win 25 medals, and finish third in the medal table.

I should say up front that what follows is not meant to be a criticism of the Own the Podium program in any way. There is plenty of evidence that the Canadian winter sports teams are doing better than they have ever done before, and moving up compared to the rest of the world. That's the real goal of the targeted funding, and I am convinced that it is working.

Now, having said that, here are my two fearless predictions for 2006. First, Canada will not win 25 medals in Turin. And second, 25 medals would not be enough for third place in the medal table, anyway.

I don't really have any solid basis for the second prediction; I just think that at least three countries are going to win more than 25 medals this time around. But I did run some numbers on the first hypothesis. Here's the methodology. For each of the 84 Olympic events, I've made an estimate of the probability that Canada's 'A' entry will win a medal. For events where we have more than one entry, I've also guessed at the probability that the 'B' entry and (if applicable) the 'C' entry will win medals.

These estimates are what I would call "wild-assed guesses" or WAGs. That is, I have not put very much thought into any of the estimates, and I have not tried to be very precise. I've allowed each probability to be one of 0, 0.10, 0.25, 0.50, 0.75, 0.90, or 1.0, and I haven't done any detailed research into the current World Cup rankings, or done any best time analysis. I've given one entry a 100% (1.0) probability of winning a medal, which is to say that I think their chances are closer to 100% than they are to 90%; and I've given a great number of athletes no chance at all, which is to say that I think their chances are closer to zero than they are to 10%. As I said at the outset, I am not an expert on any winter Olympic sport, so I am sure to have made some mistakes. My heroic assumption is that although the individual guesses may be (quite badly) wrong, I am making a lot of guesses, and those individual errors will tend to cancel each other out.

Once I have the probabilities for each event, I can calculate the total probability that Canada will win zero medals in the event, one medal in the event, two medals in the event, or three medals in the event. These are calculated by considering all the possible combinations of outcomes for the A, B, and C entries.

These four probability scores for each event can be used to give an expected or most likely number of medals that Canada will win any single event. Table 1 below shows my estimates for every event, and the expected medal score for each event. The table also shows the expected Canadian medal total for each winter Olympic sport, and the expected Canadian medal total for all sports.

Table 1 — Medal win probabilities for Canadians at the 2006 winter Olympics
Sport Event PA PB PC Expected Medals Athletes
Speedskating - Long Track Men's 5000 m 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Women's 3000 m 75% 25% 10% 1.1 Hughes, Groves, Klassen
Men's 500 m 50% 0% 0% 0.5 Wotherspoon, Ireland
Women's 500 m 10% 0% 0% 0.1 Rempel
Women's Team Pursuit 90% 0% 0% 0.9
Men's Team Pursuit 10% 0% 0% 0.1
Men's 1000 m 25% 10% 0% 0.4 Wotherspoon, Morrison
Women's 1000 m 10% 10% 0% 0.2 Klassen, Rempel
Men's 1500 m 10% 0% 0% 0.1 Morrison
Women's 1500 m 90% 10% 0% 1.0 Klassen, Groves
Men's 10000 m 0% 0% 0% 0.0 Dankers
Women's 5000 m 50% 10% 0% 0.6 Hughes, Groves
Speedskating - Short Track Men's 1500 m 10% 10% 0% 0.2 Hamelin, Turcotte
Women's 500 m 50% 25% 10% 0.9 Roberge, Leblanc-Boucher, Kraus
Women's 1500 m 10% 0% 0% 0.1 Leblanc-Boucher, Overland
Men's 1000 m 25% 0% 0% 0.3 Bedard, Tremblay
Women's 3000 m Relay 90% 0% 0% 0.9
Men's 500 m 50% 25% 0% 0.8 Bedard, Tremblay
Women's 1000 m 25% 10% 0% 0.4 Overland, Vicent
Men's 5000 m Relay 75% 0% 0% 0.8  
Hockey Men's 75% 0% 0% 0.8  
Women's 100% 0% 0% 1.0  
Bobsleigh Men's Two-Man 50% 0% 0% 0.5 Leuders
Men's Four-Man 50% 0% 0% 0.5 Leuders
Women's 75% 0% 0% 0.8 Upperton
Freestyle Skiing Men's Moguls 10% 0% 0% 0.1 Bilodeau
Women's Moguls 90% 10% 0% 1.0 Heil, Richards
Men's Aerials 25% 10% 0% 0.4 Nissen, Bean
Women's Aerials 10% 0% 0% 0.1 Bauer
Curling Men's 75% 0% 0% 0.8 Gushue rink
Women's 75% 0% 0% 0.8 Kleibrink rink
Skeleton Men's 75% 10% 0% 0.9 Pain, Boehm
Women's 50% 0% 0% 0.5 Hollingsworth-Richards
Figure Skating Women's 10% 0% 0% 0.1  
Men's 75% 10% 0% 0.9 Buttle, Sandhu
Pairs 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Ice Dancing 25% 0% 0% 0.3 Dubreuil, Lauzon
Cross Country Ski Women's 15 km Pursuit 25% 10% 0% 0.4 Scott, Renner
Men's 30 km Pursuit 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Women's Team Sprint 25% 0% 0% 0.3 Scott, Renner
Men's Team Sprint 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Women's 10 km Classical 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Men's 15 km Classical 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Women's 4x5 km Relay 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Men's 4x10 km Relay 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Women's Sprint 50% 10% 0% 0.6 Scott, Renner
Men's Sprint 0% 0% 0% 0.0  
Women's 30 km Free 0% 0% 0% 0.0  
Men's 50 km Free 0% 0% 0% 0.0  
Alpine Ski Men's Combined 0% 0% 0% 0.0 Bourque
Men's Downhill 25% 0% 0% 0.3 Guay
Men's Super G 25% 0% 0% 0.3 Guay
Men's Giant Slalom 10% 0% 0% 0.1 Grandi
Men's Slalom 10% 0% 0% 0.1 Grandi
Women's Combined 0% 0% 0% 0.0 Brydon, Forsythe
Women's Downhill 10% 0% 0% 0.1 Brydon, Vanderbeek
Women's Super G 10% 0% 0% 0.1 Brydon, Simard
Women's Giant Slalom 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Women's Slalom 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Snowboard Men's Halfpipe 0% 0% 0% 0.0  
Men's Snowboard Cross 50% 0% 0% 0.5 Anderson
Men's Parallel Giant Slalom 10% 0% 0% 0.1
Women's Halfpipe 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Women's Snowboard Cross 10% 0% 0% 0.1 Maltais
Women's Parallel Giant Slalom 10% 0% 0% 0.1 Loo
Luge Men's Singles 0% 0% 0% 0.0  
Women's Singles 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Doubles 0% 0% 0% 0.0  
Biathlon Men's 20 km Individual 0% 0% 0% 0.0  
Women's 15 km Individual 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Men's 10 km Sprint 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Women's 7.5 km Sprint 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Women's 10 km Pursuit 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Men's 12.5 km Pursuit 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Men's 4x7.5 km Relay 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Women's 4x6 km Relay 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Men's 15 km Mass Start 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Women's 12.5 km Mass Start 0% 0% 0% 0.0  
Ski Jumping NH Individual 0% 0% 0% 0.0  
LH Individual 0% 0% 0% 0.0
LH Team 0% 0% 0% 0.0  
Nordic Combined Individual 0% 0% 0% 0.0  
Team 0% 0% 0% 0.0
Sprint 0% 0% 0% 0.0  

So according to my WAGs, Canada should expect to win 21.1 medals in Turin. I can say more than that, though. If we consider all the possible combinations of the probabilities in Table 1, the estimates can be combined globally to generate a probability distribution for Canada's total medal haul across all events. That probability distribution is shown in Figure 1 (inset).

Figure 1

Canadian medal prediction, 2006

Figure 1 — Probability distribution for Canada's 2006 winter Olympic medal total (click to enlarge).

There are a couple of things worth noting here. First of all, the probability distribution looks a lot like a normal distribution, even though I started with just a set of discrete probabilities. I think that's pretty cool, but then I'm geeky that way.

Second, the picture confirms that the most likely number of medals for Canada is 21; the one-sigma uncertainty on that estimate, again according to my collection of WAGs, is ±3. The probability of Canada winning 25 or more medals is about 13%.

As far as the reliability of the estimate goes, that depends entirely on whether or not my initial WAGs are biased. Again, it doesn't really matter if the guesses are poor, as long as I am not generally too optimistic or too pessimistic. My guess would be that I tend to be optimistic. I tend to hear more news about Canadian successes than I do about Canadian failures, so I probably have a tendency to overestimate the chances of the Canadian stars. On the other hand, I have probably underestimated a number of athletes simply because they haven't been in the news as much.

Getting back to the Own the Podium program, it appears to me that the interim goal of 25 medals in Turin is just a little bit unrealistic. Of course, there is a lot of motivational value in setting "stretch" goals for yourself, and athletes do it routinely. I know that the COC needed an inspiring goal just to get the extra funding in the first place, and I understand just how difficult that ultimate goal is going to be. If you want to convince people that your plan is working, however, there's nothing more effective than a goal that is actually reached.

January 21, 2006

How To Vote

Now, I would never suggest that anybody should cast their vote in the Canadian federal election on the basis of a party's policies on amateur sport. Not when our entire society is on the verge of being wiped out by the question of whether a man can or cannot legally get married to another man.

But in case those more important issues haven't helped you make up your mind, let's talk about the various federal parties and the promises they've made about amateur sport. Before I start I want to give credit once again to local sports columnist Chris Cochrane who covered this in his column earlier in the week. Cochrane does a great job covering local sports at all levels, and often has something insightful to say. No doubt he will be scooped up by a real newspaper soon, but in the meantime I will enjoy his column while I can.

But I digress. An organization called the Sport Matters Group sent out a summary press release on Thursday that summarizes the federal parties' plans for amateur sport.

The Sport Matters Group have called on the federal government to make a larger financial investment in sport, including:

  • Annual funding of $300M a year for sport and physical activity, which represents the equivalent of 1% of the federal health care budget;
  • Long-term investment in sport and recreation facilities and infrastructure; and
  • Innovative tax measures to encourage participation and private sector investment

The press release summarizes the response of the Conservatives, the Liberals, the Green Party, the New Democrats, and the Bloc Québécois. In that order, too, and although there is no explicit endorsement of any of the parties, it is clear that this is meant to indicate which party has come closest to matching the Sport Matters Group's wish list.

Since this is a press release, I'll assume that I'm allowed to quote from it as extensively as I please:

The Conservatives have committed to spending a minimum of 1% of total federal health funding on physical activity and sport (about $300 million/year). They have also promised to maintain both the Sport Canada budget for amateur sport of $140 million/year and commitments to the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics, including the Own the Podium strategy. As well, they have announced a tax credit on spending of up to $500/year on registration fees and memberships for programs promoting fitness in children under sixteen, estimated to cost $130 million/year. Lastly, the Tories have pledged $50 million/year for community-based programs targeting youth at risk, which includes sport.

The Liberals emphasize the need for additional facilities and infrastructure for sport and recreation, directing $350 million over 5 years to a new Community, Sport and Recreation Infrastructure Fund, with the intention of obtaining matching dollars from the provinces/territories and municipalities. In addition, the Liberal platform reaffirms existing funding of $140 million/year for amateur sport as well as commitments to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games including the Own the Podium strategy. Lastly, the Liberals have pledged to maintain the Healthy Living Strategy investments of $300 million over 5 years, which includes physical activity. In the Strategy’s first year, $3 million was dedicated to physical activity.

The Green Party takes a broad approach, promising a national standard for daily physical education in schools and implementation of the national goal of a 10% increase in physical activity by 2010, as adopted by all levels of government in 2002. The Party has committed to spend $100 million/year for 5 years to reduce inactivity and obesity, through federal initiatives, school-based physical education, and community programs and facilities. The Party also pledges support for high performance athletes, but has not put a dollar value to this component of their sport policy. To advance sustainable sport and recreation management practices, the Greens will promote the Olympic Movement’s "Agenda 21" initiative.

The New Democratic Party platform does not include any sport-specific initiatives. In a letter to the Sport Matters Group, Party leader Jack Layton specifies that sport and recreation facilities would be included in the NDP pledge to establish a new national public infrastructure agency with substantial federal funding. Likewise, the NDP commitment to increase funding for youth at risk programs by $100 million/year for 4 years includes sport and physical activity.

The platform of the Bloc Québécois reflects the cultural importance of sport in the province of Quebec. The Bloc is calling for separate national teams and the enhanced provision of services for athletes in French. The Bloc pledges increased support for elite athletes, as well as support for the World Anti-Doping Agency. The Bloc proposes to use athletes to promote the benefits of sport and physical activity and to include anti-doping programs in schools and recreation centres. The Bloc platform also emphasizes the need to invest in physical activity, through awareness campaigns and accessible sport facilities. It is important to note that none of these commitments has been costed out.

So now you're informed. And depending on your perspective on this issue, I think that there's really something for everyone here. Well, unless you think that the government shouldn't spend a red cent of your hard-earned money on sport.

If you'd like a more personal spin on it, Sport Nova Scotia also took a survey of some Nova Scotia candidates, and you can see their answers here (PDF).

January 20, 2006

Waiving the Flag

Now, if you've been dying for more figure skating news, I'll have more next week, I promise (I kid). But this week we've got a full blown Olympic controversy brewing. How big is it? Well, when Don Cherry weighs in, you know you're getting everybody's attention. And not usually in a good way.

The flap started with this morning's article in the Toronto Star titled Our athletes refuse flag honour:

Most of the top candidates to carry Canada's flag in the opening ceremonies at the 2006 Turin Olympics — including cross-country skier Beckie Scott and speed skaters Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen — declined to be nominated for the honour so they can focus on their events. …

"The opening ceremonies are a tiring enough process," said Emery Holmik, high-performance director of Speed Skating Canada. "If you add all the demands of being flag-bearer and with a relatively heavy racing schedule, taking on that extra task is, as they've correctly evaluated, too great a load."

Cherry weighed in with his usual bombast, speed skating queen Catriona Lemay Doan jumped to the athletes' defense, and we were off.

I myself got involved in a fairly heated discussion on this issue with the smart folks over at sportsFilter, which certainly included a variety of different viewpoints. What follows is a summary of my own thoughts, and borrows liberally (sometimes word for word) from that discussion.

The criticism of the declining athletes hinges on two basic points. First, that athletes should be proud to carry the flag for Canada, and they might even owe it to the fans to do it; and second, that carrying the flag can't really be that hard. Therefore, as Cherry puts it, they must not care about Canada. The excuse about preparation is invalid; these are just athletes being selfish.

Now first of all, we should be clear about what the athletes are declining here. Each winter sport NSF can nominate an candidate athlete for the honour of carrying the flag. From that list, the COC will select the Canadian flagbearer. Obviously, to carry the flag, you have to actually attend the opening. And that's what the athletes have decided to avoid. It's not about going to the opening and carrying the flag, it's about going to the opening, period.

In 1996, I marched in the opening ceremonies in Atlanta. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. It was also, believe it or not, tiring. Not tiring like competition is tiring, but emotional, and exciting, and tiring nevertheless.

If I had been asked by my NSF if I wanted to be nominated as Canada's flagbearer, I would have jumped at the chance. But not all of my teammates attended the opening ceremonies, for exactly the reasons being cited by some Canadian athletes today. And our team didn't start competition until a week later, which is a lot more time than Beckie Scott and Cindy Klassen would have to recover in 2006. Most of the first-timers (like me) wanted to be there badly enough that we were willing to endure the five-hour (return) drive from our training camp to Atlanta and back. Most of the veterans did not care that much about going a second time, so they stayed at camp and got one more good meal and one more good night's sleep than the rest of us did. It was a judgement call, weighing the impact on preparation against the experience of the opening ceremonies, and different people made different decisions.

The athletes on the Olympic team have devoted years, or even decades, of their lives to their sports. The good ones have done that with a singular focus on the opportunity to compete at the Olympics, not to be there. Along the way, they've made thousands of small sacrifices. So now we should condemn them for deciding not to participate in a five-hour party on the eve of the most important competition of their lives?

Some people will say that's selfish. That somehow, Olympic athletes "owe" it to the public to make an appearance at the opening ceremonies, and to carry the flag if asked. That the Olympics is not just a competition for the athletes, but a spectacle for the fans, and the athletes have to do their part.

But to me, as a fan, the only part of the Olympic "spectacle" that is interesting is the sporting competition itself. So I think that the athletes, if they owe me anything at all, just owe me their best performance when it counts. And I'm willing to let them and their coaches judge the best way to get that done. Now it happens that many fans and many athletes are very excited by the parade of nations, so it works out nicely for the spectacle. But don't tell me that individual athletes should be forced to walk around the stadium in funny hats to make the fans happy. And certainly not if they think that it's going to compromise their athletic performance.

And do the fans really care that much, anyway? Well, apparently they do now. But if you're a fan of the Olympics, and you've watched the parade of nations, chances are that you've never even noticed that a significant number of athletes are absent for every games. It's never really been a big deal. But now the absence of Klassen, Hughes, Leuders, and Scott is bound to overshadow the presence of the majority of the team.

And that's the worst part about this whole story. Every Canadian NSF is going to nominate somebody who would be thrilled to carry the flag — some big names among them, I am sure (Jeffrey Buttle, anyone?) — and the COC is going to pick somebody, and half of the story is going to be about how Scott, Leuders, and Hughes didn't want the job. That's a shame for whoever gets to do it, I say, and it didn't have to be that way. It looks to me like the Star went looking for some inside information on the flagbearer selection, and got more out of the non-story than they ever dreamed of.

January 15, 2006

Michelle Kwan Triumphs Over Objectivity

I really should take a holiday from writing about figure skating for a while, I know. But again, just to follow up on something I wrote before, Michelle Kwan was selected to the US Olympic team this evening, despite the fact that she has not really competed this season.

There is not really any justification given for the decision, and there cannot be, since the decision is made by vote of a 36-member committee. However, the commitee is going to make at least a show of collecting some objective information. Kwan's petition stated:

I would be pleased if representatives of USFS attended and observed my practice session in Los Angeles, California on or about January 20th and a run through of my short and long programs, again in California, on January 27th or 28th. The purpose of the latter would be to assure the USFS observers that my programs contain the technical elements necessary for an Olympic level performance, and to give further assurances to the USFS that my prior injury will not prevent me from being physically ready to compete at the highest level at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games on February 21, 2006. Should those USFS representatives, after observing my short and long programs on January 27th or 28th, determine, in their sole discretion, that my programs do not contain the technical elements necessary for an Olympic level performance, or that my prior injury will prevent me from being physically ready to compete at the highest level at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games on February 21, 2006, I will withdraw from the team.

The USFSA has assigned a five-member monitoring committee, including three international judges, "that will have sole discretion and make a final determination on Kwan's status no later than Jan. 27."

The third-place skater bumped by Kwan was Emily Hughes. Hughes becomes the first alternate and will compete in Turin in the case that Kwan is deemed unready, which may happen "no later than January 27."

Two Out of Seven

To follow up on last week's post about women's scholarships in the NCAA: on January 7, the division I members decided to increase the number of scholarships in women's soccer from 12 to 14, but leave the other three sports under consideration at their current limits.

There's a little more official background on the proposal here. But this article discussing the outcome of last week's vote explains the disagreement more clearly than I have seen anywhere else.

According to the article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Division I-A schools supported the increases because they are each allowed to award up to 85 football scholarships. They need more scholarships in women's sports to ensure that they are compliant with Title IX. The Division I-AA schools are limited to 63 football scholarships, and the I-AAA schools don't have football programs at all; therefore gender equity issues at those schools are qualitatively different from the issues faced in I-A.

The small schools, then, opposed the increases because they did not want the I-A schools to "solve" their unique gender equity problem by attracting female athletes who would otherwise star in I-AA.

January 12, 2006

Battling Bode Miller

Outspoken American alpine star Bode Miller has been in the news again, after an interview on 60 Minutes where he confessed to skiing while drunk.

Talk about a hard challenge right there … If you ever tried to ski when you're wasted, it's not easy. Try and ski a slalom when … you hit a gate less than every one second, so it's risky. You're putting your life at risk. … It's like driving drunk, only there are no rules about it in ski racing.

Miller's comments have created quite an uproar — even more than when he argued that everybody should just chill out about doping. Bill Marolt, president of the US alpine ski federation (USSSA), has called the remarks "unacceptable," the FIS is ordering the American federation to keep him quiet, and the USOC is distancing itself from Miller as quickly as they can.

So what did Miller do that's so wrong? It can't be that he showed up for training under the influence. Chad Hedrick has a reputation for training while drunk, and nobody seems very upset about that. And frankly, I don't think it's that uncommon for athletes to do it on occasion. During my athlete days, I showed up hungover at morning practice a time or two. Is there an unwritten "don't ask, don't tell" policy on alcohol? Is it OK to drink and train, but not OK to admit it?

Or maybe this is just about rules. If Miller is admitting to racing while drunk — and I can't figure out whether he's admitting it or not — then he's been breaking some very serious rules, despite his claims that those rules don't exist. The 2005 Prohibited List published by WADA specifically states that alcohol is banned in-competition in skiing. That is, on the basis of a blood alcohol level exceeding 0.10 g/L, as measured by breath or blood analysis, an athlete could be disqualified from an FIS event.

(And if he has admitted to racing while drunk, will WADA come after him? After all, Tim Montgomery and Chryste Gains were suspended on the basis of an admission attested to by a single eyewitness; surely Miller's confession on network television would stand up at least as well. The ground-breaking aspect of the case would be that alcohol is only prohibited above a certain level, unlike steroids, which are prohibited at any level. A non-analytical positive will be more difficult to prove.)

But I don't think the reaction to Miller's comments is about the possibility that he may have broken FIS rules. And I don't think that it's even about drinking per se. I think what has upset people is the self-destructiveness of it. "You're putting your life at risk. It's like driving drunk, only there are no rules about it." Miller is showing us something dark about himself here, and it's not a comfortable view. Maybe Bode Miller is the kind of thrill-seeker for whom the rush of a ski race isn't quite enough. Maybe Bode Miller has a little too much in common with Bill Johnson.

Miller has since apologized for — but not retracted — his comments after a discussion with Marolt. Here's hoping that their discussion was at least a little bit about Bode Miller and his demons, and not just about the USSSA's donors and sponsors.

POSTSCRIPT I was laid up with the flu last weekend, and I missed the Ultimate Olympian's column on this issue over at SportsFilter. It's worth a read.

POSTSCRIPT I missed this — Miller wrote a special to the Denver Post where he describes the events in detail. Short version: he raced hungover, which is "a form of impairment," but not drunk. Thanks to lil brown bat at SportsFilter for pointing it out.

January 10, 2006

Selection Objectives

Earlier this week the Globe and Mail ran an article by Beverley Smith titled Different Criteria to Decide Figure Skating Berths. The article touches on a subject that has been on my mind lately, namely the way that athletes are selected to Olympic teams. Here are the first few paragraphs of the article, with emphasis added:

It's about to start, that darkest of all Olympic sports, the one featuring lawsuits and legal challenges from athletes who fail to qualify for an Olympic team, and who think they should.

Even so, it seems that some sport bodies are opting for more subjective criteria — naming teams after a group discusses the merits of its members — rather than strictly objective ones.

This week, for the first time, the Canadian figure skating championships in Ottawa will not be the only factor in choosing Canada's Olympic team. If defending Canadian champion Jeffrey Buttle has a bad day this week, it doesn't mean he will stay home to watch the Turin Games on television.

Now there's a clear inference here that there is something wrong with Skate Canada's Olympic selection criteria; that the criteria are too subjective, and that Jeffrey Buttle might be given some kind of a free pass if the nationals don't turn out the right way.

But I have a couple of problems with this argument. First of all, this has nothing to do with how objective or subjective the selection criteria are. Here are the relevant definitions from the American Heritage Dictionary:

subjective (adj.) 1(a) proceeding from or taking place in a person's mind rather than the external world: a subjective decision. 1(b) Particular to a given person; personal: subjective experience.
objective (adj.) 3(a) Uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices: an objective critic. 3(b) Based on observable phenomena; presented factually: an objective appraisal.

So, hands up — who thinks that selection criteria for the Olympics should proceed from the minds of the selectors, rather than observable phenomena in the external world? Anyone? That's what I thought. The debate that is touched on in this article is not (for the most part) about subjective versus objective selection criteria, in my opinion; and if it was, it would be a pretty uninteresting debate.

In this particular instance, the real issue is whether performance at the Canadian national championships should be the sole objective selection criterion for picking the three men who will skate for Canada; and if not, then what else should be considered? (I'm assuming, for the sake of argument, that the judging at a figure skating competition is objective. Let's just pretend, so that I can apply the argument to other sports that really do have objective races or competitions.) As noted, in the past Skate Canada has used the Canadian championships as the only factor; there was only one opportunity to make the Olympic team, and no other performances could be taken into account.

On this issue, we could have a worthwhile debate. I would argue that Skate Canada is doing a wise thing by deciding not to base their selection on a single event. Buttle provides a good illustration. He's the defending world championship silver medallist, and currently leads the ISU's world rankings. In other words, in all of the international competitions in which he has skated this year, Buttle has objectively demonstrated that he is a potential Olympic medallist. Furthermore, he has objectively performed better than his Canadian competitors in international competitions, losing only once, to Emanuel Sandhu. Why not write selection criteria that allow you to take that into account?

Now, I don't know what Skate Canada's selection criteria actually say. They don't seem to be available on the web site. But there's nothing inherently wrong with using all of the objective evidence available, instead of just the final ranking at the national championships, as part of the decision-making process.

Some people will argue that if Buttle can't come up with a top-3 performance at the Canadian championships, then he probably can't handle the pressure of the Olympics; or that it isn't fair that somebody who beats him on Friday will have to watch him compete at the Olympics next month. I don't buy the argument that a one-shot, winner-take-all selection gives you a better Olympic team, or that it is inherently more fair, but it's debatable.

The US Figure Skating Association is also holding a national Figure Skating Championships, and just like in Canada, the event will be used to make Olympic selections. The Globe piece has this to say:

The U.S. championships in St. Louis this week will also take a similar path, although its team will be chosen on a partially objective basis: Anybody who wins the senior U.S. title automatically gets to go to the Olympics. A cumbersome international committee of 36 members, each with one vote, will decide who fills the other Olympic berths.

Well I suppose you could say that this is "similar" to the Canadian process, since in each case there is a committee responsible for making the final selections. But really, this sounds like it is about as far in the wrong direction as you could possibly go. The 36-member committee is composed of "athletes, coaches, judges and board members." Now it's possible that those 36 interested parties carefully evaluate the athletes' objective performances against the selection criteria before they vote; but it's far more likely that this plays out just about like the Olympic host city election, or the Olympic programme vote. This is simply too many people — so many that nobody has any real responsibility for the selection.

The most controversial decision that the committee will have to make will be with respect to five-time world champion Michele Kwan. Kwan has decided that she will not be able to compete at nationals due to an injury. Instead, she will petition to be included on the US team in Turin, on the basis of … well, that's where the objective part would come in, you would think. Kwan herself has said, "I feel I am one of the three best skaters in America," and it would be hard to come up with a more subjective statement than that.

The central problem is that Kwan has basically been injured for the whole season, competing only once: columnist Philip Hersh described it as a "decidedly underwhelming performance with no clean triple jumps at a meaningless, made-for-TV event." (Hersh nevertheless argues forcefully that Kwan "deserves" to be on the Olympic team, but can't really hide the fact that this would be a purely subjective decision. He's reduced to a nomination based on reputation alone, arguing that Kwan is "bigger than her sport," and denigrating her potential replacements.) As a further wrinkle, Kwan has apparently signed on as the lead Olympian in Coke's 2006 Olympic advertising campaign. As SI.com asks, "Do you think being the centerpiece of the ad campaign of perhaps the Olympics' most prominent sponsor will help or hurt her chances of being named to the U.S. team?" Kwan's marketing power might be an objective fact, but probably not one the USFSA should use in this case.

Olympic selection doesn't have to be based on a single, winner-take-all event to be objective. If Jeffrey Buttle, for some reason, finishes a close fourth at nationals and still makes it to Turin, I won't have a problem with that. But the USFSA selection process is a good example of what everybody is afraid of when they hear the words "selection committee."

January 03, 2006

Winter Olympic Worldlines

I've been meaning to write some more about athlete protest, so naturally I was pretty interested in stories coming out of Italy about the ongoing struggle between protesters and police:

Environmentalists and residents have been angered by plans to build the controversial rail link [tunnel through the Italian Alps], which is near many of the venues of the winter games. Last Thursday police in riot gear fired teargas at tens of thousands of protesters who had used a public holiday to demonstrate against the project. More than 20 people were treated in hospital.

The protests are centred in the Val di Susa area near Turin, which hosts the venues for 80% of the Olympic events. Earlier (and distinctly anti-protester) reports had hinted that the Games themselves might be in jeopardy:

Signor Castellani, the Italian Olympic chief, noted that the Games were barely 60 days away, and he told Corriere della Sera: "I am very worried." He said that Val di Susa was under siege, with television images of the clashes broadcast around the world, and added: "It would take only a handful of violent protesters to disrupt the Games." Some town mayors in Val di Susa were already writing the Games off, "and I can understand that." Sergio Chiamparino, the Mayor of Turin, said: "We are dealing with a serious emergency that is becoming more dramatic by the minute."

The rail tunnel project is not directly linked to the 2006 Games, but of course everything is connected in our modern world, and the impact of the protests will be greatly amplified because of the upcoming Olympics. Later in December, a small group of these protesters targeted the Winter Olympics more explicitly, succeeding in delaying the Olympic torch relay in Genoa.

So I was trying to follow this story — which has not been very widely reported in the North American press — on the internet when things took a very weird detour. One of my Google RSS feeds turned up three posts to a bulletin board called Time Travel Portal. The Times story above is quoted to start the thread, with the one-line postscript "So now I gotta ask, MadIce, Jorune and co. IS the 'titor is BS' party still on?" Further down the thread comes the question, "If the olympics go as planned... does this finally mean that john titor fooled us all????"

Well, I would say that John Titor fooled an awful lot of people!

John Titor was the name of a purported time traveller from the year 2036. He posted on several time travel-related Internet bulletin boards during 2000/2001, making many vague, but seemingly falsifiable, predictions about events in the near future and giving an account of his supposed native time period. Whether or not John Titor was a hoax is a topic of controversy on web-based paranormal discussion boards.

I found the full story quite fascinating, and the Wikipedia article linked above has a good description of Titor's "history." For a less, um, neutral account you could try JohnTitor.com. Titor's many predictions include … well, that's not quite right, if he was from the future then it wasn't really a prediction … but he recounted that there were no Olympics after 2004. So many of the people who want to debunk John Titor are looking to the Torino Olympics as proof positive that his story was nothing but a hoax.

Personally, I don't think I need to wait that long.

January 01, 2006

Women's Scholarships in the NCAA

There's an interesting post over at the NCAA's blog, the Double-A Zone, titled Membership Prepares for Historic Vote. The Membership in question is the Division I membership of the NCAA (schools with large sports programs), and the vote is on whether to increase the number of athletic scholarships in four women's sports. The proposal to add seven scholarships for women was originally adopted by the Division I Board of Directors, but then halted by a member veto. Blogger Josh Centor also wrote a longer piece on the issue for the NCAA News in November.

The proposal will come up for an up-or-down vote at the NCAA Convention being held this week. According to Centor, the membership is quite cleanly divided by size: "All 116 votes for the override came from Division I-AA and I-AAA institutions." In other words, the small fish in the Division I pond are opposed to the idea, while the Division I-A powerhouses support it.

Of course everybody is claiming that they're behind women's sports, one hundred percent, at least in public. The big schools are claiming that volleyball, gymnastics, track and field, and especially soccer have outgrown their current scholarship limits, and that adding scholarships will increase opportunities for women to play university sports. They accuse the smaller schools of opposing the proposal for financial reasons, and of being unwilling to spend more money on female athletes.

The smaller schools are painting a different picture, making a convoluted argument that increasing the number of scholarships will actually harm women's sports. They argue that the large I-A schools will be able to stockpile more of the nation's talented athletes, and that the "extra" scholarship players will end up warming the bench in I-A rather than actually participating in I-AA.

Now, initially this argument seemed a bit fishy to me, because if it applies for women, then it should apply for men, too; this is an argument for limiting scholarships, period, isn't it? And if the proposal would make the number of scholarships more equal for men and women, then the argument against it really doesn't hold water.

But I was surprised to learn from the NCAA Division I Manual that this proposal would make the number of scholarships more unequal in these four sports:

Table 1 — Men's and Women's Sports Scholarship Limits, NCAA Division I
SportMen's CurrentWomen's CurrentWomen's Proposed
Cross Country/Track & Field12.61820

This is probably not that surprising to people who know the NCAA more intimately than I do. Although I attended one of those Division I-A powerhouses as a graduate student, I was not a varsity athlete. And although I am of course aware of the infamous Title IX, I had not realized the extent of the impact on these "non-major" sports.

Now, just to be clear, I am not a Title IX opponent and I am not arguing that more women's scholarships are unnecessary because there are already more women's scholarships than men's scholarships in these four sports. Let's just take it as a given that increasing opportunities for female athletes in the NCAA is a good thing. But I think that there is, after all, a legitimate argument here about the best way to provide those opportunities. Doug Fullerton, commissioner of the Big Sky Conference and a supporter of the veto, argues that the way to increase real opportunities for women is to add another women's sport; that's funding that increases the number of women actually playing, not just those getting a scholarship to sit on the bench.

There are lots of bloggers out there who follow the NCAA very closely and write intelligently on Title IX and its implications (Sports Law Blog, The Sports Economist, After Atalanta). Perhaps some of them will weigh in on this topic.

The convention starts on Thursday this week.