Designing Olympic sports for the spectator

Most sports are for the athlete, and should be. Some gain an audience, and bend to it to some degree. Perhaps the pinnacle of spectator sport is the Olympics. The are an international stage. While the medals are highly coveted by the athletes, almost all sports have their own world championships and other tournaments which are mostly for the athletes and a more limited cadre of serious spectators. The Olympics are about showing the world, as well as a bit too much national pride.

The games, in particular the winter games, are hit-and-miss on that count. Nobody can watch more than a tiny fraction. I always watch using a DVR, in particular a local DVR not a cloud DVR, where the video is stored on my disk and I can seek through it in an instant, and do decent quality fast-forward, rewind and sped-up playback. This is even more important than skipping commercials, and it lets me get through hours of coverage, seeing just what I want, in minutes, and see far more of the events than I ever could.

But there are definitely big differences in how engaging events are for the spectator. Perhaps the #1 event is the 100 meter sprint. It is of course very brief, and impressive -- "fastest man alive" -- but it has another important attribute -- you can watch it, and understand it, and see who is winning and who won, just with your eyes. (It's actually a little too fast, and the longer distances are a bit better.) You usually know who won, you don't need to check scores, or get ratings from judges, or not times on a clock. If it's close, a photo tells you the answer. There is action, and drama, and all the final contenders race at once.

Few sports live up to this. A large number of sports are done only with the clock. You watch 30 people do exactly the same thing, and note their times, and the best time is the winner. They work hard to have people compete in an order to make it interesting, with fastest going last or first, but they can only do so much. It's just not the same as seeing people race in real time to cross a finish. There's not the same excitement when somebody who went earlier gets a fast time, and the final racer misses by a small margin, and the camera then switches to that prior racer who has become champion.

Even more confusing are staggered races, where somebody leaves every 30 seconds, and people are competing but not. Those finish lines are confusing in spite of efforts to explain what's going on.

The clock is great though, compared to judged sports. Unless you are skilled, you may not be able to tell the difference between different tricks. The judges do their thing, and have to deal with the fact that they judge the early competitors without having seen the later ones. They are supposed to be objective but obviously can't be. And many sports have both clock and judging.

The clock is understandable. It is certainly the most fair (though the later racers get to know what time to beat.) Some sports, like short-track speed skating and snowboard cross try to give us the race we crave, and it's very entertaining, but of course victory and defeat can come from just being in the wrong place at the wrong time when there's a crash. It's "part of the sport" and audiences partly love chaos, but we do also want the competition to be about excellence rather than luck.

The other form of competition is one on one matches. These require ranking and eventually playoffs, where people or teams face elimination rounds until there is a gold vs. silver final match. Those can be quite engaging to watch, though the process takes a very long time in comparison to other approaches. There can also be some luck in what pairings somebody gets, and we've seen times when the gold was not won by the competitor universally praised as the best.

At least with this method you get something fairly pure, and individual matches have the full drama of their sport. But few have time to watch all the hockey, or curling, or baseball, though you can satisfy with the final matches. They take so long that TV tends to keep away from them.

I like to see strategy as well as performance, so I have tended to like the long races and the curling bonspiels and that gold medal hockey game. Even so, I definitely watch them vastly sped up. In the hour long races I will speed through most of the race. I would love a recording which does that for me, slowing down for where it is worth doing so. I was fortunate to catch the race of Anna Kiesenhoffer and a few others like it but my speeding up technique did not serve me well there to capture the drama of her amazing accomplishment. The alternative though, would be to not have the time to see it at all.


As noted above, I am not a fan of judged sports. While they are not going away, I think there could be merit in moving towards computer judging -- ie. like the clock -- for many of them. We are now at the point that computers can track everything about the body, and know not just how many rotations somebody did but how close to ideal forms they did them. They can also report it instantly. We might be surprised at how well they could even do at judging "artistic impression," even though we think that's a human thing. Machine learning could surprise us there.

Machine judging would not only be impartial (it might have biases from how it was trained or coded, but would treat all the same) but could be given to competitors in advance. A competitor when training or practicing could see how well the machine scores them, and work to improve their score in an objective way. This makes it more sport than art, particularly if the "artistic" components are machine judged.

One other method of competition I didn't list above is the progressive method of high jump, pole vault and some other sports. Athletes go over the bar, and they keep raising it until nobody but one can do it. This is objective and dramatic. One could imagine a discipline of skate jumping where figure skaters just show off harder and harder jumps and tricks until the best is left skating. This might not be as pretty as a figure skating long program to music, but would be more athletic and leave us with a winner who was clearly best that day.

One of the tragedies of sports like figure skating is that because people are pushed to the limit of what they can do, the winner ends up being the one who didn't fall. In a contest between one man who can jump a quad axel 80% of the time, but then tries it and fails, he loses to the man who can't do it at all and never tries.

New visualizations

For the audience, sports where individuals are timed or judged could be put together with video tricks. We already see some of this, such as painting a line on the ice or field to show where the current leader was at this time, so we see somebody race the line. For those waiting to watch after the fact, we could see the computer produce an image of a giant 10 lane blobsled track where 10 sleds are racing, and see something like that sprint.

You could even imagine that in judged events where you see an array of people (whoever will fit) doing their tricks or moves in parallel so you can compare and see why one is better than another.

Watching the games with Peacock from a local hard disk

As I need to watch from local DVR, and don't have cable, I am limited to what they put on broadcast NBC. That means no curling, but there is a solution.

Every single sport can be watched on Peacock, which is free to me and only $5/month for people without Comcast. Something like this exists in most countries. However, what you watch has forced commercial breaks -- and if you fast forward over a large section past a commercial break you must watch it -- and you can't really fast forward, only seek around. This doesn't fit my style of watching curling, which is to fast forward over the first few stones and watch the exciting part of each end, possibly pausing if the opening is interesting. I will also hit "quick skip" when a stone is moving down the ice. (In hockey, I hit my quick skip button when a whistle blows to take me right to the face-off. Yes, I'm that nuts about this.)

Anyway, right now I am playing a match on Peacock and recording it as a local video, commercials and all, using OBS (any screen recording tool will do.) Later I will watch it from the local file, with all the functions I want. The big problem is spoilers. If you are not very careful, if you go to the Peacock site you will get spoilers. For example, if the medal games are in your list, they change the title of the entry to be the names of the people playing -- spoiling the semi-finals for you.