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July 25, 2008

Sports, Tails, and Other Fun Ways to Waste your time

By: Bernard Chazelle

Breaking News: 0.1% of Americans jaywalk backwards. Only half of them get to survive the experience.

True or false, such a statement is meaningless because 0.1% of Americans will do anything. That's the magic of distribution tails. No rule (like jaywalking safely) applies entirely to a large population. So, take an outlandish idea that everyone rejects, like peace & love, and, sure enough, you'll find that a microscopic segment of the population believes in it. Tails are amazing.

The existence of tails is itself a rule about large populations; therefore, to be consistent, the rule that there's no watertight rule must leak somewhere.

Here is where it does. The Olympics are upon us and you can bet your mortgage that India will once again be overtaken in the medal count by those big rich countries named Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. India got only one medal (silver) at the 2004 Olympics, in "double trap shooting" (whatever that is), and that was a good year. Thailand got 8 times as many.

Few things in life are sillier than the dogged pursuit of Olympic gold in sports of breathtaking stupidity (ribbon gym anyone? Why not "googling" while we're at it? Now that requires athleticism!) So, in fact, India's abysmal Olympic performance strikes me as a refreshing sign of sanity.

But I still don't understand how they pull it off. I know it's hard to get medals. But it seems even harder not to get any when there are one billion of you. Do you get athletes extra cash for running slow? Or for shooting 3-pointers into their own baskets? Do you lobby the IOC to exclude sports in which you excel (like cricket) and include those with zero mass appeal at home (like synchronized swimming). I know Tom Friedman would recommend adding taxi driving as an Olympic sport, but I am not sure about his wisdom any more.

A new study tries to explain this baffling phenomenon. It ends on a note of delirious optimism:

It's entirely possible to win more medals.


— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at July 25, 2008 12:29 PM

Your first two paragraphs remind me of a friend of mine who once woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me she had just realized that there are so many people in the world that somewhere there must be someone whose favorite candy is wax lips.

Posted by: ethan at July 25, 2008 01:53 PM

The purpose of the Olympics is to sell more Coca Cola not win medals.

Posted by: Rob Payne at July 25, 2008 02:36 PM

If Tom Friedman recommended adding taxicab driving as an Olympic sport I think I'd see that as a statistical outlier, of a freak, non-gaseous Tom Friedman utterance.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at July 25, 2008 10:31 PM

the biggest problem is that the majority of the country is obsessed with cricket(yours truly included). nobody really cares about runners, weightlifters, boxers, shooters or various other players.

Posted by: almostinfamous at July 25, 2008 11:57 PM

AI: I read in the Economist once that cricket was the best sport in the world. Of course, I believed it. But why? Is it because you can play cricket after attending a Lloyd's board meeting without having to change clothes?

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at July 26, 2008 12:32 AM

Considering India's obsession with cricket, and the billions they are pouring into the sport, one could argue that Indian's under achievements in cricket surpass those at the Olympics. They have been owned by Pakistan for most of their lives. Tiny Sri Lanka administered a spanking of truely historical proportions in India's last match a few days ago.

If cricket were an Olympic sport, I would put money on India coming home without a medal.

Posted by: doosra at July 27, 2008 05:05 PM

They occasionally medal in men's field hockey. I recall the President bemoaning "One billion people and one bronze medal!" a few years ago.

Posted by: drip at July 28, 2008 01:36 PM

India won the gold in Moscow 1980, when Carter convinced the rest of the filed hockey playing world to stay at home. Other than that, India has not won any Olympic medal in hockey in the last 30 years. Not even a bronze. The President must have been talking about something else.

Posted by: doosra at July 29, 2008 04:05 PM