Winter Olympics (And The Beauty Of Head-To-Head Competition)

[Editor’s Note: It’s an honor to introduce iRunFar’s newest columnist, perhaps the only person who needs no introduction at all. Enjoy the ruminations of John Medinger, the former publisher of UltraRunning magazine and a long, long, longtime member of the ultrarunning community. In his Aloha, TJ column, “Tropical John” will be writing the occasion piece about, well, whatever he wants, and perhaps a little bit about the evolution of trail and ultrarunning through time.]

Aloha, TJI’m having a hard time getting excited about the Winter Olympics. Here’s why:

Judges. And time trials.

But especially judges.

The Winter Olympics, mostly, is a series of events that are either time trials–downhill skiing, or luge–or an event where the winner is determined by a panel of judges.

Most of these events are athletic and exciting (sorry, can’t get anywhere near putting either of those words together with the activity of curling) to watch. But even the recklessness of the downhill grows a bit tiresome after watching the 14th straight skier ski down the exact same course, with only the intermediate splits thrown up on the screen to educate us on how he is doing. For drama, time trials pale when compared to almost any head-to-head competition. To wit: Dario Colgona’s thrilling 30k skiathlon win. (Maybe somebody will take note of the excitement of the long-distance cross-country skiing and create a similar event for the Summer Games. You know, folks running a long distance over demanding terrain, something like that.)

Even worse are the myriad events–some of them seemingly invented last month–where judges determine the winner. I’m not entirely convinced that even the expert judges can tell who performed the best.

Let’s assume that figure skating is as competitive at the Olympic level as a typical running event. (Okay, there are a lot more runners in the world than figure skaters, but roll with me on this.) Consider the men’s 1500-meter final at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, which was won by Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria in 3:34.03. The seventh place runner in that race was Silas Kiplagat of Kenya in 3:36.19, almost exactly 1% slower. Now suppose, like in figure skating, we asked the top seven runners to run 1500 meters, in sequence, one runner at a time. And we, the judges, watched them each run solo for three and a half minutes (about the length of a typical figure skating routine). And then, after each run, without benefit of instant replay or a stopwatch, we voted on who was the fastest runner. Could we tell that Makhloufi was 1% faster than Kiplagat and award him the gold? I very seriously doubt it. But that’s what we are asking the figure skating judges to do.

Yes, figure skating is athletic and graceful and fun to watch. But so, too, is the Joffrey Ballet–and we don’t award gold medals for that.

So, yeah, I’m sure to watch at least a little–I’m hardly impervious to popular culture. But I won’t get fully engaged until we get back to the purity and simplicity of “Citius, Altius, and Fortius”–higher, faster, stronger. The Olympic motto for the Winter Games should be something more like, “Oooh, another low score from the Latvian judge.”

 Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you think about the judging of competitions instead of using objective markers like what we find in the measurement of running performances?
  • Do you think the Olympics should only contain events that can be judged objectively? Do you think head-to-head competition should be another part of Olympic competitions?
  • Is running’s means of measuring performance–the timing of a performance from its start to its finish–as close to objective and error-free as we can get?
  • Do you want cross-country running back in the Olympics? What about skimo?
John Medinger

is the founder and race director of the Lake Sonoma 50. A former publisher of UltraRunning magazine, he ran his first ultra in 1980 and has now completed more than 130 ultras. He is also the founder and former race director of the Quad Dipsea race and has served on the Western States 100 Board since 1992.

There are 20 comments

  1. tahoepete

    I couldn't agree more with this article. The Skiathlon was fantastic and watching Cologna hang back all day and drop the hammer up the final hill was amazing. HIs turnover was incredible. I personally enjoy the Cross country and the biathlon the most. There is also a 50K XC race. I would love to see Ski Mo in the olympics as well.

  2. walesdrgn

    Meshes with my point of view. There have been a large number of people over the years, and I'm sure everybody else here can relate, who just don't get my obsession with watching "boring" sports like running and xc skiing. I try to explain to them how and why it's all exciting and each second of the race matters (despite the fact that NBC tends to cut out 3/4ths of the races) but I rarely get anywhere with that.

    This whole post reminds me of something Emil Zatopek once said, but I'm sure most readers of this blog know it.

  3. E_C_C

    I have maintained for as long as I can remember, that it's not a sport if you need judges to tell you who is the winner. Sure, this is mostly semantics, and I only trot out the assertion in carefully-selected company to get a reaction, but at least it's a definition that means something. It's also a definition that leads to some interesting distinctions:
    "Sport" – any physical competition where the winner is determined by objective criteria. All the classic sports: running, swimming, cycling, but also includes curling, bowling, etc. Heck, some drinking games fit this definition. Skiercross & boardercross belong here, as does speed skating. There may be a "judge" (referee) who can disqualify you for competing incorrectly, but doesn't determine the winner.
    "Athletic performance art" – anything where the winner is determined by judges. Gymnastics, figure skating, halfpipe, slopestyle. Ummm… synchronized swimming… some of these activities are incredibly athletic and difficult, but are not sport (for the sake of argument).
    Frustrating hybrids: there are some oddballs out there, like some forms of nordic ski jumping where you are scored on both distance and judges' impression of the quality of your form.

    Just ruminating…

  4. jordancolburn

    Ski jumping has always bugged me. Why take something as cool as hurling yourself as far as you can off a jump and then reduce the fun and variety of possible styles by making it judged.

  5. csingletary

    There may not be a lot of head to head in the winter games but there are a few._In addition to the skiathlon and other crosscountry skiing mass-start events there will be snowboard-cross and ski-cross, and mass-start biathlon, and short track speed skating is about as head to head as it gets. I would be keenly interested in ski-mo as a winter games event.

    One of the "problems" with the Olympics though is that you need national and international sanctioning bodies for a sport in order to compete. One of the reasons, for example, that mountain ultra trail running is unlikely to ever be an Olympic event (other than likely being crap for primetime TV). That's a really high bar to clear.

    I grew up in a figure skating house and know how physically demanding the sport is. Also I believe the sport has taken great steps to make the judging far more objective than it likely appears to most. so go ahead, flame all you want, but figure skating will always be a sport in my book.

    I will admit that the judging in superpipe was weird. Even the color commentators were like "not sure what the judges were thinking." Come to find out that not all the judges are even snowboarders or snowboard specialists.

    my $0.02

    I will note for the record that this entire discussion of what is and is not a "real" sport is no different from Yiannis Kouros' widely circulated, and often lambasted as elitist, comments about who is and is not a "real" ultrarunner. Just sayin.'

  6. headcement

    Oh I'd not get so down on the Olympic's. New sports invented last month? just seems like progress to me. Judges, sure they aren't all perfect but they are also judging amazing performances most of which I can't figure the subtle details of but I sure am wowed. Just like running it's about people exploring their limits in a passion they decided to follow – not my passions for sure but I can certainly appreciate the effort and work and final product that comes about. There are many smiling faces and amazing examples of human sprit demonstrated in what is only 16 days every 4 years. I'm happy to explore and enjoy a world I know nothing about then get back to my normal boring un judged running which I just so happen to love.

  7. senelly

    Good stuff John. One of my favorite sports journalists, Frank Deford was recently heard to say, "…any sport — like figure skating, gymnastics, diving, halfpipe — that is resolved by exterior judges rather than by the participants themselves is not a true sport." Absolutely.

  8. TatooshChris

    Part of the problem is that for many of us in the USA we have never had decent coverage of these sports outside of brief mentions in primetime every four years. The US networks treat the winter games like a series of hard-luck special interest stories instead of the incredible athletic event that it is. Luckily I lived near the Canadian border for most of my adult life and was able to watch the coverage on CBC, where you can actually watch an entire non-figure skating event and not just the top 5 finishers plus an American or two.

    Many of these sports are insanely popular outside the USA, and it is because they are amazing tests of skill, endurance, fear, etc. But it is hard to get excited about sports you don't participate in when you only get to see them every 4 years.

  9. @unknowndest

    First of all, it's great to see Tropical John onboard. And off he goes with an interesting topic…

    I'm not into skimo as a competitive sport (I still like my skis fat and the snow untracked), but I'd be really excited to see the sport make it to the Olympics. The federation is really working out new formats and races in order to make it appealing to your average spectator (sprint races in the middle of the city at Tromso for example), but I guess it still lacks a worldwide diffusion… Once it will get momentum in a bigger market like the States, everything is possible if there's backup from the sport companies.

  10. Thomas

    I'm sorry, but I find that a pointless article (stick to ultra running, maybe?). The author might not have heard of some of the sports until last week, but they have all been around for quite some time before gaining entry into the Olympics. If the author doesn't know about them, that reflects solely on his own ignorance rather than anything on the Olympics.

    Now, I could definitely do without curling (falls into the same category as synchronised swimming for me), but to diss the entire Winter Olympics because figure skating is a judged event – blimey!

    To end on a more positive note, may I make one recommendation? Watch the Nordic combined event. The ski jumping results get converted into start time difference for the cross-country skiing, and you basically get the faster skiers chase the better jumpers. First across the lines wins. Brilliant!

  11. francois_g

    The judging part also upset me at first. However, I've watched a fair bit of it so far, and to be honest when the commentators know their sports, they often agree on the marks and overall results (modulo the national pride tendancies of course). So after thinking it through, it does not seem so absurd as it sounded at first. Take figure skating (which my wife insists on watching): after watching a few couples dancing on ice, you can quickly develop an eye for who's technically above average, who's stronger, faster, more creative, etc… So there are differences to evaluate here. And you can't really compare that with track events either: how do you rate a spining jump thing in a figure skating events? They rate style, height, speed, landing… all of which being quantifiable (besides style that is). Not so bad.

    Now having made my point, these events bore me a bit and there's nothing like cross country skiing, whether time trials (which to be honest are well made and enjoyable), pursuit, mass start… It's an elegant sport on top of being an endurance sport which, if we read these lines, we are prone to enjoy anyway.

  12. YoungrenEpics

    I disagree. Time trials actually guarantee the athletes will put up their best efforts and not do just enough to win. Anybody pay attention to how slow some of the World and past Olympic track events were in the longer distances? These events often are strictly very tactical and boring to watch. Sure they put on a good show but it's sort of crazy when the 10,000m is turned into a five mile warmup and mile sprint! I for one am a fan of all sports. I can get into watching just about anything that involves some level of athletism. I think it's great we have such a huge variety of sports with all forms of criteria to judge greatness and not just a stop watch or measuring stick. Different strokes for different folks!

  13. Rasmus_Hoeg

    Like Thomas, Francois and Youngren above, I also disagree with the comment about time trials. My guess is that the author does not follow cross country and biathlon between Olympic years.

    Mass starts are fairly new to world cup skiing. I remember when they were introduced some 10 years ago. Before that, the pursuit was the closest thing to a mass start. A lot of fans and skiers felt the sport was being dumbed to a "I gotta be able to see who crosses the line first"-type sentiment.

    I miss the old 50K time trial. Watch Bjørn Daehlie's win in the 50K in Nagano and compare that to today's "sprinters' stages", where nothing happens until the last km (Johan Olson's win at last year's Worlds was a rare exception in that he attacked from far out, but that's the only such long-range attack I have ever seen succeed).

    As an aside, I live in Duluth, MN. It's a ski town. All the runners ski in winter. Everyone (it seems) drives a Subaru with a ski rack and an Obama sticker. And yet no one knows anything about competitive skiing. People may have heard the name Northug, but that's it.

    Cross country is a big TV sport in Europe, and yet it's nowhere to be found in the US.

    If you find yourself falling in love with cross country or bialthlon during the Olympics, do this:

    1. Download a VPN
    2. Download Eurosport Player
    3. You're set: every world cup cross country and biathlon event is on. Most are shown live and several times as reruns.
    4. Soon you'll be a fan of both time trials and mass starts.

  14. @mobiusSF

    Apparently, a 10km cross country race was a part of the Olympics in 1912, 1920, and 1924. In short, it was banned due to multiple DEATHS!! From Wikipedia,

    During the 1924 race in the Paris heat wave, only 15 of the 38 competitors reached the finish. Eight of those were taken away on stretchers. One athlete began to run in tight circles after reaching the stadium and later knocked himself unconscious, while another fainted 50 metres from the finish. José Andía and Edvin Wide were reported dead, and medics spent hours trying to find all the competitors who had blacked out along the course. Although the reports of deaths were unfounded, spectators were shocked by the attrition rate and Olympic officials decided to ban cross country running from future Games.

  15. Max

    I don't get the low opinion of either time trials or judged events. The former pose a different type of excitement where racers go flat out against opponents who are not on the course. Personally I believe racing against a ghost is tougher than against a person who is actually there to be passed or held off. The latter is part of the rules for a sport that by definition is about aesthetics and looking pretty. Sure I don't get it, but I don't ski backwards in half pipes or twirl on skates.

    What does however piss me off about the modern olymics to no end is the damage the politics do to the sports. XC skiing once had actual long races in actual nordic conditions, now it's all short races on fake snow in warm weather with nearly as many rules as team sports and skis that can't handle unpacked snow.
    And on a larger scale the pissing contest between politicians degrade what was envisioned as a celebration of athleticism into a petty national dick measuring contest.

    Also what Davis said above.

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